October 11, 2019

Dear Drama Observers,

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 collegiate football. I love almost everything about it—from ESPN’s College Gameday to ragging on certain commentators (whom 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 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Or by watching some college football.

Till next week.

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