Philosophy Weekend: Groupthink, Group Mind

What do the following scenarios have in common?

  • A football stadium erupts in cheers when the home team scores.
  • An army advances towards the enemy in a battle.
  • A family watches TV together.
  • Two people meet, fall in love, get married, stay together for life.
  • Twelve poker players glare at each other as the final table of a tournament begins.
  • A fire department storms into a burning building and saves several lives.
  • A group of marine scientists and ecologists rescue a shoreline from an oil spill.
  • Members of a small town church gather for a weekend’s worship.
  • A high school drama department puts on a musical play.
  • A political party conducts an intensive national voter drive on election day.
  • A classroom gathers for a teacher’s lesson.

Let’s also throw in these somewhat different situations, and look at them in a similar light:

  • A person cries alone in an empty apartment after a bad romantic breakup.
  • A captured war criminal sits on a witness stand in court, and says “I was just following orders.”
  • An employee is laid off, and slinks away silently from the office where she’s worked for years.
  • A person sits at a computer hitting “refresh” repeatedly on Facebook, hoping to see something new pop up on the Friends stream.
  • A person leaves a crowded city for a day to climb a mountain alone, then sits at the peak for hours enjoying the view.
  • What do all these scenarios have in common? In all of these cases, an outside observer who wishes to understand exactly what is taking place will have to consider not only the isolated thoughts and motivations of each individual person, but also the dynamics of the group as a whole. Each person in each scenario has a private set of feelings, desires, fears, ideals, motivations. But the group itself seems to exert a strong force, often creating a sense that the group has its own feelings, desires, fears, ideals and motivations separate from those of each individual in the group. As the activity plays out, the intentions of the group will often take precedence over the intentions of each individual in the group.

    A family watches TV together. Two of them want to watch a comedy, one wants to watch basketball, one wants to watch a cooking show. They flicker through the channels and find “American Idol”. No mathematical equation of (2 * comedy) + basketball + cooking could possibly equal “American Idol”, and in fact none of them would enjoy watching this show if they were alone. But they do enjoy watching it together, and the next night they happily gather in the same room to do it again.

    A few months ago, some startling images of North Koreans crying at president Kim Jong Il’s funeral became an Internet/TV news sensation. Because North Korea is a secretive, isolated and paranoid nation, these photos and videos offered a rare glimpse into the lives and personalities of the country’s unknown citizens. But their extreme weeping and moaning took many outside observers aback; this was not what we expected to see at Kim Jong Il’s funeral. What was the meaning of this intense crying? The question could be answered a few different ways, depending on your attitude towards the Communist government of North Korea.

    Were they crying because they were impoverished, miserable and oppressed by an evil dictatorship?

    Were they crying because their beloved dear leader Kim Jong Il had died? This must have been the North Korean government’s intended interpretation when it sent these images out, though for those of us who have only heard of Kim Jong Il as a brutal dictator this interpretation seemed hard to credit. (Then again, we know very little about this closed society, so we can’t be sure.)

    My own initial interpretation when I first saw the pictures was a historical one: perhaps they were crying for the entire tragic history of their country over the last century? Korea had been the stomping ground of the terrible Russo-Japanese War, was brutally occupied by Japan before the Second World War, was then split from its southern half and brutally controlled by China, which led it into the ruinous and never-ended Korean War … perhaps these citizens were crying for all their family members and loved ones tortured and killed, dreams crushed, hope denied? This seemed like a pretty good explanation for all the crying to me.

    But later on, I came to a more subtle and more universal realization. They were crying because they were together.

    It’s strange that it took so long for me to realize this, even though it’s fairly obvious. North Koreans must share the same instinct as humans everywhere else: if we are at a funeral or other sad occasion and observe other people crying, we will be moved to cry with them. Likewise, if we’re in a room of laughing people, we will laugh, and if we’re in a room of bored or irritated people we will be bored and irritated. It’s a mistake to overthink the spectacle of North Koreans crying, to try to read special insight about the culture of North Korea from this event. My own friends and neighbors here in the USA will probably be crying this weekend when they watch Whitney Houston’s funeral on TV.

