Groupthink: When One Mind Gets Lost in Many

The group of college age boys and girls began to gather in a circle and chant, fists thumping towards the sky, “shots, shots, shots.” Over and over in a chorus. They circled the boy in the middle, a child no older than 18.

He stared at the row of shots in front of him, already wobbly from a night of partying. The chorus grew louder. He took all five shots, wincing between gulps. The room grew fuzzy and he wobbled out of the house and stumbled back to his dorm. The next morning, he was discovered dead in his room. He had aspirated on his own vomit.

Or maybe you’ve heard about the real story behind the tragedy of the space shuttle challenger, NASA’s ambitious 1986 attempt to bring space travel to the everyday ordinary civilian. This is the year they picked one person to train and launch into space with astronauts who had trained their whole lives for this mission. Christa McAuliffe from New Hampshire was chosen and the PR media campaign that blossomed around this announcement breathed new life in to the NASA brand. It was late January and there was a cold snap in Florida. The morning of the launch temps hovered around 36 degrees. Typical temperatures were in the 50’s. Twelve hours before the launch two engineers from the firm NASA hired to build the rocket boosters called to express concern about the dropping temperature and the reliability of the O-ring(s). Apparently in colder temps the O-ring loses its elasticity. Upon inspection that morning icicles were found on the launch structure. And yet, the launch was cleared. Seventy-three seconds into flight, the challenger exploded. All souls on board were lost.

Do you know what psychological phenomenon killed the people described in these two scenarios?

A phenomenon called Groupthink or mob mentality is the root cause of what lead to the death of those people. And guess what? It’s more familiar and pervasive than you might assume. One of the most important aspect of group think that most people over look is the fact that because the behavior is dispersed over a group, the individuals no longer feel any personal responsibility for the outcome of the group behavior. The typical pressure we feel from our conscience or moral code (shrinks refer to it as a superego) is diluted by the presence of the group. This allows people to act and behave in ways that they would never do on their own.

All of us have acted and reacted in ways we would never have done if we did not have the safety and security of some type of pack bolstering our sense of invulnerability and power. Anyone who says they haven’t, isn’t being emotionally honest. Groupthink is what fuels school yard bullying, the current epidemic of social media “trolling” (there’s even a new word for it. How fucked up is that?), sorority and fraternity behavior, mean girl behavior, cults, political campaigns, corporate blunders, Ponzi schemes and on and on. At the core of the #metoo movement is the power of groupthink. Everyone knew this was happening in Hollywood, the legend of the casting couch is a tale as old as time. And yet, some invisible force kept status quo rolling along for decades. Groupthink is that pervasive.

Groupthink, like all the psychological processes I am trying to emphasize here at The Padded Room, lies on a continuum from benign to malignant. Most of us overlook the benign end of the continuum and view it as something entirely different from the malignant expression, if we recognize it at all. From a psychological perspective, the main difference lies in the core intention of the group.

With malignant group think, the group cohesion is organized around an intention that has purposeful negative outcomes. Think the holocaust. Jonestown. Genocides. And I’m only skimming the surface. These types of atrocities are fueled by the most malignant form of groupthink. Whereas the group intention in the benign expression is not necessarily designed to have catastrophic consequences. Although, it’s so easy to understand how the consequences can quickly turn volatile when groupthink is at the helm. It wasn’t the intention of the group, but bad decisions happen nonetheless. Those decisions, often made in the blink of an eye with no real conscious thought, no intention to cause harm, have deadly consequences. No one speaks up. No one voices concern. Or, the voices that do express concern are, at best ignored, at worst, silenced. Group cohesion silences any individual doubt or detractor. It happens ALL the time. Most of the time, as long as a tragedy doesn’t occur, no one even notices the benign version of groupthink. On social media, groupthink is applauded with likes and emoji’s and I’ll bet barely half of it goes recognized by the vast majority of people. Yet another example of how powerful our unconscious patterns are in shaping the trajectory of our lives. What you are not aware of is far more influential than anything in your purview.

But when we strip groupthink down to its neurobiological bones, there is very little difference between the benign and malignant expressions. The psychological fuel source is the same: coercion to conform, us versus them thinking, strong efforts to stifle individuality, and social and emotional consequences if conformity is not achieved.

I understand groupthink intimately. In college I became consumed with this topic as it relates to cults, mobs, prison culture and the like. Right around the same time I also began therapy for the first time. In the confines of that therapy room I began to piece together my own narrative and how my neurobiology was wired in the minefields and shadows of this type of mod mentality.

I’m using mob mentality literally. I am the granddaughter of an infamous bookie for the mob. At the pinnacle of my grandfather’s career he controlled the book for most of the eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida. I’ve written in the past about how this type of environment impacted my dad and how that trickled down to influence me. This style of orbiting in the world has shaped and sculpted my personality in ways both beautiful and brash, crude and profound.

