Group Think versus Independent Think

Some Rambling Thinks

Thoughts on Group Thought versus Independent Thought

 There are pressures moving us towards conformity of thought and behaviour. People look for affirmation; being cast out from the pack is lonely. We have various expressions related to this:

  • Don’t rock the boat
  • Don’t make waves
  • Go along to get along
  • The nail that sticks up gets hammered down (Japanese saying)

Some folks seem to embrace heterodox thinking, are just natural contrarians.[1] These are the independent thinkers, the dissidents. Other folks gravitate towards orthodox views; playing it safe they go with the group consensus, perhaps never questioning it.  I will call these the group thinkers, the conformists.

In addition, some folks don’t question much, are very unreflective. Others are more intellectually aware, curious, challenging dogma. I regard this unreflective – reflective dimension as separate from the conformist – dissident dimension.

I make somewhat of a caricature of these positions, using a matrix. I have made an assumption, which is not really tenable, that dissidents are the good guys. Clearly this is necessarily not true.

Conformist Dissident
 

Unreflective

 

Unthinking

·         True believer

·         Blindly obedient

·         Useful idiot

·         Heedless of costs and benefits

·         Reckless

·         Loose cannon

·         Naive about consequences

·         Heedless of costs and benefits

 

Reflective

 

Views studied and well considered

·         Opportunistic actions

·         Cynic

·         Not spiritual

·         Looks for the bad

·         Sneers at the good

·         Often cowardly

·         Aware of costs and benefits

·         Principled actions

·         Not cynical

·         Spiritual

·         Looks for the good

·         Regrets the bad

·         Must be brave

·         Aware of costs and benefits

Thoughts on Group Thought versus Independent Thought

The Unreflective Conformist

The unreflective conformist is not a deep thinking individual, and has an unconsidered adherence to popular views. They go with the flow, and don’t question much of anything. They are really pretty heedless of the implications of the positions that they take. We might regard them as:

  • True believers
  • Blindly obedient
  • Useful idiot
  • Heedless of costs and benefits

The Reflective Conformist

The reflective conformist has studied and considered the positions that he espouses. He does so in rather cynical fashion. He may not believe what the group believes, or he may believe, but he seeks his own advantage over concerns for truth or integrity. Consider these folks as having these characteristics:

  • Not spiritual
  • Opportunists
  • Cynical
  • Looks for the bad
  • Sneers at the good
  • Maybe cowardly
  • Aware at some level of the costs and benefits of conformity and dissidence

The Unreflective Dissident

The unreflective dissident seems to be a contrarian, but is not very sophisticated in his understanding of the issues, an unthinking sort of dissidence. You might characterize such a person as:

  • Reckless, a bit of a loose cannon
  • Shoots from the lip
  • Naive about consequences
  • Heedless of costs and benefits of conformity and dissidence

The Reflective Dissident

The reflective dissident has studied and well considered his positions and the consequences of speaking out. He might be characterized as follows:

  • Principled actions
  • Not cynical
  • Spiritual
  • Looks for the good
  • Regrets the bad
  • Must be brave
  • Aware of costs and benefits

This as I have said is a bit of a caricature, but it has some truth as well I believe.

Finding Truth

I have given up on epistemology and ontology as being mostly not useful in understanding the world, but there is much to be learned about the psychology and sociology of belief.

There are psychological mechanisms underlying group think. These would include, in no particular order:

  • Group loyalties
  • Indoctrination and propaganda
  • Cultural beliefs
  • Cognitive bias

Each is worth an extended discussion but I will leave that for another time. The list is incomplete in any case.

Random Thoughts on Truth and Belief

The individual, conformist or dissident, may be wrong. The group, mainstream or contrarian, may be wrong.

Dissidents may be alone at first but eventually they may find a group of more of less like-minded folks. Are they then just subject to a different group think?

The history of the world, science included, is a history of mistaken beliefs. Mutually contradictory views of people can not be completely right. It goes to say that at most one of mutually contradictory opinions may be correct but it does not follow that any are correct.

The number of ways of being wrong must vastly exceed the number of ways of being right. We call this Murphy’s Law I believe.

Are you a dissident or just a crank? Are you a rationalist, or conspiracy theorist? There is seldom an objective test for any of these. Although some believe they can make such judgements reliably, I suspect that they are often kidding themselves.

