May 10, 2019 (The Seduction of Groupthink)

Dear Drama Observers,

With some alterations, here’s something I wrote two years ago that relates very much to the concept of my new book:


When I was half way through graduate school, I had to pick a research topic for my dissertation. I remember this sage-like graduate student putting his hands on my shoulders, looking me in the eye, and saying, “Word to the wise, don’t pick a topic you like. Because when you’re through with your dissertation, you’ll hate the topic.”

That may have been sound advice, but it didn’t actually work out that way for me. To this day, I find my selected topic to be interesting, useful, and perhaps more relevant than ever in today’s cultural climate.

Stick with me as we hack through a somewhat tedious conceptual jungle to the other side where we’ll make some connections with what I’ve been saying about Drama People.

Erik Erikson was a German-born developmental psychologist who spent his career studying the process of human growth and development. All humans, Erikson noted, pass through predictable stages of development between birth and death.

Each of these psychosocial stages is defined by certain developmental tasks which must be successfully accomplished in order to take on the task of the next phase. Failure to do so results in arrested development. In other words, people can grow up chronologically but not developmentally, being left impaired in the abilities needed to effectively meet the demands of life.

The chief task being worked on during adolescence is identity. Who am I? Who am I not? What do I believe? What kind of person do I want to be? What are my strengths and weaknesses? What are my interests? What do I want to do with my life? What kind of people do I want to hang with?

But, how exactly does one acquire an identity? It doesn’t just suddenly appear—it has to develop, grow, and emerge. Numerous researchers have studied this question. My dissertation was based on the answer proposed by James Marcia, a developmental psychologist from British Columbia.

Marcia held that identity develops in four stages: diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, and achievement. During each of these phases, two things either happen or don’t happen: evaluation and commitment. Evaluation means the adolescent is examining ideas, thinking things through, and weighing options. Commitment means the adolescent is saying, “That’s where I land, that’s what I hold to, that’s what I believe.”

*Reminder: I told you this would be tedious. We’ll get there.

In the second phase, foreclosure, adolescents commit to certain ideas, opinions and values without having personally evaluated those ideas for themselves. They’ve simply adopted the ideas of others as their own. Consequently, foreclosure ideas are sometimes referred to “second-hand beliefs.” That is, someone else thought the ideas through and the adolescent adopts them sans evaluation.

The “someone else” from whom these ideas come are authority figures such as parents, teachers, pastors, coaches, scout leaders, neighbors, or relatives. Or, they may be gang leaders. They could be the “cool kids” at school. They could be athletes or celebrities. They could also be virtually anyone to whom the power is granted to determine the ideas to be adopted. The thing to remember about the stance of the foreclosure adolescent is this: Since you believe it, so do I.

In the next phase, moratorium, something very crucial occurs. The ideas which were uncritically adopted in foreclosure are subject to critical evaluation in moratorium. In effect, the moratorium-stage adolescent says, “Why is that true? How do I know that’s true? Who says that’s true? Why should I believe it? The dogmatic commitments of foreclosure are suspended in favor of moratorium evaluation. Ideas aren’t necessarily abandoned but are called into question instead.

The central question of foreclosure is: What?

(Tell me what to believe and I’ll believe it.)

The central question of moratorium is: Why?

(Why is that true?)

In the last phase, achievement, the adolescent now makes commitments to ideas that have been personally evaluated. By successfully navigating the questioning phase of moratorium, the “second-hand beliefs” of foreclosure morph into the “first-hand convictions” of achievement.

What’s held to in achievement may look exactly like what was held to in foreclosure. The difference is that these ideas are now personally owned. The ideas have the adolescent’s finger prints all over them. The fragile notions of foreclosure become the more deeply-held values of achievement. Because achievement ideas aren’t authority-contingent like those of foreclosure, they are more resilient and less susceptible to influence.

The foreclosure adolescent knows what he or she believes. The achievement adolescent knows why he or she believes those things.

Okay, we’ve hacked our way through to the clearing, so let me connect all of this to our larger theme of Drama People.

