How often have we participated in meetings or in social gatherings and felt pressured to agree with the majority? Or fallen silent on social media when we disagree with the tirade of shared accusations?

This holds true for government policy or national security meetings, corporate board meetings, academic institutions, trade unions, political parties, drawing-room conversations and, of course, social media. This phenomenon has come to be known as ‘Groupthink’.

The term ‘Groupthink’ first appeared in a 1952 Fortune magazine article by social analyst William H. Whyte, a concept expanded by psychologist Irving L. Janis in his book Victims of Groupthink.

While consensus is important for implementation of any form of progress in state, community or family matters, Groupthink refers specifically to the priority given to maintaining unity for emotional rather than rational reasons. Groupthinkers feel morally right; foster an “us versus them” attitude. It can polarise management-employee relationships, conflict between countries, racial relations, the generation gap, and a host of other situations — sometimes with dangerous consequences.

The failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba is often cited as an example, but in our own time there is the disastrous attack on Iraq based on incorrect intelligence about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Negative Groupthink can also lead to social mobilisation such as Nazism, Cold War propaganda, Islamophobia and religious extremism. Groupthink would also explain Brexit, the support for Trump and the anti-immigration panic in Europe.

Groupthink can sometimes have positive consequences as well such as Bob Geldorf’s Band Aid, the #MeToo movement, Avaaz (campaigning community bringing people-powered politics to decision-making worldwide) and the Green movements.

In the lives of ordinary people, Groupthink is most often seen on social media. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can build one’s business and reputation. It also has a dark side. Inflammatory posts with reactive comments can run into the hundreds. Keyboard warriors or online jihadis, as they are called locally, are as psychologist Deborah Pontillo says, emboldened by shared anger. Trolling is a term for people who sow discord on the internet by starting arguments. Social media can make the powerless feel powerful. But cyberbullying is also the third leading cause of death in the US among young people, resulting in approximately 4,400 deaths per year.

Timothy Graham, in his article ‘Unsocial Media: The Rise of Groupthink and Communities of Belief on Facebook’, suggests that personal opinions are easily solidified into knowledge “authorised by the crowd.” The fear of being removed from the group or ostracised encourages conformity. William Golding’s 1954 book Lord of the Flies, about a group of young boys stranded on an uninhabited island, explored the disastrous effects of group pressure.

One of the main causes of Groupthink is the devaluing of individualism, which is seen as disruptive, egotistical and socially isolating. Yet, many successful people are those who dared to think beyond the status quo. One can include the prophets, many philosophers and thinkers such as Darwin, Freud and Marx; artists such as the impressionists and cubists; and visionaries such as Steve Jobs. There are politicians such as William Wilberforce who presented the Anti-Slavery Bill for 20 years, Gorbachev who opened up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR); Muhammad Ali Clay who refused to fight in the Vietnam War; Edhi who established one of the largest philanthropic organisations in a Third World economy; Princess Diana when she shook hands with HIV-positive patients; or even whistleblowers and good investigative journalists.

Malcom Gladwell uses the term ‘outliers’ to represent high achievers in society — a statistical term for data that significantly deviates from the norm. While, we are a product of our society and our times, we need to nurture our individuality to have “the strength and presence of mind” to recognise opportunities that present themselves to us.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi
Email: durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 16th, 2019