Steve G.

Groupthink as a Political Mental Illness (Part II)

In Congress, Corruption, Democracy, Democrats, Health, Libertarian, Libertarian Politics, Local Politics, Military, Minorities, Personal Responsibility, Politics, Republican, Science, US Government on June 30, 2009 at 1:56 pm

From the studied literature on groupthink, there are a few points which merit mention here.  Smith and White say that:

Fantasies about invulnerability, and about the persecutory intent of external enemies and collective rationalizations of group actions could be understood as a system to help allay the unconscious anxieties of the group-as-a-whole.

A phenomenological approach to what Janis describes as groupthink indicates that a group overwhelmed by internal conflict may gain a great deal of relief if it can locate or create [emphasis added] a strong external enemy (Coser, 1986).  Internal dissension can be seen as trivial in contrast, thereby enabling the displacement of within-group tensions into the relations among groups (Smith, 1982b). In this regard, such internal properties of the group as illusions of unanimity and invulnerability, which may be views as pathological from one perspective, may in fact serve a valuable social function by providing a particular cognitive set to enable a group to “create” an enemy.

(Smith & White, 1983, p. 71)

Anne Gero tells us that:

In a consensus [emphasis in original] decision process, subjects expect [emphasis added] more cooperation and friendliness and less disagreement that they would anticipate in [a] majority decision process.

(Gero, 1985, p. 487)

And that:

I would again emphasize the importance of disagreement to the outcome of group decisions… members may approach a consensus process with anti-disagreement norms.  Preventative or remedial measures should be taken to encourage members to disagree in the consensual process.  If disagreement is suppressed, the conditions of groupthink may develop and threaten the quality of the group’s decisions.

(Ibid., p. 498)

Finally, Callaway, Marriott & Esser mention that:

Highly cohesive groups provide support to their members that reduces conflict and disagreement and hence the stress inherent in decision-making.  However, this stress reduction is achieved at the price of suppressing critical inquiry.

(Callaway, Marriott & Esser, 1987, p. 949)

And that:

In groups of low-dominance individuals, perhaps the assignment of the roles of critical evaluator and devil’s advocate) prescribed by Janis, 1972, to counteract groupthink) must involve personal responsibility in order to overcome the natural reticence of such individuals.

(Ibid., p. 952)

There is one other study which should be mentioned here, although, by title, it does not actually deal with the groupthink phenomenon, and that is a paper by Thomas J. Scheff called “Shame and Conformity: The Deference-Emotion System”.  In the introduction to his paper, Scheff informs us that:

… exterior constraint has become a basic premise for modern sociologists.  Yet, an adequate model has never been conceptualized, much less proposed in an operationally definable way.  Conformity poses a central problem for social science not only in its normal, but also in its pathological form.  What gives rise to excessive and rigid conformity?  This is the question posed by many modern analyses of bureaucracy and authoritarian forms of social organizations.

There is wide consensus that conformity is encouraged by a system of sanctions: we usually conform because we expect to be rewarded when we do and punished when we do not.  However, conformity usually occurs even in the absence of obvious sanctions.  Durkheim’s formulation [the idea that the force of social influence is experienced by individuals as exterior and constraining [emphasis in original] (Durkheim [1987] 1951)] refers to the ubiquity of conformity.  The reward of public acclaim and the punishment of public disgrace rarely occur, yet the social system marches on.  Formal sanctions are slow, unwieldy, and expensive.  In addition to the formal system, there must be a complex and highly effective system of informal sanctions that encourage conformity’

A clue to this puzzle can be found in Goffman’s treatment of interaction ritual (Goffman, 1967).  He notes that the emotion of embarrassment or anticipation of embarrassment plays a prominent role in every social encounter [emphasis in original.  In presenting ourselves to others, we risk rejection.  The form the rejection takes may be flagrant, but it is more frequently quite subtle, perhaps only a missed beat in the rhythm of conversation.  Depending on its intensity and obviousness, rejection leads inevitably to the painful emotions of embarrassment, shame, or humiliation… when we are accepted, as we present ourselves, we usually feel rewarded by… pride…

(Scheff, 1988, pp. 395 – 396)

