Dangers of Groupthink

"When we all think alike, no one thinks very much. "- Albert Einstein

We are social beings. It's no surprise that the need to belong to a particular group or community, and be accepted by its members is important to us. Being a part of a group is not only important for an individual's psychological well-being, but also facilitates great ideas and inventions, which in turn helps society in general. However, there is a dark side to group membership and by extension, to group behaviour.

Zimbardo's revelational Stanford Prison Experiment showed the world how good people were capable of committing heinous acts when under social influence. The dark side of group behaviour and social influence has been researched and studied by many social psychologists over the years. Asch's (1955) experiments on conformity and Darley and Latané's (1968) experiment on the bystander effect also highlight the dangers of group behaviour and social influence.

Irwing Janis, a social psychologist, discussed one such hazard in his book Victims of Groupthink. Groupthink occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgement (Janis, 1972). Very often, when people belong to a group, they adopt a radical or a polarized viewpoint which is susceptible to irrational and dysfunctional decision-making. In many ways, it can be seen as an extreme form of group conformity (Haynes, 2012). Unfortunately, groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs far too often, and history is full of such examples. Major historical events such as Hitler's Nazi government, Bush's decision to invade Iraq, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour are all classic examples which showcase how groupthink can lead to rash and faulty decision-making outcomes. In Indian history, incidents such as Hindu-Muslim riots post-independence and the anti-Sikh riots after Indira Gandhi's assassination, also validate this phenomenon.

History repeated itself a few days ago, when some students of the reputed Jawaharlal Nehru University, decided to protest against the judicial killings of Afzal Guru, a convict who was executed by the state for his role in the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, and Maqbool Bhat, the terrorist and co-founder of the separatist group, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front. Protestors were also heard shouting anti-nationalist slogans while passersby watched.

In the wake of this incident, people from all across the country have given their piece of mind on the matter. Some are calling it sedition, while others are calling it dissent and a right to freedom of speech and expression. In the political circus that ensued since then, there has been a severe backlash from both 'sides'. Whether it's the Jungle Raj of the group of lawyers who decided to take matters into their own hands and displayed violence against the arrested JNU student, or the enormous support that he has been getting from students all across the country, it seems that people, and their ideologies, are in extreme opposite ends right now.

Having different viewpoints and ideologies, and respecting those ideologies is an important characteristic of a functional democratic nation or society. At the same time, encouraging citizens to fight against their own nation that grants such rights, is questionable. The right to freedom of speech cannot be at the cost of the integrity of the nation. Similarly, not having faith in the legal system and beating up a man is not permissible for the people of a civilized society.

From an apolitical point of view, it is important that we make a decision based on logic and reasoning, after carefully weighing all possible scenarios. Very often, unbeknownst to us, we make certain errors when making these decisions. Sometimes, it could be something as trivial as choosing the shortest route from home to work, and sometimes it could be decisions that could potentially affect thousands of lives.

According to research, groupthink usually occurs in a strongly cohesive group where the members of the group are less likely to question the goals and decisions made by the group leader(s). Another symptom of groupthink is infallibility or egocentrism, thinking that one's own ideas and beliefs are right, without acknowledging any other belief that could challenge their own. However, it is important to not lose one's individuality at the cost of belonging to a particular group. Deindividuation can lead to diffusion of responsibility and loss of self-awareness, which can then lead to following a group member/leader blindly, without careful consideration and assessment of the situation at hand.

If history has taught us anything, it is to learn from our mistakes and avoid making similar ones in the future. Social influence is a double edged sword, where an outcome at the hands of a leader like Gandhi, can be monumentally beneficial, but an outcome at the hands of the likes of Hitler, can be catastrophic. 

Juhi Vajpayee