August 19, 2022

Dear Drama Observers,

If you’ve not noticed, my Drama Reviews are few and far between these days since I’m channeling my energies into a new writing project which is coming along, by the way.

In the letter below, which was posted a few years back, I made this statement, “Crowd power is a big topic and I’ll have lots more to say about it at some later time.” Now is that later time.

In the meantime, here’s that previous letter:

***

There are some sports that would take me several years to notice if they ceased to exist. Like Olympic curling, for instance. Or underwater hockey—yes, there actually is such a thing. But, not so with college football. I love almost everything about it—from ESPN’s College Gameday to ragging on certain commentators (who shall remain nameless) that everyone loves to hate.

I like it when my team wins, but what makes college football so captivating is what happens inside the stadium—the pageantry, the music, and the crowd involvement. The “Twelfth Man” is a term often used to refer to the influence of screaming fans on crucial plays. There’s power in a crowd.

Crowd power can be used for good or evil. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in which 250,000 attendees heard Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was a good thing and had positive effects. The Nuremberg rallies—one of which drew close to 700,000 Nazi supporters—where Hitler spewed malicious propaganda served only evil purposes.

Crowd power is a big topic and I’ll have lots more to say about it at some later time. But, let me give you a few quick takes on how the stew of groupthink is often concocted by stirring together the right mixture of demagogues and crowds. Merriam-Webster defines groupthink this way:

A pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, 

forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.”

We’ll briefly look at three causes of groupthink and three reasons to be cautious of it.

Three Causes:

The first cause of groupthink is reductionism. Our brains are naturally inclined to reduce complexity down to simplicity so we can handle things that are otherwise too complicated to grasp. Aware of that tendency, demagogues (or Drama People, if you prefer) exploit it and offer quick, simple answers to complicated questions. It’s often the case that the fewer the words, the greater the crowd-swaying potential. A tweet, for example, will likely be more efficacious than a policy paper.

The second cause of groupthink is fear. We live in a dangerous world and our trepidations about those hazards are well-founded. The word paranoia suggests an overwrought fear of something going wrong, but it’s usually based on what those in my field call a “grain of truth.” Demagogues exploit those grains of truth—the legitimate, albeit unlikely possibilities—and propagate the notion that situations could turn out just as bad as people fear. And like a hair dryer blowing on a charcoal fire, they fan the unruly flames of fear until they become bigger and hotter.

The third cause of groupthink is the coalitional instinct. By nature, we’re drawn to congregate with like-minded others for protective purposes. We understand that those who seek to hurt us are less likely to attack a crowd than an individual, so we band together. Well-aware of that tendency, demagogues portray the “others” as posing an existential threat and set up all-or-none, zero-sum scenarios in which one side wins and the other loses. To give any consideration whatsoever to opposing ideas is to align oneself with the “evil other side,” or so the thinking goes. Such is the nature of today’s tribal politics.

Three Cautions

The first caution we should have about groupthink is impaired decision-making. Those inside a groupthink echo chamber tend to reach conclusions reflecting, not the best thinking of the individuals present, but those derived from collective group opinions. For example, it’s well known that the groupthink phenomenon contributed to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961. When crucial decisions had to be made the next year by President Kennedy and his advisors during the Cuban missile crisis, steps were put in place to avoid the pernicious influence of groupthink. Groupthink smears Vaseline on the lens of life creating distortions of reality and decreasing the much-needed clarity for decision making.

The second caution about groupthink is the loss of individuality. In graduate school, I studied the dysfunctional family which can be illustrated by one of those hanging mobiles that has several spokes with ornaments hooked on the ends. The balance is maintained as long as each ornament stays in its place, and if an ornament is removed, the mobile tilts. In a dysfunctional family, the “tilt” is resisted by forcing all members to stay in their place. Individual identities take a back seat to the collective family identity. That’s the influence of groupthink.

The third caution to be maintained about groupthink is the sacrificing of principles. Though listed last, I would consider this to be the biggest caution. Groupthink causes people to modify their individual morals to match the collective morality of the group. There are countless historical examples of otherwise decent individuals becoming entirely different people once swept up in the passions of a mob.

Like I said, groupthink is a big topic and it wasn’t easy condensing my thoughts into this short letter. I think I may have pulled something in my brain. Now, the only way I’ll be able to get any relief is to think about Bengay for a while.

***

Till next time.

4 replies
  1. withheld
    withheld says:

    Dear Mr. Godwin,
    I wrote to you several years ago about how your book helped us deal with two difficult family members. This couple (brother-in-law and sister-in-law) became the primary caretakers of my mother-in-law and caused a great amount of drama and conflict due to their unreasonable natures.
    We were able to follow your advice for 2 1/2 years until my mother-in-law’s passing this month.
    While we are still having to be engaged with them while closing her affairs (the two brothers are co-executors), it is with great appreciation to you that we feel that we were able to navigate difficult waters with them. Following your advice, we managed to withdraw ourselves from the drama and keep conflicts to a minimum. The book gave us the paradigm with which to view the situation and their motives, actions and attitudes. Thank you again for your excellent advice.

    Reply
    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Thank you so much for taking the time to write and share your experience. I’m thrilled to hear that the information was helpful to you in your situation. That’s why I wrote the book and love hearing stories such as yours. Take care.

      Reply
  2. marshall wilkins
    marshall wilkins says:

    As always, I appreciate your writing and relevance to having a broader and more expansive observation of our society and the world; psychological impact of processes which erode, compromise, and degrade healthy psychological functioning, and processes to not only understand those processes, but processes to counter unhealthy outcomes which prevent individuals from moving in healthier and more adaptive directions and therefore, futures. I recently received an E-mail from a family member which I found wonderfully fit this most recent writing. The E-mail was sent with the title, “The Right View of the United States” with a picture of a Stetson wearing Uncle Sam somberly pointing his finger stating, “Instead of focusing on a man who has left the Whitehouse, How about focusing on the one who’s in it. He’s the one wrecking America”. To your second cause of “Groupthink”, I would also add grievance as a factor and component of “fear”. Victimization, betrayal, and dismissal seem to me central to our society. I was particularly aware of this in the past 2 weeks after clear accomplishments of the Biden administration being overshadowed by media publishing article after article and social media negative postings on the actions and condemnations of the FBI and the all too familiar persecutory response, “…this is just another witch hunt”. Who would of ever thought that the FBI would be called a “Woke” organization and Donald Trump would be allowed to continue to be the “Messiah” for so many

    As I recall, you reside in Nashville and hope that you along with Margaret Renkl may bring a stronger voice for sanity in Tenn. I read a recent piece from Margaret Renkl which she implored persons open to a progressive and kinder society to consider moving to Tenn. Again, thank you for your writing and I have shared your postings with friends in Sacramento and Rosevile area, all of whom give me a thumbs up.

    Reply
    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Hi Marshall. I appreciate your kind words and I agree with the points you made. Grievance, fear, and victimization (or the perception of being victimized) play far too large a part in our current political environment. I’m glad this has been helpful to you.

      Reply

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