Junkfood Science: How’d we get here from there?

June 23, 2007

How’d we get here from there?

Is common sense dead? How is it that so many of our public health policies and popular beliefs about our health and food can be so flawed — practically the opposite of the most careful evidence and even the facts that are looking us right in the eye? How have we become so misguided and come to believe in unsupportable ideas?

It’s not that people are stupid. In large part, it’s because we get caught up in groupthink. It is one of the most serious threats to our lives, our country and the future of our world — more dangerous because so few of us really understand its power or realize the destruction it’s brought to lives and entire countries throughout history. Worse, it’s even harder to imagine that we might actually be guilty of it, too.

It begins simply enough. Part of our human nature is to want to be part of a group and to be well-liked, accepted and respected by others. Few of us want to be in a group that’s in constant conflict, and no one wants to embarrass themselves in front of other people or make people angry with them. So the group comes to get everyone in agreement and, in turn, each member works hard to fit in with the group’s norms.

The result is groupthink. To remain accepted in the group we want to be part of means we naturally feel compelled to conform and go along with what we think everyone else in the group thinks or wants to do. Group loyalty is rewarded. No one wants to step out of line or stand out, so we begin to censor ourselves, ignore issues we may not be in agreement with, suppress any private doubts, and to not speak out or question facts, in order to go along with the group. The silence of other members, we believe, means they agree with the group’s consensus, too, building an illusion of unanimity. Steadily, the group’s consensus assumes increasing weight in our minds as being right. We stop thinking as individuals or thinking critically, even going so far as to not see contrary facts. The group consensus assumes priority. And we didn't even realize it was happening.

Unity among the group creates a sense of pride, according to Irving Janis, a social psychologist and early researcher into group dynamics and author of Victims of Groupthink: A Psychology Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. It’s this unity which gives a group the illusion that it’s powerful and invincible, he found. This feeling of invincibility and that any actions they do are protected by the group, is the first classic symptom of groupthink that he identified. As a result, the group’s actions become steadily more brazen. People adopt a collective sentiment that what the group believes and does is always right and this morality makes the group more likely to do things that are dangerous or even illegal, and the members less likely to question them or themselves.

The second symptom, he said, is collective rationalization as the group begins to justify its actions, even if what they've done is extremely questionable. Members discredit and explain away any evidence or ideas contrary to the group thinking and next, become firm believers in the inherent morality of their positions. This illusion of morality, he found, results in members ignoring the ethical consequences of their decisions.

The group gets tighter and tighter, closes ranks, and the biggest threat becomes anyone who disrupts things or disagrees. At this point, according to Janis, the next symptom of groupthink becomes evident: the development of stereotypes of those who don’t believe as the group does. Anyone outside of the group or who has other ideas is dehumanized and seen as a threat; labeled in simplistic, demeaning term; and attacked with ad hominum arguments. Instead of reasoned arguments, members caught up groupthink talk in increasing rhetoric and slogans.

Because anyone not part of the group is always seen as wrong, another part of the self censorship is that members won’t explore ideas outside the groupthink, nor will they bring up counter-arguments within the group to explore. There is no critical analysis of others’ ideas, from either inside or outside the group. Information used in the group’s decision-making is highly selective and outside experts are never included.

Another manifestation of this is that opposing ideas are not even allowed to be reported, hence, alternative media is suppressed. In fact, found Janis, some members assume the role of protecting the group from contrary information that might threaten the group’s complacency and everyone else goes out of their way to protect the group’s consensus.

Groupthink becomes a powerful and dangerous force because its control over individuals is self-enforced. Preservation of the group and furthering it’s goals becomes the sole focus. The group becomes the ultimate authority on anything and everything. Individual free thinking isn’t tolerated.

Clearly, the end result of group think, is poor quality decisions that are based on consensus.

And that’s not the scientific process. Dr. Lawrence Krauss, chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University once told me: “Science isn’t fair or democratic. Instead of majority rule, scientific understanding evolves only as rigorous testing, observations, and measurements build a body of unrefuted evidence.”

Whenever you’re tempted to think that just because a whole lot of people believe something, that it must be true, remember the words of Nobel prize winner, Anatole France (1844-1924):

If 50 million people believe a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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