Kano Seisen’in Osanobu, Dyer and Weaver, 1846

Japanese woodcuts prior to the middle of the nineteenth century did not include shadows. This was because the Japanese artists who created them did not regard shadows as real, and therefore saw no reason to depict them.

Japan had undergone a period of self-isolation for more than two centuries. During that time, the Japanese had developed their own highly unique cultural identity. Then in 1853, the American Navy landed at Edo Bay and, through the use of force, opened Japan up to the wider world. From that time onwards, Japanese culture began to change, and shadows found their way into Japanese art.

We do not see the impact of a culture on our thinking because, like a fish in water, we do not consider our local environment to be unique in any way.

The term ‘groupthink’ was coined by William H. Whyte, in an article he wrote for Fortune Magazine in 1952. Whyte defined groupthink as something more than the instinctive desire to conform, but what he called a ‘rationalized conformity’, whereby submission to the values of the group was regarded as moral and right, and nonconformity was deemed suspicious and quite possibly subversive.

A degree of conformity in society is natural; we adopt the mannerisms of those around us, through fashion and accent and attitudes, and for the most part we do this unconsciously. Early Victorian photographs depict the conditions and attitudes of the time, and often through the lesser details of stern faces and sombre attire. We look at such photos as though we were perceiving a different country rather than a different century.

Nazi Germany in the 1930s

The term ‘groupthink’ was further employed by Irving Janis, who published the book Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes (1972). Janis sought to explain the failed invasion of Cuba, or what became known as the ‘Bay of Pigs’ fiasco. Although the invasion was ostensibly the work of Cuban exiles, it was funded by the American government, and the training had been provided by the CIA. Janis wanted to show that a culture of conformity – a military necessity – had prevented anyone from questioning its feasibility.

The term then gained further usage after the Second Gulf War (2003), when Iraq was invaded under the auspices that it possessed large quantities of chemical weapons and was intending to deploy them against the West. Saddam Hussain, its leader at the time, was accused of hiding them, and so in order to disarm the threat, the country was invaded. After the invasion, few if any were found, and questions were asked about how the intelligence went so badly wrong.

While the term ‘groupthink’ is relatively new, the effect of conformity on decision-making is not. The emperor Justinian I (527 – 565) is remembered for attempting to restore the Roman empire to its former glory by purifying all non-conformist thinking from Roman lands. He shut down all the Greek philosophical schools, including the Neoplatonic Academy which had found approval with Saint Augustine, and banished them to Persia and beyond. Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, noted the effect this had on European culture:

‘The Academy, where Plato had taught, survived all other schools, and persisted, as an island of paganism, for two centuries after the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. At last, in A.D. 529, it was closed by Justinian because of his religious bigotry, and the Dark Ages descended upon Europe.’ [3]

John Foxe, the burning of Latimer and Ridley, 1563

This was by no means a unique event. The same intolerance towards non-conformist thinking continued into the Middle Ages, when the Church deemed it necessary to purge all forms of heresy from the lands under its influence. In order to enforce this, a decree was issued, the Ad Extirpanda (1252), which condoned the use of torture as a means of interrogation. The brutality of the Inquisition followed. It is telling that the word ‘heretic’ means ‘one who chooses’.

We might assume that the modern era, born out of the Humanism of the Renaissance, is now more tolerant of individual thinking, but little has changed. Groupthink now finds expression through secular culture, economics and political ideology.

Beijing students denouncing the former vice chairman, Liu Shaoqi in 1967

In the twentieth century, the demand for ideological purity led to Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, and to the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s. The Cultural Revolution was headed by Chairman Mao’s wife Jiang Qing (1914 – 1991), who stated ‘there cannot be peaceful coexistence in the ideological realm’. The Cultural Revolution was intended to purge the last remnants of Capitalism from Chinese culture. It is estimated that as many as 20 million people died as a consequence of the purge.

