It is a massive case of groupthink — when entire governments and even societies delegate en masse their thinking faculties for the sake of unanimity. According to a Scientific American feature, “[s]cholars have ascribed bad decision making to groupthink, for example, in U.S. policy during the Vietnam War.”
Indeed, groupthink seems to be behind some of history’s biggest mass movements to achieve singular objectives — the Inquisition and the Holocaust come to mind. To be fair, groupthink would have been behind the astounding mass shift of the United States economy into a war machine when it finally joined World War II. Twenty five years ago, we would have considered the 1986 Edsa “Revolution” another example of groupthink that yielded a nice outcome.
The most recent case of big-time groupthink occurred when former U.S. President George W Bush rallied Americans and much of the Western world behind his “War on Terror”. Despite mounting evidence that there were no “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, the “Coalition of the Willing” soldiered into the desert republic anyway turning it into the defining global quagmire of the turn of the century.
When momentum takes over, dissenters who otherwise would’ve offered some useful perspective often instinctively fall into a stupor and go with the flow. Otherwise irrational behavior becomes a social norm and turns those who beg to differ into outcasts and the wishy-washy ones into compliant zombies. It seems to be a primal impulse in individuals to conform to the majority sentiment. At its most fundamental level, we feel it when we are at a live concert or dance club — the impulse to sing and dance along and get in sync with a crowd is behind the prevalence of musical rituals across all human cultures. Humans beings at the most basic levels of their psyche are drawn to groupthink and the rituals that facilitate it.
Democracy is, in essence, crowdsourcing. We delegate key decisions that affect millions of people to the “will” of the crowd. The problem with the system is when what is right is supplanted by the momentum of groupthink. And it is there that even the best of democracies succumb to the tyranny of the victory of wrong arguments and lazy thinking.
Technologies that allow even the most inane of ideas to gain massive traction (i.e. go viral) make combatting the scourge of irrational groupthink a lot more difficult. But there is a way forward — by getting into the habit of asking â€œWhy?â€.
The best questions often start with the word â€œWhyâ€. When we get into the habit of asking Why? we go at least one step further towards mitigating the effects of irrational groupthink that comes with political momentum.
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