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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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