    Our original mistake, when we first tried to interpret and understand these strange funeral photos, was to consider only the workings of individual minds. When a group of people cry together, they are crying together. This gives us surprisingly little indication of what they are each thinking or feeling privately when they do so. We give ourselves over to groups constantly in our everyday lives, and when we think and feel and operate as a group, we are not following our individual thoughts and motivations but rather giving ourselves over to the group’s thoughts and motivations.

    This statement can be seen as wrongheaded, fantastical, staggeringly unscientific. At the same time, it can be seen as so obvious as to barely be worth saying. We all know that we think and feel and live in groups. We just lack the language and the shared psychological frameworks to permit us to analyze events at the group level, and so we fall back to the individual level even when the individual level of explanation doesn’t work. Why do we each sometimes behave in ways that we can’t explain? It’s a big question, and group psychology can often provide the answer.

    Group psychology is not often discussed, and yet various clever political leaders and consumer marketing specialists have clearly figured out its power, and have been manipulating populations with it. This is one of many reasons why we all need to better understand the powers of the group self, and the ways it affects all our lives. Is the group self a good thing, an evil thing, or both? Can a shared, relational awareness be insidious, oppressive, conformist? (This is derisively called “groupthink”.) Can a shared, relational awareness be spiritually uplifting, joyous, enlightening? (This is when we speak of a lofty “group mind”.)

    Some of us enjoy the feeling of “groupness” more than others. Jack Kerouac once sneered at his friend Allen Ginsberg’s desire “for everybody in the world to take a bath in the same bathtub”. Sometimes the realization of the natural power of the group self can inspire us to want to reject it completely and deny every impulse towards our natural group sense, because it threatens to limit our individual freedom. This appears to be the primary impulse behind Ayn Rand’s popular philosophy of selfish ethics.

    Anyone who wishes to explore the topic of the group self in public will have to deal with a lot of dissonance, misunderstanding and suspicion. (I have experienced this myself since I began writing about the topic.) The group self, it appears, is not yet ready to comprehend its own existence.

    And yet, even when we deny or attack our tendencies towards “groupness”, we all fall in line with our own groups. Conservatives criticize liberals for pushing the “nanny state”, and liberals criticize conservatives for pushing “my country right or wrong”. I have recently heard conservatives in the USA virulently criticize our federal government for forcing laws about reproduction rights upon all its citizens; they are furious because they think each of the 50 states, rather than the single federal government, should be able to force laws about reproduction rights upon all its citizens. How dare the federal government take away my freedom to empower my state government to take away your freedom?

    Groupthink. Group mind. These poorly understood terms point to great questions still unanswered, and the topic seems to be ripe for future discovery. That’s why I’ve been exploring these questions so obsessively on this blog for a long time now. Today’s post is intended to wrap up my most recent outbreaks of posts on the topic; I plan to give it a rest now for the next few weeks, though I’ll surely return to my favorite topic again soon enough.

    I’m not completely sure where I’ve been heading with this inquiry. But I’m glad that many of you have posted comments, questions and criticisms to help me work towards an answer, even though some of you have objected strongly and angrily to my conclusions. The truth is, I’m not as interested in coming to a conclusion at this point as I am in exploring the question from every possible angle. This is too big a controversy for me to handle alone. We need the power of a group mind on this case.

    12 Responses

    1. I didn’t show up for work one
      I didn’t show up for work one day and just disappeared from a job I didn’t like, didn’t even have the decency to put a resignation in. Bought a plane ticket to London, a backpack that I filled with a bunch of clothes, a Eurorail pass, and a credit card with a really large limit.

      I intended to escape my only environment that I had known for a long time, in particular the people that were part of it that I didn’t like, and those who didn’t like me. Maybe a change of environment would do the trick, would help me figure out the many, in particular relationship flavored, problems that I had been having.

      Landing in Heathrow, I hoped that the 37 days before my scheduled flight home would give me enough time to have to work out what was wrong with me.

      It took 5 days. On that day I found myself wondering around the Victoria and Albert museum and ended up in what I still like to refer to as the “Jesus period”. Lots of Jesus and Mary paintings, clearly made before the time of, or flouting, artistic perspective: a rainbow of flat, colorful religious figures staring through any passerby.

      I’m not religious in any traditional sense, but decided to sit down in front of Blue Jesus mainly because Jesus is one of the religious figures who doesn’t frighten me so much. I asked Blue Jesus, in my head because I didn’t want to sound like a lunatic, “Why was I such a fuck up?” (Sorry for the language, but that is what I asked him.)