There are many adults who chronologically arrive in adulthood while being developmentally stuck in foreclosure. They’ve never learned to think for themselves and, consequently, look to others to do their thinking for them. They unwittingly adopt the stance: Since you believe it, so do I. They are now vulnerable to Drama People who will exploit their weakness of critical evaluation.

“Tell me what to think” becomes wedded to “I’ll tell you what to think” and the union gives birth to drama.

Let’s say a woman is married to a my-way-or-the-highway husband. The unspoken drama arrangement is: “My role is to be in charge; your role is to do what I need you to do and be who I need you to be. As long as we both stay inside our roles, we’ll live harmoniously.” An achievement-level wife would likely resist such an arrangement, but the foreclosure-stuck wife might unwittingly play her designated role. Not only does she do what he demands, she thinks what he thinks.

On a collective level, masses can get manipulated into groupthink echo chambers in which they stop thinking for themselves. This gives Machiavellian leaders the power to do their thinking for them.

In previous letters, I’ve quoted Werner Pusch, a member of the German government during the time of Hitler’s rise to power. He was interviewed on the award-winning series, “World at War.” In his verbatim description of hearing Hitler speak at an early Nazi rally, he states,

For the first few minutes, he wasn’t a good speaker; he was just warming up and finding the words. But then, he turned out to be a terribly good speaker. And the whole atmosphere grew more and more hysterical. He was interrupted after nearly every phrase by big applause and women began screaming. It was like a mass religious ceremony.

As I listened to his speech, I felt the more and more excited atmosphere in the hall. For some seconds, again and again, I had a feeling of what a pity I can’t share that belief of all those thousands of people—that I am alone and contrary to all that. It was funny, I felt that he was talking all the nonsense that I know, the nonsense he always talked.

But still, I feel that it must be wonderful to just jump into that bubbling pot and be a member of all those who are believers.

There have always been—and will always be—leaders who are empowered to manipulate when immature others forfeit their right to think independently. They acquire power, not through the persuasion of ideas, but through the exploitation of uncritical thinking.

When people can’t think for themselves, they’re easy prey for drama predators. That’s why it’s so important for grown-ups to finish growing up.

Till next week.

8 replies
  1. Kristin C
    Kristin C says:

    Excellent/enlightening food for thought. It reminds me of some reading I have been doing on second-handers (Ayn Rand). Thank you for writing, Dr. Godwin!

  2. Heidi Naumowicz
    Heidi Naumowicz says:

    Alan- I’ve been a fan since I attended a People Problems seminar a few years back. I chose it because it was nearby and I needed CEUs. Additionally, I didn’t have high expectations as I’ve led presentations on dealing with difficult people for years. But the way you explain it very much complimented what I’ve been saying and I realized you provided tools that I could now share with my clients. I realized after sitting through your seminar that most of my clients have difficult people in their life. People often think that the people that end up in counseling are the difficult ones… wrong its the people who have to deal with them. So, I purchased your book, read it (rare for me) and use it as bibliotherapy with clients (its checked out right now in fact). I did identity research in college using Marcia’s model, so it was a particular delight to read your blog this week. I can’t wait to read the new book! Many thanks.

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Thanks, Heidi. I rarely hear of someone familiar with Marcia so that’s good to hear. Glad my material has been helpful to your clients.

  3. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    This has been one of my favorite readings. Well executed. It’s interesting on many levels. Parents may expect to be respected and have obedient children who cannot think for themselves. Workers can be easily exploited by employers. Societies can elect oppressive leaders.

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      That’s a great question that I can’t give a great answer to here in such a short space. We’ve all heard of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) but I just heard the term, Post Traumatic Growth. People can and do grow from these experiences but it just about always takes time and people. Time in that it doesn’t happen overnight and people in the sense that old patterns get corrected in new relationships. Healthy relationships in the present can bring repair to what’s been damaged in the past. It often takes the help of a counselor and/or people who’ve been through similar circumstances. I hope that helps just a little.

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