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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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