Avoiding Groupthink With 4 Tips
Why is it that if I know your stance on climate change I more than likely know your stance on abortion? How is it possible that knowing your stance on the second amendment means I likely know your stance on which bathroom you think a transgender person should use? Or if I know your thoughts about affirmative action I also know your feelings about universal healthcare. These are all very different topics yet knowing your answer to one any of them means I probably know your answer to the others. The answer is what is called groupthink.
Groupthink is letting the thoughts and feelings of the group dictate your personal thoughts and feelings. The greatest examples of groupthink are political (Democrat vs Republican) and religious. However, groupthink also occurs on the micro level at work, at home and various other social circles.
Why Does Groupthink Exist
It makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view. If the caveman wanted to live long enough to have kids he was dependent on others. If every time the group wanted to build a fire Caveman Joe would come over talking about carbon emissions he would be left or killed in short order. Better for Joe to let his kids worry about the ozone layer and just go along with everybody else on this one.
The same logic still holds true today. We naturally want to fit in and to be liked. It is simply human nature so we tend to go along with what others around us are thinking or saying. We see others doing something and even if we question it we still assume there must be a good reason so we fall in line. After years of this conditioning, it becomes almost impossible to break.
What If Your Friends Jumped Off a Bridge
But mom my friends are doing it. Would you jump off a bridge just because they did? Turns out we know the answer to this and of course, we would. By far the funniest example of this is the candid camera elevator experiment. Basically, they have people (actors) on an elevator face in random directions other than the door. The real people seem confused but go right along with it anyway assume there must be a reason. A very funny look at human nature.
An extremely scary example of groupthink in action is the Nazi’s in World War II. One of the major questions people of today ask is how did all these people go along with Hitler? How is it possible that so many people would go along and even participate in these evil acts of violence? The people of the time claimed they simply “had no choice” but historians have found no evidence of Germans being threatened or killed for not participating. In fact, there is a story of Major Trapp in WW2 asking for volunteers to help his group kill Jewish women and children. Of 500 Germans only 15 chose not to participate. Were the other 485 evil savages or victims of following the group?
We certainly like to think we would have acted differently. We would have kept looking straight in the elevator. We would have been one of the 15 to do the right thing in WW2. Unfortunately, the odds are you and I would probably have just gone along with the group as the others did.
Okay, let us move on from the horrible stuff. Hopefully, we can all acknowledge that we have probably fallen victim to groupthink more than we would like to admit. So how do we avoid it? How do we remove ourselves from what everybody else is thinking or saying and make a decision for ourselves?
1. Ask Questions. “But, Momma Why!?”
We aren’t cavemen anymore who need to worry about our group killing us. Don’t be afraid to question what others are doing. A toddler isn’t afraid to ask “Why” a thousand times per day. Kids will justifiably have a million questions about heaven and God when they grow up in a church. However, how many adults do you ever hear asking a preacher/priest “How do we know heaven exists?” It almost doesn’t happen even though most of the group doesn’t really know why they believe that other than the bible says so. Not having a sound explanation for your ideas doesn’t make you right/wrong but it does make you a victim of groupthink. We can probably be a little more tactful than a two a year old but ask others in your group to clarify their position.
2. Seek Out The Opposition
I know so many people who will only listen to others who already agree with them. It just boils their blood to listen to someone with a different view. This is the exact opposite attitude you should have. You need to be seeking the best available answer to whatever the issue might be. Find the best and the smartest people out there who disagree with you and listen to their point of view, WITH AN OPEN MIND.
If you are having a design review on a big project and everyone is just nodding their heads in agreement then stop the meeting and go find someone from a totally different group and have them sit in.
If you are going to a have a political opinion about something please hear both sides of it. Know and understand that there are brilliant people on both sides. “Seek first to understand then to be understood.” – Stephen Covey
3. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a simple meditative practice where you are bringing your attention to experiences happening in the present moment. This practice allows you to learn how to see the thoughts, feeling, and emotions you are experiencing. The common way to practice is this is sitting quietly with the eyes closed and observing your breath moving in and out of your body. Sounds easy but the mind tends to wander.
Mindfulness allows you to wake up to your life. As you build this self-awareness you will better be able to see yourself being tempted to fall victim to the group. You will stop focusing so much on the past and what others said before you. Also not worrying about the future and what others might think of you. Instead, you are simply focused on the present moment.
4. Can You Defend It
What if after a meeting your President came up to you and said “I’m glad we all agreed. We have a customer coming in tomorrow and I would like for you to defend our stance to him.” If you would have known before the meeting you alone would be defending this position would you have asked more questions?
The next time you are in elevator and people are turning the wrong direction before you do as well ask yourself “if when I get off this elevator will I be able to explain why I was looking towards the back?” Always assume that you alone will have to defend your position. This forces you get clearer on what you are going along with.
We may never be able to fully avoid groupthink but we can at least become more aware of it. Some amount of groupthink or just nodding along is okay. You don’t need to be the constant devil’s advocate. Your friends, family, and coworkers will get quiet tired of you always questioning them and disagreeing.
Focus your attention on the more important moral, ethical and safety issues. Try to catch yourself today. The next time you are doing something try to see if this decision/thinking was influenced by others. Are you doing/saying whatever it is for any reason besides “other people are too.”
Can you think of a time you fell victim to groupthinking? Do you take any steps to try and avoid not just following the herd? Is there a bigger example of groupthink than democrat vs republican?