Group Communication.

11 10 2009

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Being naturally social and interactive creatures, we as humans, are no strangers to the concept of being part of multiple social circles of friends. As time goes by, with frequent interaction amongst each other, we gradually grow accustomed to being interdependent and perhaps may even share a similar behavioural pattern and collective identity. Social groups provide us with differing objectives, for example, whilst colleagues at work may provide support and leverage upon each other’s strengths, friends may provide interpersonal needs such as one’s needs for affirmation and a sense of belonging to a particular group. It is normal to desire and long for the feeling of being accepted into a ‘clique’ of friends, or to boost one’s self confidence through words of affirmation and encouragement, thus it is fundamental for us to form or participate in group interaction.

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However, when people come together, there are bound to be risks and potential problems involved. One may constantly be pressurised to conform towards a common consensus that the majority of the group agrees upon, or be subconsciously influenced in the long run, thereby subtly stamping out individuality altogether. Members may feel constrained and subjected to indirect stress in recognising and practising written & unwritten norms or ‘rules’ governing the particular group. In some extreme cases, what slowly develops over a period of time would be the perpetuation of the herd mentality.

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When this occurs, a condition known as Groupthink may set in.

Basically, according to Irving Janis, groupthink is “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

Janis lists eight specific symptoms of a group undergoing Groupthink:

1. Illusion of Invulnerability– The feeling that “nothing will go wrong” because of overconfidence in their own abilities.

2. Belief in group’s own morality – Experts in the group will believe that their decisions are morally correct.

3. Shared Stereotypes – Similar categorization of issues and of people outside their circle.

4. Collective Rationalisation – Members discount warnings that their thinking may be irrational.

5. Self Censorship – Conformity; member will not give a solution to problem that is directly contradicting the group’s wishes.

6. Illusion of Unanimity – Individuals do not speak up despite privately not consenting to the decision made. Silence will then be perceived as consent.

7. Pressure on dissenters – If any individual speaks out against the will of the majority, all other members will attempt to quell the “dissident”.

8. Mind-guards – The leader of the group will refuse to hear any argument contradicting his own wishes or that of the majority.

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A good example of groups practicing groupthink in reality, would be cults. Cults demonstrate an uncanny ability to suck people in, and twist their beliefs to fit their own, making it a perfect illustration of the groupthink theory.

Heavensgatelogo

Many may be familiar with the cult, Heaven’s Gate, an American cult based in San Diego, California, led by leaders Marshall Applewhite & Bonnie Nettles. On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the cult, whom had apparently committed mass suicide. Coincidentally, the group’s suicide occurred with the appearance of the comet Hale-Bopp.

Heaven’s Gate members believed that the planet Earth was about to be recycled & renewed, and that the only chance to survive was to leave it immediately. The group defined “suicide” in their own context to mean “to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered”, and believed that their “human” bodies were only vessels meant to help them on their journey.

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How a “Higher” Member of the Kingdom of Heaven may appear (according to the cult of Heaven’s Gate)

Leader Marshall Applewhite taped himself speaking of mass suicide and asserted “it was the only way to evacuate this Earth”. The Heaven’s Gate group believed they had no choice but to leave Earth as quickly as possible. After claiming that a spacecraft was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp, Applewhite convinced 38 followers to commit suicide so that their souls could board the supposed craft. Applewhite believed that after their deaths, a UFO would take their souls to another “level of existence above human”, which Applewhite described as being both physical and spiritual.

I am sure most after reading the above bit of information on this cult, would have raised an eyebrow skeptically, or perhaps even stared in disbelief at the  naiivity displayed by these members. So what exactly made these 38 other followers decide to be led like lambs to the slaughter, based on the mere words of a man?

Well, one can apply the concept of groupthink in this case.

1. Illusion of Invulnerability: Most people join cults to become a part of a group, to feel fellowship & affirmation with others. The cult grows as time passes and members believe that no matter what they do, that idea they hold dearly is what keeps them going & believing. Members of Heaven’s Gate killed themselves to join whatever ideas they firmly believed in.

2. Belief in Inherent Morality: The members of a cult believe that whatever they do is right and is simply under their belief system. They possessed the notion that their beliefs were accurate and that whatever their leaders decided upon were absolutely moral and just.