While groupthink is an obvious factor in religion and politics, it also plays a part in science. The scientific historian Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996) noted the influence of peer pressure on scientific research in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He used the term ‘paradigm’ to explain how this form of groupthink influences not only scientific thinking but also scientific research. He wrote:

‘No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed, those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others.’ [4]

Nicolaus Copernicus’ heliocentric model, 1543

Kuhn coined the term ‘paradigm shift’ to describe when a new idea or insight affects the thinking of the group, which then creates a new paradigm. One of the most obvious examples of a paradigm shift in history was the Copernican Revolution (1543), whereby the assertion that the earth was unmoving was successfully challenged by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543). The assertion of a stationary earth was part of Church dogma, and the ensuing argument was not merely about whether the earth was in motion, but – more importantly – whether the Church owned truth.

The Copernican Revolution was by no means unique. Wilhelm Rontgen (1845 – 1923), the physicist who produced the first X-Ray, did not immediately recognise the significance of his discovery, because his conventional thinking caused him to regard the phenomenon as an anomaly. And the Michelson–Morley experiment of 1887, was initially regarded as a failure to demonstrate the existence of the luminiferous aether until Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) pointed out that actually it demonstrated the constancy of the speed of light. The experiment laid the foundation for modern physics.

The problem is not consensus, whether in science, religion or politics, but when that consensus is imbued with a moral element, and then it becomes confused with truth. This has the effect of preventing anyone from questioning the governing paradigm.

While science, religion and politics might be seen as quite different matters, what unifies them is that, at present at least, each is founded on logic. Logic demands uniformity; if A is A, then A cannot be not-A. If wood is wood, then wood cannot be metal. While this is highly useful in physics, it is highly restrictive in dealing with human nature, and more particularly with our perception of reality.

Logic, for all its advantages, causes us to think in terms of opposites, and to attribute truth to one view over another, even if both views are flawed. This form of polarisation can lead to intolerance and persecution. Once we associate the dominant paradigm with truth, then any competing outlooks are seen as not just a threat to the existing order, but as a threat to truth itself.

Slum next to a casino in Havana, Cuba, 1954

In order to see the influence of the governing paradigm, we have to become free of it. This can happen progressively – such as when Victorian values are succeeded by liberal values – or suddenly, through violent revolution. It is notable that prior to the French, American, Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions, the governing authorities were regarded as either indulgent or corrupt.

Perhaps what is most interesting is that the phenomenon of ‘groupthink’ can now be discussed openly. This means that society is no longer governed by a single authority. The modern era has led to the rise of multiculturalism, to the proliferation of news channels, competing authorities, and finally to social media. While this has many advantages, unless it is supplemented by an understanding of the problem of groupthink, it can lead to conflict between the different competing voices, all claiming to represent truth.

The modern era places a greater demand on the individual to think for themselves and, more importantly, to make their own judgements about what is right, true and important. This individual form of judgement is intuitive; when there is no single governing authority to dictate what is right, we have to rely on our own intuitive judgement to inform our opinions and outlooks. While this may seem less important than the necessity of earning a living and paying the rent, it is not.

Charles Ponzi in Boston, 1920

In Boston, in the 1920s, an investment scheme was set up by Charles Ponzi (1882 – 1949), to trade on the difference in value of Postal Reply coupons across different countries. No investment was actually taking place; Ponzi was merely using the money taken from new investors to pay dividends out to existing investors. A journalist, Neal O’Hara, wrote an article for the Boston Traveler, suggesting the scheme was a fraud.

Ponzi took the journalist to court, sued him and won. This was only three months prior to the collapse of the scheme. The financial authorities of the day could not see the scheme did not add up. Perhaps it is because too many had invested their own money in the scheme, and they did not want to see what ought to have been obvious to any disinterested observer. As with any form   of groupthink; in order to see the governing paradigm, we have to be willing to question it. And that can only be done by individuals willing to think for themselves.

If we are not willing to take responsibility for our own thinking, that responsibility will be taken by others, by events or by society. And it is we, as individuals, who have to deal with the consequences of that lack of thinking.

References

  • William H. Whyte, Groupthink, Fortune Magazine, 1952. http://fortune.com/2012/07/22/groupthink-fortune-1952/ (accessed June 14th, 2021)
  • Janis, Irving. Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982)
  • [5] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1946), 2000 edn, 78.
  • Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) Vol 2, 24

This article was taken from Nascent State Magazine, Summer 2021