You Probably Subscribe to Groupthink, Even if You Disavow It

Barry Carter

Tommy Pratt, Staff Writer

Throughout evolutionary history, being in a group has always been a huge survival advantage. Groups offer mutual protection and the promise of sharing resources. They foster the development of new ideas, and they create communities. It could be said with accuracy that each formed society has been created by another, but groups are also known for doing nearly everything together once they have established themselves as a group. Humans are naturally driven to congregate in groups and form loyalties to people with specific characteristics that are similar to their own. This is why we value friendship and enjoy being accepted—the evolutionary value of groups is such that we reward ourselves with happiness-inducing chemicals when we forge or strengthen a friendship with a person whom we find desirable. When we are betrayed by that person whose character we had assumed to be pleasant and beneficial, we are often shocked; when we leave or are outcast by a vital group, we feel directionless and stranded. Of course, not all groups are vital for all their members. Some members can exceed the standards of the group or fall short of them, and the necessary reciprocity between the group and the member can be lost.

Consider a triple-A minor league baseball team. Perhaps the team’s shortstop is good enough to be playing in the major leagues. This player is well aware that he is the best player on his team simply by looking at his statistics, and the team almost never loses when he plays well. Eventually, this player will desire to advance into the major leagues in hopes of better competition and rewards—that is, to be among people who are more like him. He no longer needs the team, despite the team still needing him, and when he leaves the team, it will leave a large gap in the roster. The member is good for the group, but the group is not good for the member. Conversely, the team’s third baseman, who is by every measure the worst player on the team, is in the situation that the group is good for him, but he is not good for the group. He will inevitably be moved down to double-A for the greater good of the group. Thus, a quality of every functional group is that the group is not significantly less or more useful to its members than the individual members are to the rest of the group. This is what causes groups to be homogeneous in aspects that are important to the goals of the group, thus creating a group standard. If the group’s goal is to win minor league baseball games, all of the members of the group must be roughly equally skilled at baseball, and they must be up to the high-skill standard of the group. If the group’s goal is to cure cancer, all members must be equally (and highly) knowledgeable about cancer. If the group’s goal is to fund other groups that they believe will cure cancer, all members must be able to provide funds (and, in some cases, to provide enough funds). An intimate and close group of friends requires closer adherence to the standards than an online community of Star Wars fans, but all groups must require that its members adhere to its standards, or else the group risks losing its crucial reciprocity.

Desirability is a necessary characteristic of all members of a group, and the right kind of desirability will usually indicate that a prospective group member or friend can adhere to the group standard. People are very slow to form friendships with people who have undesirable traits, whatever your idea of undesirable traits may be—-selfish, Canadian, Baptist, white, or Liberal. Of course, it is much more controversial to find the latter four characteristics undesirable than it is the first, for three reasons. First, there is no group of united selfish people with the goal of being selfish to decry you if you say “I hate selfish people” as there is if you say “I hate Canadian people” or “I hate white people.” Second, selfishness is something that a person can change about themselves and will likely try to because being selfish carries with it an implicit negative bias from almost everybody you meet. It’s a matter of behavior, not heritage or belief, so many selfish people will eventually recognize the cause of this negative bias against them and attempt to fix their behavior. Third, there is a clear reason besides “this type of person is different from me” that should cause you to dislike or avoid selfish people: they will not work for the good of your group. They will only work for themselves. Thus, group members who are selfish, disloyal, malicious, or hateful ruin the reciprocity of the group, and they will thus be quickly exiled when they are identified as the problem. Every one of these characteristics of groups will sound familiar to most people who have lived normal social lives.

When one group begins to encroach on the resources or livelihood of another group (or one member of a group on those of another member of another group), the attacked group attempts to defend themselves, and the attacking group helps to continue the attack. This sequence of events was no doubt the cause of all tribal skirmishes before civilization and of many hundred-man Reddit flamewars thereafter.

When both sides of a fight are suffering but neither is willing to concede, an invasion becomes a war. Wars can be sustained over any period of time and with any level of weaponry use, including without any at all.

There has been one such war in America recently. The once-functional group that is the American government no longer holds a group standard in the center with politicians distributed heavily in the middle and sparsely at the far ends. We have split so evenly into two groups: Liberals and Conservatives. There is no center anymore; the government is now not one group with one standard but two groups with two standards, constantly at war with and encroaching on each other because their reciprocity as one government has been ruined. Neither group will be defeated because the groups are of such equal strength, and established members of the two groups will never be likely to concede. This conflict cannot be solved without compromise, but both sides will complain that they’ve tried to compromise and nothing has happened.

Many left-leaning people like me have tried to celebrate diversity in all its forms, but that value has never stopped me from uniting against other Americans for whom celebrating diversity is not a priority. From the perspective of a Liberal, it can often seem as though I have the interests of the world in mind, and my political opponents care only about themselves. After all, one of my party’s stated causes is the advancement of rights for all people. But, I fail to remember that Conservatism has as many subscribers as Liberalism, and I often generalize the problems I see with Conservatives into base stereotypes, like “Conservatives are united for the removal of rights from many people whose rights I would like to see advanced.” This sounds ridiculous—almost nobody believes in the random removal of rights. I fail to consider the reasons that a Conservative would make or support a decision I find runs counter to my beliefs. And although we Liberals would perhaps not need to be so violently united against Conservatives if they did not stand in our way, they would say the exact same thing about us. We are two groups with different priorities and opposite standards attempting to run the same country; if you hate Conservative groupthink, you engage in just as much Liberal groupthink. None of this is wrong; in fact, it’s natural. But our divided country will nonetheless trot forward in war until some unforeseeable ultimatum occurs and sweeps us all into togetherness. Right now, every group needs its enemy.