Mental Mechanisms of Groupthink Maintenance

How do we avoid seeing things that our kin or ethnic group does not believe in?

Posted Jul 28, 2020

 Luftwaffe Parade by Cassowary Colorizations/Flickr, CC by 2.0.
Source: Luftwaffe Parade by Cassowary Colorizations/Flickr, CC by 2.0.

One of the defining characteristics of groupthink is willful blindness. People often know things but choose to pretend otherwise in order to fit in with social groups. They lie to everyone including themselves. They refuse to “see” any information that might call into question beliefs that help them to conform to the needs of the groups to which they belong. The paradox here: when you are motivated to avoid looking at something, you have to know where not to look! In other words, you had to have seen it.

The reason that we do this has to do with natural selection during evolution. Conforming to the values and requirements of our kin group or tribe has high adaptive value. Genes that contribute to the survival of our clan, as opposed to those that only benefit individuals, are highly likely to be passed on. This process is called kin selection.

While sacrificing oneself for a group—such as dying for one’s country in a war—is not beneficial for individual survival, it does contribute to group survival. Nonetheless, it can sometimes backfire and actually harm a group’s interests as well as the involved individual in the long run (pathological altruism).

Mental mechanisms have evolved to help us lie to ourselves for these purposes. We also tend to assist our fellow group members in using these tricks on themselves. Groups as a whole also have several mechanisms for keeping certain information censored.

They appear at the level of the individual, where they include the defense mechanisms described by psychoanalysts, and the irrational beliefs enumerated by cognitive psychotherapists. They appear at the level of the family or kin group, where they are called family myths, and at the level of cultural groups, where they are called mythology.

Defense mechanisms were originally defined as subconscious mental processes employed by individuals to avoid ideas or impulses that are unacceptable to their own personal value system, thus avoiding anxiety. However, these mechanisms do not just serve an internal purpose within us, but an interpersonal one as well. We may, for example, compulsively act in the opposite way that an impulse that is unacceptable to our group would dictate (reaction formation). 

Irrational Beliefs are often automatic; they come to us without any conscious effort in response to the environmental, and quickly lead to specific behaviors. They are often subliminal, which is a similar concept to subconscious. If you, for example, catastrophize (imagining every single thing that could possibly go wrong if you did something, no matter how unlikely) about your engaging in a course of action not condoned by your group, you scare yourself away from doing it. Group norms are often internally policed by unquestioned thoughts that start with “I should or must” do or think this or that.

Logical fallacies can also be used to either explain away or justify ideas that might contradict group beliefs. For instance, post hoc reasoning assumes wrongly that if event A is quickly followed by event B, then it is probably true that A caused B. Therefore, you opt to avoid A in order to avoid B. An example: "Looking at pornography will lead to sex addiction." This is fallacious because the pairing is often due to another variable common to both A and B, such as an internal conflict over one's sexuality—or because the pairing is just a coincidence.

Group Mythology. Groups with a common purpose also have mechanisms that for enforcing conformity of thought within their numbers. Members employ strategies to invalidate any competing ideas with which they might be challenged. Once again, group cohesion has advantages; it often maximizes the group’s chances of success, but these mechanisms can also backfire and lead to failure.

Family therapists have studied groupthink phenomena within families; similar ones are used by other groups as well. A family often acts as if they all share a set of beliefs, and they all seem to live by them compulsively. Some of these beliefs are applied only to certain individuals; others apply to the whole group (family myths). They justify a set of rules which dictate how each family member should behave and why, and what family roles each must fully and habitually play. This allows the family to function in a predictable way (family homeostasis).  

The myths are used, often defensively, to explain or justify group behavior and beliefs. They are sometimes verbalized explicitly, but can be expressed implicitly. Sometimes they take the form of adages or slogans. In one family that strongly believed in fatalism—the idea that people are powerless to change their world so one should make the best of that which already exists-—everyone spouted three different proverbs to reinforced this belief. This functioned as a warning about what happens to anyone who tries to take charge of their lives: "The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill;" "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know;" and "You've made your bed so now you have to lie in it." 

Individuals can, when necessary, use two other related mechanisms to obfuscate their own real beliefs to themselves or others. These are done so that if their beliefs are rejected, the persons can deny they had meant what they had in fact said. These tactics are called disqualification and invalidation. I discussed them in a previous post.

This post is a summary of my chapter in the new book, Groupthink in Science.