Groupthink and Collective Self-Deception
In George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, Winston Smith lives in a world completely controlled by the government, personified by the moniker, “Big Brother.” Everyone is conditioned to believe exactly what Big Brother says is true. Winston, along with many others, spends his life manipulating history and documents so that Big Brother is always right, and has always been right, even when Big Brother changes his mind. Big Brother controls public thought through the promotion of “doublethink” and “newspeak.” In this way “thought crime” (disagreement) is prevented, and Big Brother retains absolute control, keeping people in constant ignorance and denial of the truth. By the practice of “groupthink” everyone is pressured into agreeing with whatever Big Brother proclaims.
The real value of Gregg Ten Elshof book, I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2009), is the chapter explaining the dynamics of “groupthink.” Yale psychologist Irving Janis defined groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action” (Victims of Groupthink, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972, p. 9.) Ten Elshof’s appropriation of Janis’ symptoms is instructive for any Christian group, whether it be a pastoral staff, deacon board, family, small group or other highly cohesive groups. For those who have either witnessed groupthink first hand or have fallen prey to it, the description is uncanny in its insight.
Janis notes eight characteristics of groupthink that build on one another.
First, the illusion of invulnerability:excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks. This first step into groupthink often arises during attempts to solve a difficult problem or when a group senses inertia and begins to solicit ideas for new initiatives. The pressure of the problem or the mounting stagnation may elicit a desperate optimism about an idea that has any plausible chance of delivering the group from its predicament. Alternately, the illusion of invulnerability may arise because of a pre-existing unity among the members that leads them to believe that since they all think alike, all their ideas are good. As a result, the group may rush into a decision that has significant consequences without a careful review and analysis, and thereby expose itself to risk.
The second step is collective rationalization: members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions. Unless the group is entirely self-contained, outside evaluation will often intrude upon the consensus of the group. If the group has already become attached to its plan, it will often resist criticism in an attempt to preserve the plan intact. Even when trusted counselors give sound advice respectfully, the plan becomes something to defend at all costs. Critique may rightly expose false assumptions, logical flaws, or unintended consequences. If the group ignores these warnings, it can fall into the third step.
Third, belief in inherent morality: members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions. Often in the act of defending a decision that has been criticized, the group will resort to a trump card. In the case of Christian groups, appealing to “God’s leading” or “God’s will” often overrides any criticism of illogic or possible negative consequences. It is reasoned that if God is leading the group to go ahead with the plan, any logical fallacy is thereby overridden, and any negative consequences will be countermanded by God’s sovereignty. The decision of the group has now taken on a moral imperative. It is no longer a good thing to do; it is the right thing to do.
Fourth, stereotyped views of out-groups: negative views of the “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary. Even after the decision has taken on a moral quality and has been acted upon, opposition and criticism may exist. In fact, these may have increased in volume and frequency. Since the group never adequately rebutted the criticism to begin with, it becomes necessary to demonize those leveling the critique. This is easily accomplished. Any real or perceived fault by a critic can be exaggerated and exploited to make him seem unreasonable, disgruntled, or even disloyal. Did the critic show the least bit of agitation? Brand him an angry man. Did she get choked up? Label her emotional. Has he ever raised concerns before? Identify him a malcontent or a troublemaker. By characterizing critics in a negative fashion, the group is (generally) free to dismiss their evaluations without really addressing their validity.
Fifth, direct pressure on dissenters: members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views. In addition to stereotyping and dismissing critics, the group can apply pressure to silence critics. Jobs can be threatened, demotions can occur, and silence can be commanded. The group uses whatever leverage it has, often in subtle ways, to make it clear that public disagreement will not be tolerated.
The sixth step is self-censorship: doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed. As the group rallies around itself, members who by now may be starting to question the tactics of groupthink refrain from speaking up, lest they, too, become the target of the slander. Wavering group members talk themselves out of voicing their concerns when they consider that their security may be threatened. Alternately, members of the group who are perceived to be wavering may be cajoled or promised reward if they remain faithful to the group’s direction.
Seventh is the illusion of unanimity: the majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous. Since all opposition and critique has effectively been silenced, members feel that unanimity has been achieved, and in the case of Christian groups, God has “granted peace” about the group’s decision.
In order to maintain the illusion of unanimity, finally, self-appointed “mindguards” emerge: members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the groups’ cohesiveness, view, and/or decision. Human conscience sometimes flares up, and to prevent group members or any remaining critics from ruining the imagined peace, some members adopt the role of enforcer to prevent the leader, now fully blinded by groupthink, from having to wrestle any further with challenges to the plan. Mindguards may be people with direct leverage over others, such as those with financial or leadership power. In this last step, the groupthink is cemented, and the group is all but impervious to any attempt to demonstrate the foolishness or error of its thinking.
I experienced a little of the power of groupthink when I was pastoring a small church a few years ago. The deacons and I had gone away for two days for strategic planning. In the confines of the hotel conference room we strategized and planned, eventually developing a rather robust plan for organization, growth and the harnessing of gifts in our small church. We exhibited all the initial signs of groupthink. When we each went home and shared some of the details with our wives, we ran into some perspectives that seemed to threaten our “God-given” plans. We moved to step four and told ourselves that because the wives had not been in on the intense bonding and planning sessions of the retreat, they could not possibly have understood what we were doing. Upon presentation to the congregation, however, our groupthink “bubble” burst, and we had to concede that we had not been as objective and clear-thinking as we thought we had been. Rather than proceed through the final stages of collective self-deception, the Holy Spirit graciously gave us the wisdom to reconvene, receive more feedback, and proceed with a more modest plan.
Solomon knew the power of self-deception both individually and collectively when he wrote Proverbs 11:14. “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Counselors are not always correct in their counsel, but to fail to surround oneself with those who have demonstrated a tenacious commitment to the truth, even above their friendships, is to make oneself vulnerable to self-deception. The consequences of both individual self-deception and collective groupthink are often devastating, not only to those deceived, but also to many others. These lessons are especially critical for Christians who are not exempt from deception, but often consider themselves so. Every pastoral staff, deacon board, trustee board, family, circle of friends, etc. needs to take precautions to avoid self-deception and remain clear-sighted regarding the truth. Only by radical commitment to the truth, as evidenced by strict adherence to the entire canon of Scripture (and not individual verses pulled out of context), and in the advice of sound counselors, can believers avoid the destruction of self-deception.