      I got a response. Not like George W Bush would get a response. Not like angels flying out of the donation boxes and trumpeting as in a Monty Python movie. The response didn’t come from an external voice, it was clearly my voice in my own head, with a very logical answer in words that people had until that moment told me over and over again… except until I read this blog article, I’m not sure I ever had the right words for what I heard.

      What I heard was, “It’s okay, you’re just like everyone else.” I don’t know what it was about that moment, but at that very moment I finally listened to and comprehended those words. Until I read this blog article just now, I would say things like, “I think the environment just caused me to rationalize my situation,” which maybe it did. But after reading this article, the voice I heard, which was clearly mine, I now think didn’t belong singularly to me.

      Maybe I sound a bit like a loon, but if I were to describe what I heard, it wasn’t my usual “self” voice, it was some other “Self” or “group self” like you refer to in your article; a voice I don’t have sole ownership over, yet still my voice because I’m part of this group called humanity.

      That moment was a life changing event for me. Instead of feeling separate and insulated from people, I feel more myself and more integrated with the people in the environments in which I find myself today, but not in a superior way, in a very human way, imperfections and all.

      No more rambling. Thanks for bringing this topic up. It got me to see another piece of one of the most important moments of my life, and for that I’m grateful.

    2. I group think with everyone
      I group think with everyone that experienced their teenage years during the eighties when I listen to a radio station devoted to Duran Duran and Boy George, even though I think the music is dreadful, I enjoy some groupthink time.

    3. groupthink is the act or
      groupthink is the act or practice of reasoning or decision-making by a group, especially when characterized by uncritical acceptance or conformity to prevailing points of view. Groupthink, the term, is most popular with a company culture where only yes and blind compliance is wanted.
      for other examples, think Red scare USA. Or Sept. 11th. Or all the car companies making SUVs at once. It is easiest to just not think.
      The Koreans were crying because they had lost one of theirs. They did the same in the south when Kim Jong Il{s dad died. Go figure. I do not live there and do not want to return.
      In China, they spout whatever prevailing opinion is out there to avoid not being seen as out of step with the herd. Any Chinese who can leaves to make money elsewhere.
      nietzsche the herd instinct gets 145000 matches on google.

    4. Very interesting topic, so
      Very interesting topic, so thank you for attempting to tackle this. I think it can be hard to come to a conclusion on this topic because a lot of the work is done subconsciously. We give ourselves to groups and forget about ourselves. For example, I love my family more than anything else in this world. I give my all to them, and I forget about myself. When somebody needs help, I am there to offer it to them. This could just mean being at the other end of the phone to hear them out, without giving much of my own opinion, but just being a listener and trying to understand what they are going through.

      I’m reading a Dalai Lama book right now. He states that we should not become attached to our family members. This is one area where I’m having a problem. I think attachment to family members can be great! Giving yourself to others can be a great learning experience. I see attachment to drugs or alcohol can be bad, I can see attachment to emotions can also be bad. But whats so bad about being attached to your family? If anything, being attached to my family has given me more pleasure than anything else. Demonstrating and showing my own love and compassion to people who I hold close to my heart has been very rewarding.

      So my question is: What processes of the mind are involved when we become attached to a certain group? Is it conscious or subconscious when we do this? I want to say that it is one of our basic instincts, to become attached to groups.

      Anywho, thanks for your insights, you take a crow bar to my mind.

    5. Levi, group psychology is
      Levi, group psychology is definitely a real force. As you point out, it can increase euphoria or enthusiasm (like at a concert, rally or a game); it can create callousness and cowardice (in totalitarian rallies); it can even lead to a heroism that individuals would not be capable of on their own. Did you ever read the works of the French social psychologist Serge Moscovici (by coincidence, he’s got the same last name as mine)? He’s one of the main experts in the world on the psychology of the masses.

    6. I love these responses!
      I love these responses! Thanks everybody.

      Claudia, somehow I did not notice the coincidence in names between you and Serge Moscovici, but yes, I have run into his name before, and he is definitely relevant here.

