The Weakness of Groups

People value groups – we are a social species, after all, and our emotions steer us towards a sense of belonging. Consequently, we have a negative attitude towards discord as something that can split a group apart. There is a great risk in this view of the world, which places group position above honesty or reason, and that is the creation of groupthink, and the stifling of constructive debate.

If you spend any time browsing Internet forums, you will surely notice the division into ideological pockets, separated by sets of beliefs. All groups will have their adherents, all will be just as convinced of their own correctness. Any sort of difference will not be argued out based on merits, but rather fought out based on assumptions, snark and falsifications. This type of behaviour tends to intensify the more politicized an issue becomes.

Out-group demonization inevitably stifles any sort of discussion, which – paradoxically – makes Internet the opposite of the ideal of a Forum. Debate if not impossible, is at least maximally unpleasant. The reason for this is the perverse psychological attitudes people have towards their positions on issues, and the emotions attached to their beliefs. It is not the actual change of minds and mutual education that people look for in such communities – it is the sense of validation.

The end result of this is a sort of intellectual rot. With the constant supply of information that serves to confirm a group’s view, the members have a tendency to drift away from reality. The only reason some groups seem more cultish than others is because they are more verbal and forceful in keeping their members in check. What is interesting is that people assume the roles of ideological police (the “mindguards” in groupthink terms) on their own, without any promise of gain from group leaders, if any, and solely for the sake of group unity.

When one reads about groupthink, its shortcoming appear obvious, and it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to join in. Nonconformity is almost a slogan of the modern times. But the whole problem lies in the fact that the process works on emotions, and so joining a group is not entirely a rational choice. Whenever people from two political camps throw invectives at each other and recite the others’ faults, what is really happening is two tribes are exchanging signals of animosity. Whenever you decide that a particular response is very witty, and that, therefore, you should side with whichever group has produced it, you are on your way to becoming a part of the tribe yourself.

This is not to say that groups are bad by nature – they’re not. It is the basis of society that we get together. However, this does not diminish the importance of disagreement. The creative and analytical power of an individual is a terrible thing to waste for the sake of acceptance. Any group that values allegiance more than honesty, and agreement over discussion is a group in which errors will accumulate. The greatest problem is realizing the existence of such a group and refusing to participate, especially when emotions pull you towards it. If you value your own thoughts, it is an issue you will have to face.

Further reading on the negative influence of groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth.

2 thoughts on “The Weakness of Groups

  1. Disagreement brings bad blood. I think a group which values discussion would not necessarily value the separation of the discussion.


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