Thoughts on Evidence and Reasoning

Evidence must be interpreted within the framework of what you currently believe. However, you will probably never have all of the evidence. Also, evidence coming at a later date may change your evaluation of events. Evidence must be assessed for reliability, provenance, its overall worth and it will be subject to interpretation, with a strong component of subjectivity.

Thoughts on Costs and Benefits

There may be costs and benefits to holding fast to your views, regardless of the truth of your beliefs. There are costs and there are benefits to being a group thinker, and also to being an independent thinker. Below I suggest some possibilities in a matrix.

Conformity

 

Dissidence
Costs There are costs to being a conformist:

·         Creative thought may be squelched

·         You may follow the herd over the metaphorical cliff

·         May be more less ethical, failing to call out malfeasance

·         End up in collusion with malefactors, perhaps criminal actions, becoming complicit

·         If the group is wrong about things, you may not find the flaws and feel free to point them out.

·         You may suffer stress if you realize you are living a lie

 

 

There are costs to being a dissident. Dissidence is often punished if openly expressed:

·         Social penalties, loss of relationships, marginalization, alienation from your fellows

·         Health impacts (stress, and now, denial of treatment for the dissidents)

·         Psychological (stress, self-esteem, doubts, anger, depression)

·         Financial penalties

·         Career penalties

·         Legal troubles

Benefits There are benefits to being a conformist

·         Conformity is rewarded by the group

·         Your career may benefit

·         People will accept you as one of the group

·         By going along, you may get along

There are benefits to being a dissident

·         Creative thought may be encouraged

·         Seeing more clearly

·         Service to the world if you are right and you message is heard

·         Way to avoid the march of folly

·         May be more ethical, calling out malfeasance

·         Avoid collusion with malefactors, perhaps criminal actions, avoid complicity

·         Most big advances in the world, science, technology, art, and so on, are due to folks who departed from the standard consensus about reality, and saw things with fresh eyes.

·         If the group is wrong about things, only those of independent minds will find the flaws and point them out.

 

Below, I briefly discuss the costs and benefits to both conformity and dissidence, with examples.

Costs of Conformity

 There are costs to being a conformist:

  • Creative thought may be squelched
  • You may follow the herd over the metaphorical cliff
  • May be more less ethical, failing to call out malfeasance
  • End up in collusion with malefactors, perhaps criminal actions, becoming complicit
  • If the group is wrong about things, you may not find the flaws and feel free to point them out.
  • You may suffer stress if you realize you are living a lie

Benefits of Conformity

There are reasons why someone is happy being a conformist, there are benefits to not rocking the boat. Conformity is rewarded by the group in various ways. For instance:

  • People will accept you as one of the group
  • By going along, you will get along
  • You won’t have to think as hard
  • You will avoid the unease resulting from being the odd man out
  • Your career may benefit
  • Your social life may benefit
  • You will be seen as a “team player”

Costs of Dissidence

 There are costs to being a dissident. Dissidence is often punished if openly expressed:

  • There may be social penalties such as the loss of relationships, marginalization, alienation from your fellows
  • There can be health impacts due to stress, and as is happening now, denial of treatment for dissidents
  • There can be psychological with stress, lowered self-esteem, doubts, anger and depression
  • There might be financial penalties due to loss of career, or in current times, loss of job and no unemployment insurance
  • There might even be legal troubles if you rock the boat too much

Benefits of Dissidence

On the plus site, there are benefits to being a dissident. These might include:

  • More creativity.
  • Seeing the world more clearly
  • Most of the big advances in the world in science, technology, art, and so on, are due to folks who departed from the consensus about reality, and saw things with fresh eyes.
  • Helping make the world a better place, providing that you are right and your message is heard
  • Preventing people from taking a march of folly. If the group is wrong about things, only those of independent minds will find the flaws and point them out.
  • Acting in a ethical manner, being a whistle blower and calling out malfeasance
  • Not colluding with bad actors, perhaps criminals, avoiding complicity

I suppose that I could expand on these points with concrete examples. This would of course require some actual research, references, time and effort. I will leave it as it is for now.

[1] My mother insisted that if she said “salt,” I would have to say “pepper.”  Things have not changed much over the decades, except I am more aware that I may be full of it

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