      I have been exploring the works of other thinkers who have developed similar ideas: Charles Johnson, Dorothy Day, Auguste Comte, Carl Jung (of course) … there’s a lot of depth here, though the field does not seem to have emerged into public awareness yet. Most of these thinkers are from the past, though I’ve been interested in the writings of popular journalist David Brooks, who seems to be exploring similar ideas about group psychology (his most recent book is “The Social Animal”) from a politically conservative point of view.

    7. Levi, apparently Serge
      Levi, apparently Serge Moscovici is a distant relative of ours, but I never met him in person. I love his books though! From the list of social thinkers you just enumerated, I see more interesting social philosophy articles coming in your Philosophy Series:). I think Auguste Comte in particular has a lot of depth even though he (and positivism in general) fell out of favor in sociology.

    8. Levi, yes, I like Charles
      Levi, yes, I like Charles Taylor. For a historico-philosophical analysis of mass psychology I think Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is very relevant too. In general, I love reading these public intellectuals who are versatile enough to write both for specialists and for a general audience. That’s probably why I enjoy reading litkicks so much too.

    9. Great topic,
      I think this

      Great topic,

      I think this concept of group think is virulently prevalent in our society, to say we are individualistic is a farce. The amount on dependence of the group is increasing, I cite the case of the dependent nature of citizens to government. They are looking up in the larger group asking for support and help.

      The thought of being an individual, is giving way to the perception of the group of how an Individual should behave.

      Though I do not criticize this collective thinking, rather my thoughts are that is unifying us to a purpose or a state of higher understanding, as we work together.

    10. Re: “A few months ago, some
      Re: “A few months ago, some startling images of North Koreans crying at president Kim Jong Il’s funeral became an Internet/TV news sensation.”

      I was curious about that and linked up with Google and images of the funeral. There were dozens of them posted but the thing that stood out was the vast majority of these pictures showed women (one picture of young girls that seemed to be under 10 yrs) with a few men mixed in with the women caught up in the group crying. A key word here is ‘women’ terribly saddened to outright wailing for the Father Figure of this peculiar country.

      Given the fact that I’m basing this strictly on what I see in the photos, I cannot say the same response was from the majority of men at the funeral procession. I bring this up because I see the differences between the men and women and wonder how this would effect this topic of “groupthink”..? Both genders attending the same funeral but the women attendees are far more the openly weepers than the saddened faces seen on the men.

      Would not the subject of ‘groupthink’ include the entire (or very large percentage) of the group response to whatever they are part of? Or is isolating one gender from another in responses a variable that is overlooked here? Men are more likely to get extremely vocal at a favored sports event than women. A Nascar race is more likely to excite the men in the crowd whereas the women, even though they may enjoy the competitiveness, are more likely to refrain from the vocal excitement they would hear from the men. Women attending a Congressional hearing only to be rebuked caused a much greater furor amongst them than that of men, even though many of us understood their ‘discomfort’ with the hearing.

      Is not “Groupthink” a collective experience shared within a crowd which invites the social part of we hu’mans to join in? Afterall, like a musical concert, the crowd is made of like minds enjoying the music collectively, i.e. as fans. This joining up of like-minded revelers celebrating the joy of their musical tastes are enjoying encourage a “group-like” where all the audience cheers and whoops it up collectively. If one or two were alone enjoying the same music in the homes, they may get similarly excited to let out a cheer brought on from the same music being played live in concert.

      The joy is there, whether the person(s) are alone or in a like-crowd, is it not? Or am I missing something..?

      One of several concerts I have seen over the years was Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. I am a fan of great guitar playing, especially done by a maestro such as SRV. Some of the songs he played and sang I found incredible… absolutely fantastic! I let loose and cheered and raved (“rave on! Ray Vaughan!”). I’m absolutely positive I would have reacted the same way had not anyone in the crowd responded to the music. It didn’t take a crowd response for me to get loud and joyful being the point. But when a crowd collectively responds, why is that such a curious happening that we have to investigate why a ‘groupthink’ is not the same as a ‘group-like’, i.e. collectively or individually the reason behind attending Kim Jong Il’s funeral or attending Stevie Ray Vaughan’s electrifying concert is an individual choice based upon a respect or enjoyment of the person(s) one is crying for or cheering about, is it not?

      Good discussion, Levi… as usual!

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    Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!