The decisions a group accepts as a whole is not always reflective of the individual conscience of each member. Teenagers will often ‘go with the crowd’ regardless of their true feelings because the enormous pressure to be part of a group is overwhelming. As human beings, we are wired to connect socially and those that stand alone often suffer from psychological issues such as depression or anxiety due to isolation.
Groupthink occurs when a crowd of people (usually with good intentions) conform in such a way that leads to dysfunctional or irrational behavior. Their viewpoints may be so strong that critical thinking becomes impaired and ration takes a back seat to the intensity of emotion rising from the group.
Because of the need to conform, individualism is not prioritized. Arguing, defending an opposite belief, and raising controversial issues to the group, may become dangerous. With no opposition to the group view, members are more likely to feel absolute in their position, furthering a black and white mentality where there are only two choices: right or wrong. This perpetuates authoritarian ruling by usually one member of the group: the leader.
Leaders may gain control by planning what is discussed, only answering certain questions, and repeating key phrases even when they may not make sense. If the group is vulnerable from poverty, abuse, or mental illness, the leader may gain control at a much faster rate. By setting consequences that may not be measured, the threat of existential fear can be enough to rule a crowd of people. There have been many religious groups that have used heaven and hell as persuasion to make drastic and sometimes violent choices on earth.
When the word “groupthink” is mentioned in today’s society, many people think about the Jonestown Massacre where Jim Jones led several people to kill themselves. They may also think of Christian Science, based on the belief that sickness is an illusion and can be cured by prayer, as a popular model of dysfunctional group mentality. Groups like the Ku klux Klan and Nazi’s are other commonly-used examples. There are, however, other groups with the same type of social system that are used for our safety, entertainment or government.
The military, politics and even sports have a groupthink element to their structure. Each branch of these examples has their own lifestyle that may be set apart from common society. The military uses their own law, their own punishment system, and even their own dress. Politicians, while often being in the spot light, can work secretly on a behind-the-scenes basis that may isolate them from the rest of society.
Football, unlike the military and politics, can officially start training and engage their group members from below the age of 18.
Anyone can fall into a dangerous type of groupthink if they are not prepared. Vulnerability and hopelessness are just two traits commonly exploited by dysfunctional groups.
Some of the reasons why someone might gravitate toward a cult or dysfunctional group include:
- The group may feel more powerful than the individual, thus by association the individual would feel more powerful from the group.
- Some people may want to be ‘chosen’ or feel special from a selection process.
- A lack of family or strong community may tempt someone into groupthink.
While most people may see joining a cult or subscribing to groupthink as a personality characteristic, more often than not, the person’s situation is to blame. Those who struggle from poverty, depression, isolation and trauma, may be more susceptible to what a group may have to offer.
If you are questioning whether a group you belong to is psychologically healthy, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the group promise something that cannot be proven that only they have access to?
- Is asking where a member went a “hard question”?
- Do they focus hatred on other organizations that may have similar agendas?
- Do you doubt your worth?
- Are you praised when only spending time with those of the same group?
- Does the group ever admit they are wrong about serious issues?
- Is there language dramatic? Do they use words that would seem extreme to people outside the group like teachers, friends, or counselors?
- Do they use humiliation to make examples out of people?
- If you told someone you were going to go away for the weekend, would you be able to leave with no process required.
Just because groupthink is powerful, doesn’t mean there aren’t ways out. The more extreme the group is, the most important a plan becomes. If you suspect you may be stuck in a dysfunctional group, the local library is an essential tool. Their computers are private and their space is free to anyone. Information is often times the first step forward.