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General News    H2'ed 7/30/18

Our Collective Predicament and the Power of Group-Think

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2. The Power of Group-Think: Our Collective Predicament and the Recovery of Humanity

"There is"more than a quantum leap between an ordinary group and a community; they are entirely different phenomena. Time and again I have seen a community begin to make a certain


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inute, I don't think I can go along with this.' Mob psychology cannot occur in an environment in which individuals are free to speak their minds and buck a trend."
M. Scott Peck

How many of us have just kept our mouths shut, when we knew it was right to speak up?

As early as 1935 in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville -- an extraordinarily astute observer of the newborn country of the United States -- spoke about group conformity and "tyranny of the majority", adding:

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"Public opinion does with us what the Inquisition could never do."

The omnipotence of the majority, Tocqueville stated, profoundly influenced the American national character. The demagogue, the man of little principle, the crowd-praiser/pleaser, was the more politically viable figure in America; consequently, a low standard of leadership prevailed. The majority resisted criticism of its attitudes and actions from either its own leaders or the members of minorities. In general, few were willing to speak out; smug conformity reigned. He maintained that, so unlimited was the power of the majority in the United States that tyranny threatened; the 1835 text would argue that the strength of the many became "not only predominant but irresistible."

Tocqueville feared not only the silencing of individual and minority ideas and the resulting conformity of opinion; he also dreaded the further possibility that in democratic times new ideas might be denied a hearing and that the advance of civilization might therefore come to a halt. By 1840, these intellectual dangers had apparently become, for Tocqueville, the primary meaning of tyranny of the majority and a major focus of concern.

More recently, Daniel Goleman's thesis In Vital Lies, Simple Truths (1985) is that we have learned to direct our lives aided by an ingenious capacity to deceive ourselves: rather than face threatening facts, we can sink into a sort of blissful oblivion. Our very human urge for security prompts us to create "dormative schemas" within our awareness, and in the process, we twist and bend the outlines of our attention. Yet, we also have the capacity to gain glimpses of "the edges that frame our experience." In doing so we will find ourselves empowered to have more of a say over these "margins," as well as the limits to thought, feeling, and action these schemas impose.

Goleman goes on to argue that the "collective mind" is as vulnerable to self-deception as the individual mind, adding that:

"The particular zones of shadow for a given collective are the product of a simple calculus of the schemas shared by its members: the areas of experience blanked out in the most individual minds will be the darkest zones for the group as a whole"Cultures and nations offer the best example of this principle writ large."

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Goleman's description of this "interpersonal-level of defenses" draws on work by Irving Janis, who came to formulate the notion of "groupthink" from research on groups ranging from infantry platoons to executives in leadership training. In all the groups he studied, Janis found, to one degree or another, a trade-off between preserving a sense of cozy solidarity, and the willingness to face facts and voice views that challenged key "shared schemas" of the group self.

Examples of this group dynamic abound: from Arthur Schlesinger's report of President Kennedy's "Bay of Pigs" fiasco to NASA's final account of the events leading up to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. When this kind of dynamic is operating, group members are reluctant to do anything that would break the sense of euphoric cohesiveness, and it is quite natural to assume that there is consensus. This illusion is maintained because members,

"often become inclined, without quite realizing it, to prevent latent disagreements from surfacing"the group leader and members support one another, playing up areas of convergence in their thinking, at the expense of fully exploring divergences that might disrupt the atmosphere of congeniality."

In such a scenario - "to object"- is to stand apart from the group. Rather than become a pariah of sorts, potential dissenters remain silent. Self-censorship then becomes one pole of a mutually reinforcing feedback loop in relation to the prevailing group norm. The predictable consequence is a situation in which important feedback never enters the collective awareness. In this sort of climate, a sense of stability may in fact be achieved; yet, at the same time, questionable shared assumptions thrive unchallenged. "The first victim of groupthink," concludes, Goleman, "is critical thought." He continues:

"whether in a therapy group or a meeting of presidential advisors, the dynamics of groupthink are the same. Typically, talk is limited to a few courses of action, while the full range of alternatives is ignored. No attention is paid to the values implicit in this range of alternatives"The group simply cramps its attention and hobbles its information-seeking to preserve a cozy unanimity. Loyalty to the group requires that members not raise embarrassing questions, attack weak arguments, or counter softheaded thinking with hard facts. Only comfortable shared schemas are allowed full expression."

Mezirow (2000) cites the work of Langer, in describing two distinct types of learning. "Mindful learning," as defined by Langer, is the conscious creation of new categories, openness to new information, and an implicit ability to be aware of more than one perspective. "Mindless learning" involves a reliance on previously ingrained actions, distinctions, and categories as a basis for meeting the challenges of life.

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With a few minor corrections... Although I could not articulate this at the time, I have, since childhood been aware of the inequity ad suffering caused by abuse of power (i.e., "power-over", rather than "power-with": people, nature, etc) in (more...)
 

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