In this age of ‘alternative facts’, George Orwell’s classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, no longer reads like a dystopian, nightmarish vision of the future, but a ‘how-to’ manual for the current US government administration. Some of the words that Orwell invented for the book – newspeak, doublethink – have now become commonplace to describe manipulations of political power. These endocentric compounds inspired research psychologist, Irving Janis, to coin the phrase ‘groupthink’, which he described as follows:
…[it is] the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell used in his dismaying world of 1984. In that context, groupthink takes on an invidious connotation. Exactly such a connotation is intended, since the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures. (Note: I’ve taken this quote from the Wikipedia page on groupthink. The whole article is thorough and fascinating – worth a look for more detailed content.)
Janis was writing about groupthink in the 1970s and 80s, and used “political fiascoes” such as the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and Vietnam War as examples, illustrating how its negative consequences play out on an international scale. Theories on group dynamics and decision-making have progressed since then and the ‘antecedent conditions’ Janis identified have been contested. Groupthink might make intuitive sense but it has been difficult to establish empirical evidence. Despite challenges to his work, Janis still seems to be held up as the gold standard, and subsequent generations of researchers have used the concept of groupthink as the springboard for their own theories.
What I find fascinating about groupthink is that I know so little about it. Collaboration and partnership-working, on the other hand, are woven deep into the fabric of museum and gallery education. We pride ourselves on our ability to bring disparate voices together and take inspiration from others, and there are plenty of articles and talks to be found online that celebrate ‘collective creativity’ (I included some examples in a previous post, Capturing the Stories of Kettle’s Yard). What I love about groupthink – the evil twin of collaboration – is that it yins the yang of working with others. It’s probably worth knowing more about how to eliminate the negative, instead of just accentuating the positive.
Janis was writing about global political scenarios and high-stakes consequences, so I appreciate that the dangers of groupthink don’t perfectly map to museum and gallery education. I assume most museum educators lack the guile of politicians and billionaires (and billionaire politicians), and we’re also fairly unlikely to rise up and invade Cuba. However, groupthink still has plenty to teach us about decision-making.
In homogeneous and tightly-knit group settings, the pressure to conform can suppress dissenting voices, encourage self-censorship, and reconfirm existing biases. Alternative options are dismissed too readily, and silence is interpreted as agreement. The group can develop a distorted sense of its own rightness, and this illusion of moral superiority and excessive confidence contributes to an inability to accurately mitigate against risk. If the group is insulated from other influences and experiences ‘deindividualisation’ whereby group cohesion is valued over independent self-expression, nothing good (or innovative) is going to come of it.
Thinking back over years of project-planning meetings and team workshops, I recognise shades of this scenario. Dissent is especially tricky when we are all – sometimes – a bit too nice and conciliatory. I can recall group planning situations where it would have felt impolite to disagree. Janis proposed several techniques to combat groupthink, one of which was to nominate a ‘devil’s advocate’; whereby the role is taken by a different person each time the group meets. I can see how this would lead to some interesting and constructive arguments and ultimately improve decision-making.
If groupthink whets your appetite, it would also be worth taking a look at a more recent model, General Group Problem Solving (GGPS). Devised by Sally Fuller and Ramon Aldag (see their article, The GGPS Model: Broadening the perspective on group problem-solving, 2001), GGPS builds on the strengths of groupthink theory, and proposes some alternatives to contested aspects.
And finally, reading about groupthink has introduced me to a fabulous lexicon of compound words. My two favourites are ‘groupshift’ and ‘mindguard’. The following definitions are from Wikipedia (I do read other things too BTW):
Groupshift is a phenomenon in which the initial positions of individual members of a group are exaggerated toward a more extreme position. When people are in groups, they make decisions about risk differently from when they are alone. In the group, they are likely to make riskier decisions, as the shared risk makes the individual risk less.
A mindguard is a member of a group who serves as an informational filter, providing limited information to the group and, consciously or subconsciously, utilising a variety of strategies to control dissent and to direct the decision-making process toward a specific, limited range of possibilities. Multiple mindguards are frequently present in groupthink situations.
The techniques utilised, consciously or subconsciously, by mindguards include:
- time pressure in regard to decision-making
- bandwagon effect/information cascades
- reframing situations to increase pressure toward or away from a specific outcome
- creating a sense that group cohesion will suffer if unanimity is lacking
The inventiveness of the English language makes me so happy; you could say – in the spirit of this post – that it’s a happymake. Group-working is predominantly, although not exclusively, verbal, so it’s a dynamic where words count for a lot. The power of words can’t, and shouldn’t, be under-estimated; they are seriously dangerous when used to distort and mislead – an ‘alternative fact’ is not an ‘alternative fact’; it is a lie. What we choose to say and how we choose to say it influences others’ perceptions of us and our ideas, and in group-working, our words can either open up or shut down new thinking.
Image: ‘Evil’ Maria, Metropolis (1927) from https://ufilmanalysisrobinson.wordpress.com/page/11/