Scheff also says that he feels that we should be aware of Helen Lewis’s theory of shame since it is a direct opposite of Goffman’s.  Whereas Goffman viewed shame as an external influencing factor, Lewis dealt only with the internal process of shame.  Scheff used an analogy to a metaphor about a contagion between people and pointed to what Lewis called a “feeling trap”, or an inner contagion.  In Goffman’s analysis, one becomes ashamed that the other one is being shamed, w, who, in turn becomes shamed, which increases the first person’s shame, and so on – an inter-personal feeling trap.  In Lewis’s analysis, one becomes ashamed that the one is ashamed, an inner loop which feeds on itself – an intra-personal feeling trap.  However, unlike Goffman, Lewis does not separate her analysis of shame from her analysis of anger.  Instead, she postulates, an affinity between the two emotions, with shame usually being followed by anger.

Scheff explains to us that the reason he has introduced us to these two different concepts of shames and its relationship to anger is the he believes that if we combine Goffman’s ‘social’ analysis with Lewis’ ‘psychological’ one, it is possible to convey the extraordinary of what he calls “the deference-emotion system”.  He believes that this system occurs both between and within interactants, and that it functions so efficiently and invisibly it guarantees the alignment of individuals with mutual conformity and respect leading to pride and fellow feeling, which, in turn, leads to further conformity, which then leads to further positive feeling in a system which seems virtually automatic. (Ibid., pp. 396 – 397)

Scheff next delves into the biological and social sources of shames, with a great deal of emphasis on the work of Charles H. Cooley.  Some of what Cooley goes into is almost frightening in its implications of how deeply Man, himself, and society, as a whole, is built upon a foundation of shame of and a need for pride.  He includes the following to illustrate the power of what he calls “social fear”:

Social fear, of a sort perhaps somewhat more morbid, is vividly depicted by Rousseau in the passage of his Confessions where he describes the feelings that lead him to falsely accuse a maid-servant of a theft which he himself had committed. ‘When she appeared my heart was agonized but the presence of so many people was more powerful than my compunction.  I did not fear punishment, but I dreaded shame: I dreaded it more than death, more than the crime, more than the world.  I would have buried myself in the center of the earth: invincible shame bore down every other sentiment: shame alone caused all of my impudence, and in proportion, as I became the criminal, the fear of discovery rendered me intrepid.  I felt no dread but that of being detected, and of being publically and to my face declared a thief, liar and calumniator.

(Ibid., pp 399 – 400 [emphases added by Scheff])

Scheff uses this episode to make a point he wants us to understand before telling us that:

In modern societies, adults seem to be uncomfortable manifesting either pride or shame.  The emotions of pride and shame often seem themselves to arouse shame [emphasis in original].

(Ibid., p. 400)

Scheff also emphasizes the 1956 conformity studies of Solomon Asch, who testes the hypothesis that;

“Given the kind of task demanded, a majority of the subjects will find group standards compelling, even though they are exterior and contradictory to their own individual standards.

(Ibid., p. 403)

Asch’s conformity studies give a considerable insight into the outer workings of conformity and found that only one-quarter of the test subjects remained completely individual throughout their involvement in the study.

Even though Asch did not design his tests to examine the effects of emotions upon his subjects (he was focused on the ‘what will happen’ of the tests rather than on the ‘why it happens’) and, while he did not ask his subjects about their emotions, he found that many of the responses to his post-study interviews suggested that emotions played an important, if not critical part in how his subjects reacted to situations during the study.  Among the subjects who had yielded to the majority views at least once, he found that many of them found the experience of being in the minority extremely painful.  They felt a negative view of themselves from the point of view of the others.  They were dominated by their exclusion from the group, which they took as a reflection of themselves, and were unable to face a conflict which threatened, in some undefined way, to expose a deficiency in themselves.  Asch also found that the responses of the yielding subjects suggested a denial of conflict, and of the feelings resulting from that denial.  Some of the responses were of complete denial, some were slight, and some were evasive about it.  Some of those subjects also granted to the majority the power to see things correctly, which they came to believe they could not do, and had allowed themselves to become confused so that at the critical point in the study, they adopted the majority judgments without permitting themselves to know of their activity or shift [emphasis added]. (Ibid., pp. 403 – 404)

