Critical Groupthinking

I’ve been thinking a lot about group dynamics lately. In-groups, out-groups, fitting into to groups and falling out of them. I’ve learned a lot about group dynamics in the past few years in skeptical circles.

Working in groups is an important part of many people’s lives. I get tasked to head committees or workgroups and I have a staff that has to work collaboratively on projects. I see groups in my neighborhood and community. And with a teenager and a pre-teen, I see social groups, for better or worse, in operation every day.

With regards to skeptical outreach, I’m curious if coherent groups can be formed with diverse individuals, what might hold us back and what may work to move ahead.

Sunstein and Hastie’s book Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter is full of “aha” moments about the behavior of the group. I am particularly interested in discussion on polarization and why groups fail (and how to succeed).

Groups evolve. The authors say that research supports the trend that groups will tend to migrate towards the more extreme members. Their explanation of why this happens makes sense but it’s also obvious that such evolution may provide an opportunity for rifts to appear and grow. I can’t help but relate that image to the skeptic-atheist community over the past 5 years as a result of the actions of more extreme members who, for various reasons, had an influence. Then, there was a cascading effect where participants fell in line, chose sides, and the group went out of whack.

Other members of the group may have their own information but table it in order to go along with the majority because it just seems like the simpler thing to do or they wish to avoid the pile-on if they say something that gets misinterpreted. In many cases, it was best to say nothing at all, but the result was to continue down the wrong path. Hidden information and self-censoring is how groups fail, according to Sunstein and Hastie. Groups function best when everyone understands the goal of the group (hopefully, the goal is success for the project, not for each individual) and each person has a chance to contribute their information on equal footing. That is, the individuals are not put down, silenced or intimidated.

I strongly feel that group dynamics, groupthink, and tribalism had a huge role to play in why today’s skeptic community is fractionated and dysfunctional as a unit. Cooperation and collaboration is a rare site indeed.

A way to rejuvenate and reboot a group that is floundering (Sunstein and Hastie use the example of a corporation) is to bring in new leadership and just start over. Create a break from the past and change the perspective to something new and positive. I think this approach has some real promise, but there must be a will to do it and the right people to step in. (I wonder if this happened to General Motors?)

There is so much potential, untapped expertise, and enthusiasm in what we loosely refer to as the skeptical community that stands up for science and reason. There have already been many successes in the skeptisphere so far this year regarding efforts against anti-vaccination agendas, scrutiny for Dr. Oz and alternative medicine, shining a spotlight on the ridiculousness of homeopathy, and legal action against potentially harmful dietary supplements. This is shaping up to be a banner year for the reason-based causes in society. It should be a group effort. Is it possible? I don’t know. We have to learn to get along and cooperate.

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0 thoughts on “Critical Groupthinking

  1. Many who believe they are skeptical really are not. Many sciences are off the radar screen of people that consider themselves skeptics. Group think is more ubiquitous in every day sciences than many can even begin to imagine.

  2. The corporate example is apt and explains why executive compensation — so easily ridiculed — is in fact so competitive.

    I’m not a group-oriented person, but I suspect that where a subject as broad as “skepticism” is concerned some share of intra-group conflicts will predictably center on the nature and scope of a group’s mission. You can probably expect a lot of consensus on the promotion of critical thinking in general and on the scientific investigation of extraordinary claims more specifically. Educational outreach as a common goal seems pretty easy. One area where I bet it gets thornier, mission-wise, is when outreach comes to include specific political or legal goals. 10 out of 10 members of Skeptics R Us might agree that anti-vax “science” is claptrap to be carefully and publicly exposed, but perhaps only 7 of those 10 believe that it should be illegal for parents not to vaccinate their children. That’s one example of a germ from which a schism might arise, and it seems like a distinguishable example insofar as the basis for the rift would presumably concern good faith philosophical differences. In such a case, it seems healthy to have it out. Perhaps the differences are such that defection is warranted. Or it may be that such differences can be addressed and reconciled internally, such as by tweaking the mission statement. Case by case.

    A more difficult issue would seem to concern interpersonal politics and such conflicts that center around group loyalty — or differing concepts of group loyalty. For some members of any philosophically grounded movement, the concept of loyalty will extend only so far as to embrace the ideas or principles being advanced. For others, the concept will be broadened, perhaps by increment, to include attitudes, appearances, and even the social or interpersonal conduct of affiliated members. This is where I sense a situation that may be less amenable to repair. If one skeptic maintains that it is necessary and important to maintain dialog with “the other side” while another views such “openness” with suspicion, you have a recipe for a more unhealthy schism that will soon circle back to tribal politics and tactics: shaming, public infighting, gossip, upmanship, etc. Once an adversarial mentality assumes critical mass and lines are drawn, the chance of re-establishing consensus may be lost — and for reasons that have little or nothing to do with any fundamental disagreement over the nature of skepticism and everything to do with team-think and, eventually, the iron law of oligarchy. Somewhere in the fury, the audience is forgotten. Good luck fixing that shit.

    I know this isn’t helpful. My advice is to avoid groups and focus instead on the dissemination of important information, on research and publishing, shoring support where you can and avoiding personal compromise. It sounds impractical, but it has never been more practical.

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