At one point or another, everyone’s parents gave them the same lecture about peer pressure: “If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?”
Although your parents probably didn’t know it, what they were introducing you to at the time was the concept of groupthink––a phenomenon coined by Dr. Irving Janis as being when a group collectively makes decisions that undermine “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgement” of the individuals in the group.
Most of our behavior and decision-making can be traced back to being influenced by the people around us. Certain levels of groupthink are prevalent in almost every aspect of our lives––from cliques in high school cafeterias to upper-management making the big decisions in the workplace.
It’s a dangerous mindset to be made part of. And it’s everywhere.
The problem with groupthink is that it treats a group of people as a homogeneous unit. When it comes to coming up with decisions or solutions (especially when the group is under pressure), the desire to keep the group at unanimity overpowers the necessity for alternative thinking or thoughtful discussion. Typically, then, the decision will be left to those in charge––and rarely is that decision the best possible option nor does it benefit everyone.
It forces the members of the group to lose their individuality and voice.
Christen Clemson, author of The Prison Path, describes how schoolyard cliques actually feed into the perpetuation of groupthink later on in life. The construction of boundaries between different groups creates homogeneous cliques––the more dominant personalities of which typically make all of the decisions for everyone in the group.
Clemson argues that although it’s nonsensical to try to demolish cliques in schools––as it is an indisputable part of an adolescent’s social development––it is important to discourage groupthink as soon as possible, because “issues like eating disorders, bullying, racism, and other problems can arise from groupthink mentality in cliques.”
These are serious problems, the effects of which don’t just disappear after you pick up your high school diploma.
Bob Ebeling was an engineer working on the Challenger, and recalls in an interview with NPR how he witnessed the effects of groupthink firsthand in the workplace. He and four other engineers had strongly advocated for calling off the Challenger mission the night before, but were shut down by NASA officials.
The Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff.
The situation is a typical example of groupthink––where the leaders themselves aren’t necessarily “bad people” (NASA, of course, didn’t want to kill the seven astronauts on board), but good people who make bad decisions. And the whole group suffers for it.
But sometimes, there are groupthink cases where the leaders are bad. Arguably one of the most damaging and widely recognized perpetrators of groupthink is cults.
The intentions of different cults vary, but the generic definition for the term refers to a “system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.” According to Dr. Max Wexler, cults are founded by individuals who, “through the use of ordeals, draw a loyal, elite group” of followers.
To a higher degree than your high school Queen Bee or the NASA officials who went through with the Challenger expedition, cult rules utilize intentionally destructive and psychologically manipulative tactics to get their members to do what they want.
According to Dr. Wexler, cultic decision-making is entirely faulty. This level of internalized groupthink is incredibly destructive and problematic. Cults set up an environment that “sheds old behavior guidelines” and creates new expectations and “emerging norms” in order to establish an airtight homogeneous state within the group––eliminating all possibilities for members to feel comfortable even considering that the decisions being made could be wrong.
A central question that surrounds cults is: How do these leaders lure their followers in?
Cults are appealing because they promise ideals and values that, on a surface-level seem positive and infallible. They offer close-knit friendships, opportunities to feel needed and wanted, and––arguably the biggest selling point––an identity.
For those who struggle socially or who feel lost in their lives, it appears to be the perfect solution to all of their psychological needs. We, as humans, are social creatures, and the cultic environment offers a powerful incentive for us to join and immediately feel accepted and welcomed. It’s the inclusivity we all crave.
However all of the positive promises of cultic life are simultaneously manipulated into ways to control members.
This promise of inclusivity demands that you sever ties with your family and friends. This promised identity requires you to unquestioningly follow the beliefs and practices of the chosen leader. The promise to finally feel accepted and needed comes with an ironclad rule about essentially trading in your individualism and personal liberties for the greater good of the community.
It’s what Dr. Wexler calls “enthusiastic conformity.” The members internalize the idea that what happens within the group is all that matters––the outside world and their rules do not apply to them. They idolize their leader for creating a community for them to fit into, and return the favor by never examining or questioning the leader’s beliefs or decisions.
This type of brainwashing preys on people who crave acceptance, which deep down is most of us.
The appeal of cults makes sense, but what convinces people to stay after they’ve joined? Dr. Adrian Furnham explains that “cults deliberately induce powerful emotions like fear, guilt… [and] also pride” as a means for retaining memberships. It’s a further manipulation of our basic emotional and psychological necessities.
The groupthink phenomenon is found in almost all sectors of life. It’s deeply rooted in the basic human desire for acceptance and validation, and is a force that drives all of us. Our natural need for socialization sways us in our decision-making––particularly in our decision to be heavily influenced by others.
Groupthink gives us a false sense of stability. And to combat it, we have to learn to adjust to the idea of just being comfortable with ourselves first.