3. Shared Stereotypes: Cult members would refuse to listen to any outsiders with valid opinions. The word of their leaders was law and anyone who said otherwise, was shut out.

4. Collective Rationalisation: Cult members would follow the instructions of their leader and believe that their leaders’ mindsets were always right. Whatever that was perceived as initially incorrect would be swept under a rug. Thus, like in the case of Heaven’s Gate, even though the entire basis and theories of the group sounded irrational or even bordering on being silly, members still went ahead solemnly with a death pact, trusting their leader’s words wholeheartedly.

5.  Self Censorship: Even those who may have an opinion contrary to the leader’s, they do not speak out for fear of being ostracised or cast out. Due to this fear, they do not speak out, furthering groupthink.

6. Illusion of Unanimity: Those who do not entirely agree with the leader, for the same reasons as above, refuse to speak out. This exacerbates the belief of “the leader being always right”.

7. Pressure on dissenters: When anyone eventually does speak out, they are immediately pressured to reconsider. Their ideas and suggestions are not considered and majority of the group will believe in their leader. The opinions of these people would be suppressed by the group.

8. Mind-guards: Ideas from the individual never reach the leader. As soon as an argument brews, these individuals are silenced and the counter opinion never gets considered.

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Thus, we can observe that the  influence of groups in reality can range from being mildly influenced, to becoming extremely entrenched; having the ability to alter and twist values & ideals in an individual. It may be an everyday affair of hanging out with that clique in your school whom you share similar interests/wavelengths with (eg. Co-Curricular Activities), or that of  a more extreme circumstance whereby one is subsequently “brainwashed” and conforms to the point that one does not even realise he/she is doing so, nor the dangers of doing so.

What are your opinions on this? :)

Credits to: http://www.heavensgate.com/

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4 responses

17 10 2009
Ho Q

It is of no doubt that we as human beings have the inherent nature to communicate with one another and to be part of various social circles. The influence of groups, as you have mentioned, should not be underestimated. It holds the capacity for people to share common interests and ideals. However, it also holds the capacity to negatively affect one’s values and ideals if mismanaged. This is evident in the case of say, one being peer pressured to smoke to look ‘cool’ and your example of cults that brainwashed people to commit suicide thinking that they will escape death.

With that, it is to my personal conviction that as much as there are various social circles in which we can identify and relate to, it boils down to the individual applying his rational and matured thinking – to whether he should and want to relate to a particular group to share common interests and ideals. That being said, it is only sensible to steer away from groups that are detrimental to one’s growth and living.

P.S. It’s a truly great insight on the concepts of a groupthink. Very informative and well evaluated. Well done! :)

8 11 2009
Andrew

I was asking myself if human beings can live individually. And I guess the answer is no. It is just not practical and desirable. Just imagine an individual living on the Earth by himself, looking to meet his daily needs. And how sad would it be to have no companionship and emotional support. Now then, I guess it is only natural for human beings to come together and form various groups, to share common interests.

Then again, if one commits to a certain group and does silly stuff like the above mentioned, say gang triads or cults that preach death, then it would be really immature and irrational.

Tsk tsk.

8 11 2009
Aloysius

I believe that the most common symptom of groupthink is having illusions of invulnerability.

It creates this false sense of optimism which leads to increased risk taking. This is the main point of groupthink that gives rise to unsound decisions.
The boosts in self confidence of its members make them assume that the group is a positive influence-r.

8 11 2009
Ted

The power of group pressure is evident, whether for the better or for worse. The interest and purpose of each group varies. Any individual who choose to be in a group ought to practise some form of rational thinking and decision making as to whether he should or should not subscribe to its interests, influences and agendas. Clearly in this case, what form of proof is there that death by such means can allow the cult’s members to escape death? There has been a recent case in Singapore as well, of a teenager jumping off a building, thinking that he would transform into a manga character (death messenger or ‘shinigami’). The other group members, who initially subscribed to the idea, later backed out of it after being freaked out by the incident.

For goodness sake, please exercise some form of responsibility and mature thinking while subscribing to a particular group.

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