Is scepticism a valued attribute of thinking in today's society? Are sceptics valued or reviled? It's certainly valuable to have healthy dose of scepticism, but maybe those social groups to which we belong would prefer if we'd get in line and be quiet. Maybe we ostracise ourselves and bring on unwanted attention when we question authority. Maybe it's best to adopt our role in society and accept things as they are. Or is it our responsibility to be a dissenting voice? In today's article, we will examine the phenomenon of groupthink and the social imperative of scepticism. Although being a sceptic might bring us criticism and isolation from our peers, given the alternative, perhaps we have little choice if we are to survive the challenges we now face.
No Scepticism Allowed
Scepticism is a dirty word for many people. To be sceptical sets you outside the fold, apart from the safety of the group. If you exercise a sceptical mind, you are a troublemaker, a disruptive force. And so more often than not, the force of groupthink and the desire for social acceptance, encourages us to keep our opinions to ourselves. Groupthink exists on both sides of an apparent dilemma, each side equally vehement in their views and immune to the benefits of critical thinking.
Consider the Covid-19 mask-wearing debate that rages on and offline. Both sides are single minded, tightly knit, cohesive, certain that they are right, and opposed to the views of the opposition. Neither side, it seems, will entertain any scepticism or information that may refute their views.
Irving L. Janis coined the term Groupthink in his study Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (1972) 1. His research examined the psychological phenomenon where people adopt the consensus of a group often without question, and although the term referred to small tightly knit groups, the concept can also extend to large disperse groups.
Janis defined groupthink as “a mode of thinking in which the desire to reach unanimous agreement overrides the motivation to adopt proper rational decision-making procedures”. Where we see instances of groupthink, people willingly set aside personal beliefs and adopt the opinion of the group. It can play out in a company boardroom, a team locker-room, or in dispersed groups of like-minded people online.
What Leads To Groupthink?
Hogg & Vaughan (2018) 2 report that excessive group cohesiveness appears to be a significant source of groupthink. Studies have identified the following contributing factors;
- Excessive group cohesiveness
- Exclusion of external opinion and influence
- Lack of impartial leadership
- Ideological congruency
- High perceived stress from external threat
Symptoms of Groupthink
How do you know if your group, no matter how large or small, is under the influence of groupthink? Research has identified the following symptoms of groupthink;
- Feeling of invulnerability and absolute consensus
- Unquestioning belief
- Ignoring or discrediting valid information
- Often extreme pressure put on sceptics and dissidents
- Stereotyping out-group members
Decisions of tightly knit cohesive groups are often unfavourable. And in high risk scenarios, outcomes can be disastrous, as the 1961 Bay of Pigs and the 1941 defence of Pearl Harbour have shown (Janis, 1972).
Lack of Scepticism & Conformity To Group Norms
Another way to view the reluctance of people to adopt a healthy sceptical attitude, is that once within the psychological confines of the group, they adopt a set of group Norms. In 1906, William Graham Sumner suggested that norms were “folkways”, a set of habitual customs adopted and displayed by groups 3. Although these norms can be explicit as with rules, regulations, legislation etc., they can also be implicit in behaviours and attitudes.
These implicit rules are nondescript and operate in the background. They define and regulate group membership. An example would be the acceptance amongst employees that they must work late and on weekends, even though it's not explicit in an employee contract. Another example would be the acceptance within an organisation that cruelty is part of the role as was seen in Zimbardo's famous Stanford Prison Experiment.
In Zimbardo's study of how people adopt and internalise roles that govern behaviour, twenty-four psychologically stable individuals took part in a prison role-playing exercise. The researchers assigned some participants the role of guard, and others the role of prisoner. The experiment quickly deteriorated as the experimenters and subjects began taking their roles too seriously.
After only a few days, guards became severely abusive and cruel, while prisoners developed severe emotional disturbance. The conditions forced Zimbardo to call off the experiment early. It highlighted the extent to which we will go to adopt roles, conform to authority, and reject our sense of humanity for the sake of rules.
