Groupthink: A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action. -Irving Janis

Philippians 2:2- “Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” -Paul the Apostle (and “Chief” of sinners) 

Today I’m beginning a series of posts on Groupthink and other relational issues, especially within the church community.  The issues I will touch on pertain to group dynamics in any organizational structure whether it be a family, business, political party, or school club.  I will, however, focus primarily on relationships within a church or other ministry context because there is something about religious groups that make them particularly susceptible to the dangers of Groupthink.

Irving Janis, who in the 70’s conducted extensive studies on Groupthink, was able to identify eight traits that were common to this group behavior:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  2. Rationalising warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
  4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, disfigured, impotent, or stupid.
  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”.
  6. Self censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  7. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  8. Mindguards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

As I read this list I couldn’t help but think of the recent elections and how each of these traits were symptomatic of the presidential campaign, and when I warned others of what I saw, I personally experienced numbers 2,4,5, and 8 on a regular basis.  It is within the church, however that I’ve routinely experienced this dynamic.  There are many reasons for this.  A core ethic of followers of Christ is unity.  We are to love one another, care for one another, pursue peace with one another, and to be like-minded.  Many of us within the Body of Christ take this to mean that all conflict is bad, critique is divisive, and dissent is an act of disloyalty.  Of course that is not what Paul meant when he urged us to be of the “same mind”.  He was not encouraging us to the form of “Groupthink” described above, which isn’t really “thinking” at all (in the biblical sense of the word).  Nor is this type of “Groupthink” the loving thing to do.  It does not reflect Christ’s nature or attitude.

“Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.”

I won’t get too technical, but when Paul says be “like-minded” he is using the Greek verb phroneō, “to think,” and in some translations autos is added to phroneō and is translated “of the same mind”.  Paul’s appeal is not for thoughtless uniformity passing as harmony.  He wants us to have the same opinion or attitude regarding something in particular, something specific that makes for true harmony; something that produces unity in diversity.  The unity the world offers is a counterfeit to the harmony that Christ calls us to live out in community even when we encounter diverse viewpoints on a course of action, or are learning to live with, and care for those of another ethnos or group.  In either case we are called to be of “like-mind” and  “one purpose”.  How are we to do this?  

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” 

Of course it’s easy to see how our government has failed in this area.  Partisan politics makes it is extremely difficult for our leaders to acknowledge the value or worth of their opponent and their views for fear of losing power and influence within their own group.  They avoid critiquing the assumptions of their own group for fear of losing credibility or position.  But isn’t it strange that we see this same attitude among Christians even within our churches, denominations, and para-church  organizations? 

The eight symptoms of Groupthink are rendered less potent when leaders model Paul’s command to show others preferential treatment, and when they create a culture where the truth is spoken in love and differences are honored.  Groupthink becomes less the norm when we put away the vanity and selfish ambition that would cause us to use others for our own gain or self-preservation, or when we choose not to discredit and render “invisible” and voiceless those who disagree with us.  When we resist the urge to insist on uniformity of thought and opinion on secondary issues as a prerequisite to belonging, people are then free to be authentic, and creative in their expression of bold love toward each other because there is no longer a fear of reprisal or loss of relationship.    

So, consider the list above.  Have you encountered Groupthink in your group or sphere of influence?  Are you a leader who has enabled or even encouraged Groupthink, or have you been victimized by this manipulative practice?  Perhaps a little of both?  I would love to hear your thoughts, because in parts 2 and 3 I’ll give examples of what Groupthink looks and sounds like in practice, the effect it has on the spiritual and emotional life of the people within the group, and some practical suggestions on how to help yourself and others find freedom.     

Ron

Advertisements