As for the subjects who had remained completely independent throughout the course of the studies, Asch found that they, too, felt that they were suffering from a defect, as well as their also being troubled by disagreeing with the majority.  They, like the yielding subjects, had felt deep internal conflict and overt shame; however, they persevered through those feelings of conflict and shame and responded according to their own personal perceptions, despite their strong emotional reactions and feelings of personal discomfort. (Ibid., p. 493) What’s more, during their post-study interviews, the independent subjects were apt to be open, frank and forthright about the feelings and doubts which they had experiences over the course of the studies.  One of Asch’s own summaries of these interview responses included the following passage:

“… independence requires the capacity to accept the fact of opposition without a lowered sense of personal worth.  The independent person has to organize his overt actions on the basis of experience for which he finds no support; this he can do only if he respects his experiences and is capable of claiming respect for them.  The compliant person cannot face this ordeal because he equates social opposition into a reflection of his personal worth.  Because he does so, the social conflict plunges him into pervasive and incapacitating doubt.

(Ibid., p. 404)

To bring Asch’s work into its place within his own theory about the role of shame in conforming behaviors, Scheff says that:

The subjects who remained independent, although they experiences shame, had sufficiently high self-esteem to act on their judgments despite [emphasis added] their feelings of shame.  Thos who yielded had low self-esteem and sought to avoid further feelings of shame by acting contrary to their own judgment.

(Ibid., pp. 404 – 405)

Since the yielding subjects had found it easier to deny and go against their own internal judgments that to go against the contrary judgments of the group, it would also seem logical to draw a conclusion that those subjects who had remained completely independent could later face up and admit to their previous feelings of shame and doubt because those feelings had not overwhelmed and conquered them and, thus, they had no further reason to hide from the or from openly admitting to them, while the yielding subjects later had difficulty owning up to their previous feelings of shame and doubt which caused them to conform to the judgments of the group because those feelings had overwhelmed and conquered them and for them to openly admit to having had those feelings would cause them to lose to those feelings all over again.

As a final note, which he makes on his own reactions to Asch’s findings, Scheff tells us that he found one particular remark, which had been made by one of the yielding subjects, to be “troublesome” and “baffling”.  That remark was about how the subject said that he had voted for Dewey in the 1948 Presidential election, even though he preferred Truman, because he thought that Dewey would win and was, thus, preferred by most Americans.  Scheff sums up his own personal reaction to this remark by saying that:

Apparently unacknowledged shame is not only invisible, but insidious.

(Ibid., p. 405)

Scheff closes his paper by postulating that:

If the deference-emotion system is universal, the theory would provide a unitary explanation of conforming behavior, the central problem of social science.

(Ibid., p. 405)

If Scheff’s theory were to be applied towards some of the on-going groupthink research, it could possibly help work out some of the variables which the various researchers have, as yet, been unable to confront or utilize.  It could be especially helpful in such studies conducted within the field of political science because the emotional needs and inherent fears and insecurities of people about their government seem to make them particularly susceptible to groupthink tendencies.

An awareness of what groupthink is, by political scientist, political analysts and commentators, and by ethical political leaders might help them to, if not prevent, then to make the public aware of occurrences of groupthink within political parties and ideologies, as well as in our various branches and levels of government.  Those who actively work to prevent or publicize groupthink and groupthink tendencies within their spheres of influence, interest or study might also find our political world becoming more responsive to the average citizens, as a result.  Those in all fields relating to politics need to make themselves more aware of the potential negative aspects of group dynamics within our political systems for; only by being objective and honest about our political systems and being open to criticism of their negative aspects can they effectively prepare for and combat those aspects.  Conducting groupthink research specifically within the political sciences field might provide the edge we so desperately need to keep our government vibrant and effective and, thus, able to properly serve our citizens better in the future than it has in the past.

Rhys M. Blavier

Romayor, Texas

Truth, Justice and Honor… but, above all, Honor

© Copyright 1989 by Rhys M.  Blavier

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Thank you for reading this article.  Please read my other articles and let me know what you think.  I am writing them not to preach or to hear myself think but to try to create dialogs, debates and discussions on the nature of our government and how we can build upon and improve it based on what we have seen and learned over the course of the 225 years of The American Experiment.

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