At the epicenter of my father’s thinking style was an “us versus them” paradigm. If you didn’t “buy in” completely, you were met with the ever-present lens of paranoia, suspicion, and social and emotional isolation. When you were in, you were completely embraced. The illusion of intimacy, loyalty, and invincibility promised a type of belonging that plucks a primal cord for us pack animals. Emotional intimidation and isolation are the primary psychological pressure points used when this form of groupthink is at play. This style of thinking forced anyone in my father’s sphere into an invisible force field where your thoughts and actions were merely a reflection of your loyalty to him. You see, when it comes to groupthink, the greatest act of treason is free will.

And here’s the really tricky thing about group think, it preys on our basic and core need for attachment (or in layman’s terms a pack) in order to survive. Juvenile Sapiens cannot survive without the safety, attachment, and loyalty of others. We need to belong in order to survive and yet, the forces that attract us into powerful and sometimes self-destructive and dangerous patterns of group think prey on these very same inborn drives and impulses.

So why am I making such a big deal about groupthink?

My effort here at The Padded Room is to build a resource of essays that encourages you to build and strengthen your muscle of self-observation in the service of becoming more conscious. To be conscious we must be in touch with and able to exercise our unique voice. Your voice has value even if it’s the only voice expressing a certain point of view within a group. In fact, one of the dynamics I always stay attune to when I am dealing with any type of group (family, business, team, etc.) is who is fulfilling the role of devil’s advocate. I try to identify who in the group is willing to challenge the dominant narrative in order to ensure that groupthink is not limiting the scope of analysis in major decision-making efforts. The contrarian or devil’s advocate plays an important role in the health of your group and its ability to avoid the pitfalls of a secondary trend associated with group think referred to as a confirmation bias.

If you really take a minute and think about it, groupthink is likely at play in nearly all of the bad decisions you have ever made when placed within a group setting. All of us are susceptible to it all the time. For me, because I grew up in a home where this was the primary way that order and control was maintained, I am particularly sensitive to it. It resonates at a frequency that is familiar to me. Now as a therapist, I attune myself in a very different way as I observe its power and seduction in various domains of my patient’s lives.

Groupthink stands in direct opposition of our efforts here at The Padded Room to build our muscle of self-observation and consciousness. Begin to draw your awareness to these dynamics. They are not always blatant; sometimes they are subtle, covert, and subversive. What are the pressures and dynamics you feel when you are in certain groups? What’s the fine print on the contract of membership? How are differing points of view greeted and metabolized by the group? Start to observe what role you play in the groups in your life: Family, friends, school/work place, etc.? What forces stop you from using your voice? Maybe your silence is associated with the disease to please; you don’t want to piss anyone off so you remain silent to achieve group consensus? Maybe you fear alienation and isolation from your “pack” if you were to speak up? Maybe you’re the dominant voice demanding consensus in order to belong? Maybe you’re a “go-along-and-get-along” kind of person and you can’t really be bothered with the effort and risk of speaking up? I’d like you to observe those motivations, be clear and honest with yourself about why and what fuels your participation in any group dynamic.

A note to parents: Children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to group think because of their partially developed brains. Remember that modeling or imprinting rules the roost in terms of our influence on our children’s developmental trajectory. They are watching you to figure out how they should orbit around these invisible and powerful forces. Be conscious and mindful of what your own behavior is suggesting to them.

These are critical intersections we would be observing were you to land on my couch. No better time to start than now. If you observe, everything is your teacher.


About the Author: Dr Sarah Sarkis

Sarah is a licensed psychologist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally hailing from Boston Mass, she has a private practice where she works with adults in long-term insight oriented therapy. She works from an existential psychology vantage point where she encourages her patients to “stay present even in the storm.”  She believes herself to be an explorer of the psyche and she will encourage you to be curious about the journey rather than the destination.  She emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment.

She approaches psychological wellness from a holistic and integrative perspective. Her therapeutic style is based on an integrative approach to wellness, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and/or mind/body techniques to help clients foster insight, change and growth. She has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected.  Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Brene’ Brown, Irvin Yalom and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few.

Please visit her website at Dr SarahSarkis.com and check out her blog, The Padded Room

5 Comments

Bee

The prolific use of vulgarity and profanity in our present day society is another example of “groupthink”. And I know this type of language has always been around . But when we see our educated professionals use it to express themselves, it has become a problem. I refuse to become a part of this unacceptable behavior – it is coarse and crude – NOT something we should be encouraging in our everyday lives and the lives of our children. “All you need to say is simply ‘yes’ or ‘No’;anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”( Matthew , ch 5)

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Esem

What a shame we weren’t given any ideas on how to speak or guide our tweens and teenagers.

Probably one of the most interesting posts I’ve read in psychology … Thanks for sharing this. Something to think about

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batphink

Bollocks to ‘Goupthink’ I always thought for myself with the exception of maybe 2 times I gave in I never bend to group pressure.People are so mean and I never participated in such cruel acts,in fact defended many fellow students in junior and high school.

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batphink

Bollock to ‘Goupthink’ I always thought for myself with the exception of maybe 2 times I gave in I never bend to group pressure.People are so mean and I never participated in such cruel acts,in fact defended many fellow students in juniorand high school.

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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