How To Develop Healthy Scepticism
Normand Baillargeon in his book A Short Course In Intellectual Self-Defence suggests that we must be capable of defending ourselves against mental trickery 4 and offers means by which we can develop our critical and sceptical thinking.
Unfounded argument and misleading opinion abounds in our society, and has reached the point where we rarely can tell fact from fiction. The lines between truth and mistruth are no longer clear to us. Vested interests are slowly eroding independent thinking and objective reporting by the media. Media outlets now serve what they call a “balanced” approach to reporting, which merely polarises society and fuels in-group/out-group thinking.With this playing out in political circles winners can often win big, and losers, the i.e. public, being sold a pup.
A False Dilemma
Baillargeon cites the power and divisive nature of the False Dilemma. He suggests that one of the most powerful tools in the magician's repertoire is to force us to choose. The magician presents a fallacy of choice in which we believe there are only two options and we are making a conscious decision about which one is right.
Politicians and their agents of information, the mass media, use this tactic every single day. A false dilemma arises, Baillargeon says, when we believe there are only two mutually exclusive options from which to choose. As Barry Schwartz writes in The Paradox of Choice, having too much choice can be detrimental, creates choice overload, anxiety, and decision making paralysis 5. The least number of choices available the better. Therefore, the false dilemma is perfect.
When this rhetorical strategy is used, we generally find that one of the two options is completely unacceptable, dangerous and perhaps a threat to our individual and group existence. The other less abhorrent option is the one our manipulator wants us to choose. Faced with this scenario, Baillargeon suggests, we are obliged to become sceptical and highlight the true range of options. Or perhaps knowing what we do about the Paradox of Choice, a single less abrasive option.
Examples of False Dilemma
- If medicine can't explain how your mother was cured of her illness, then it must be a miracle.
- If jobs are not cut, then the business will collapse.
- We must keep foreigners out of our country or murder, and rape will continue to rise.
- If we don't go to The Middle East and fight terrorism, they will invade our country.
- Leave the EU or face the destruction of society as we know it.
Human beings are inclined to embrace either side or the other of a dichotomous argument. Pick one side–simple. We need not think too hard about it. And given the propensity of the human brain to like things that are easy, we must realise the tactics employed by manipulative entities if we are to make informed decisions.
Conclusion on Scepticism
I'm not one for conspiracy theories. Despite there perhaps being an element of truth somewhere in their basis, they often seem to have a more than a tint of the extreme. Our job, therefore, if we are to take control of our lives, is to have a healthy dose of scepticism toward both positions. Not only must we question the official line, but we also must question any antithetical position that we encounter.
The alternative is that our society becomes further polarised, answers to problems become too simplistic, and we become increasingly open to manipulation. Too often we forced down the road of conflict by forces, vested interests, that wish to maintain the status quo. Our job, as members of a progressive society, is to hold these forces accountable, and that means exercising critical thinking and scepticism toward the information we receive.
Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit (how to be a sceptic)
Carl Sagan, the eminent scientist and Pulitzer Prize winner, offered us a collection of precepts of critical thinking, a baloney detection kit as he called it. It's a valuable summary of what we must do with information others attempt to convince us is true. I got this list from Normand Baillargeon book mentioned earlier.
- Seek independent confirmation of “the facts”
- There must be substantive debate by knowledgeable parties on all points of view (not only two).
- Be sceptical of authority. Authorities make mistakes and are influenced by vested powerful interests.
- Don't accept the first idea that comes to mind. Explore alternative hypotheses.
- Don't become attached to an hypothesis.
- Quantify your position with measurement and analysis.
- Every link in the chain of argument must be validated.
- Occam's Razor – Where two answers adequately explain the result, choose the simpler.
- Ask if the hypothesis can be falsified.
- Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes.
- Hogg, M., & Vaughan, G. (2018). Social psychology. New York: Pearson.
- Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages. Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals, Ginn & Co., Boston, MA.
- Baillargeon, N. (2007). A Short Course In Intellectual Self-Defence(p. 53). New York: Seven Stories Press.
- Schwartz, B. (2004, January). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco.