Groupthink is all around us. Decision-making in government, in the media and at work. It’s slowly killing the world.
In the background of the most important events, the Covid-19 response and increasing tension and conflict in the world, it might be worth looking through some of this in a bit more detail.
I’ve experienced groupthink working for large organisations, most notably in my last job. We were tasked with investigating and solving complex problems. Some technical expertise helped but was not crucial to the role.
Critical thinking and balancing evidence and differing viewpoints was key.
Yet the organisation decided that this was no longer required and changed the whole operating model to a one-size fits all type of call-centre. This new high-risk approach was recommended to us by the outside consultants Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) who were clueless about our business.
Those of us who were experienced in the role argued that the model wouldn’t work. But the organisation ploughed on regardless. It was obvious from day one that the financials didn’t stack up which they tried to deny and later concealed.
The executive largely ignored our concerns to start but then paid limited lip-service when the wheels started to come off. Anyway, in the end they offered us redundancy while employing fresh university graduates to replace us. As far as I know the place is still in denial and heading down the pan.
Groupthink is described as follows:
Groupthink is a term first used in 1972 by social psychologist Irving L. Janis that refers to a psychological phenomenon in which people strive for consensus within a group. In many cases, people will set aside their own personal beliefs or adopt the opinion of the rest of the group.
People who are opposed to the decisions or overriding opinion of the group as a whole frequently remain quiet, preferring to keep the peace rather than disrupt the uniformity of the crowd’.
Groupthink is common where group members have similar backgrounds and particularly where that group is placed under stress, resulting in irrational decision outcomes.
These are the main behaviors to watch out for:
- Illusions of invulnerability lead members of the group to be overly optimistic and engage in risk-taking.
- Unquestioned beliefs lead members to ignore possible moral problems and ignore the consequences of individual and group actions.
- Rationalising prevents members from reconsidering their beliefs and causes them to ignore warning signs.
- Stereotyping leads members of the in-group to ignore or even demonise out-group members who may oppose or challenge the group’s ideas.
- Self-censorship causes people who might have doubts to hide their fears or misgivings.
- “Mindguards” act as self-appointed censors to hide problematic information from the group.
- Illusions of unanimity lead members to believe that everyone is in agreement and feels the same way.
- Direct pressure to conform is often placed on members who pose questions, and those who question the group are often seen as disloyal or traitorous.
There are two further observations I made in the workplace, particularly relevant to groups going through major change or/and a crisis.
Firstly, they tend to swing from the status quo to the complete opposite. In our organisation, we definitely needed some changes and tweaks but we lurched towards a model which was completely unsuitable and unsustainable operationally and financially.
The other thing I noticed was our employers became control freaks. They started to talk down to us and our customers like children. They introduced office slogans such as ‘let’s crack on’ or ‘we’re all in this together’ and deflected from the problems of the disastrous reorganisation towards ‘celebrating diversity’ in the workplace. Critical thinking, creativity and expression were sucked out of the place.
The obvious analogy for all these behaviors is the response to Covid-19 when government ministers were collectively panicked into making extreme decisions on lockdown, using just one preferred source of ‘expertise’.
At the same time, they sidelined dissenters and independent experts who could have offered a calm, rational perspective and a targeted response to Covid-19.
In summing up this thinking and behavior, I’m reminded of these observations from Dr Malcolm Kendrick and Lord Sumption about the response to Covid-19. Dr Kendrick here:
We locked down the population that had virtually zero risk of getting any serious problems from the disease, and then spread it wildly among the highly vulnerable age group. If you had written a plan for making a complete bollocks of things you would have come up with this one”.
And Lord Sumption writing in the Mail on Sunday:
The Prime Minister, who in practice makes most of the decisions, has low political cunning but no governmental skills whatever. He is incapable of studying a complex problem in depth. He thinks as he speaks – in slogans.
These people have no idea what they are doing, because they are unable to think about more than one thing at a time or to look further ahead than the end of their noses.
The BBC – a case-study
A large organisation which has a high opinion of its news service. But of course, the reality is the opposite. There are so many groupthink case-studies but the BBC is as good as any, particularly in terms of making a bollocks of things.
The executives at the BBC and some senior correspondents will no doubt be aware that they run a politicised agenda of bias and misinformation on a grand scale. Outsiders who’ve researched their coverage will recognise this too. But this won’t be obvious to the vast majority of BBC employees, the victims of groupthink.
This came across in some of Andrew Marr’s incredulous reactions to Noam Chomsky’s observations about the media during their interview:
Andrew Marr: How can you know I’m self-censoring?
Noam Chomsky: I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you say. But what I’m saying is if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.
I believe the foreign affairs reporting of the BBC is where this problem stands out most. Real expertise and impartiality has been completely absent from any reporting I’ve seen in recent years.
First, while not unusual in this profession, most journalists employed by the BBC will have a degree. Typically, when you look at today’s ‘top’ BBC journalists, many have attended the elite universities which tends to create a culture of like-minded people of similar backgrounds. This has been identified as one cause of creating groupthink.
Also, the younger journalists will be impressionable within the BBC hierarchy to the views and ways of the senior house-hold name journalists.
It’s sometimes said that there aren’t specific rules within the BBC and other media stating what a journalist can and can’t report and write and they generally don’t knowingly mislead. But they will learn almost instinctively to self-censor and operate within a set of unwritten, unspoken rules and a strait-jacket narrative.
The other problem in foreign affairs reporting is that BBC journalists and most others rarely visit the warzones. On Syria, they typically report from Lebanon or Turkey only occasionally venturing into a government or relatively safe terrorist or Kurd held area. So unlike previous conflicts, such as Bosnia where I remember at least a tiny degree of balance, journalists seldom see what is actually going on.
Under the pressure of deadlines they rely on dubious sources such as Al Qaeda terrorists and Bellingcat and pre-determined assumptions which conveniently slot in with the anti-Assad narrative of the BBC and establishment.
Recently, some grave doubts emerged about the OPCW report on the Douma incident, a huge story which has wider implications.
The investigations of Robert Stuart into a likely previously staged incident involving BBC journalists was swept under the carpet. Both matters have been ignored because the BBC have no way or will to refute evidence which goes against their bias.
On the other hand, the BBC are more than happy to provide extensive coverage to more allegations against Russia and Trump from anonymous sources, providing no background or balance within the overall of climate of related allegations which have collapsed or are unproven.
And in recent days the BBC has provided coverage on Hong Kong which looks like it’s come from a script.
It’s well known BBC journalists are silent on malpractice. We saw this with the Jimmy Savile scandal and decades of sexual abuse. This attitude is similar to what I experienced with my employer who were very vocal and proud of their anti-bullying and mental health policies. Yet when the staff were surveyed anonymously, bullying rates were through the roof.
The other obvious signs of groupthink within the BBC, particularly during the Covid-19 crisis, is dumbing-down and its slogan-filled website written as though their readers are idiots.
Another strong theme is a preoccupation with race and diversity, American affairs and general tittle-tattle, to the detriment of more pressing matters such as the longer-term and wider impact of the world’s current problems.
Covid-19 and our response to it is probably the most important event of our lifetime but there’s barely a peep about whether the response is necessary and proportionate. Instead, this totally rational viewpoint is only ever mentioned in the context of BBC articles about Covid-19 ‘conspiracy theories’.
Many of the examples I’ve described neatly fit in with groupthink behaviors and experiences I encountered in a large organisation.
But I think the biggest groupthink problem is with senior BBC journalists. Ultimately their lazy arrogance has trickled down to the newer journalists and so over time, wrong behavior has been normalised throughout.
The BBC ‘Grandees’
A few months ago Huw Edwards made some comments about accusations of bias directed towards the BBC, defending the corporation and journalists. These are some of the specific comments he made which to me showed a complete lack of understanding of the concerns people have.
The BBC is not, to put it politely, run like some newspapers, with an all-powerful proprietor and/or editor making his or her mark on the tone and direction of the coverage […] BBC News is a rather unsettling mix of awkward, contrary and assertive people who (in my very long experience) delight in either ignoring the suggestions of managers or simply telling them where to get off. That’s how it works.”
Around this time, I also recall Edwards arguing on Twitter on the subject and he said that it was ridiculous to say that journalists within the BBC were willfully misleading the public. His Twitter opponent replied that this was not what he had said and was simply stating that the BBC had fallen victim to groupthink. Edwards just couldn’t get his head past this, while continuing to attack and misrepresent BBC critics.
This defensive attitude and stereotyping of critics is classic groupthink behavior in which he, Nick Robinson and others have taken part.
I used to admire John Simpson and in the 1980s he visited Iran post-revolution. He wrote a book of the visit which I enjoyed. But in recent years, he has shown that he doesn’t understand modern geo-politics and like the BBC can only assess it in terms of the ethno-centric British view on the world and our influence.
In this President Putin press conference he asked the most ridiculous question imaginable which confirms he’s lost the plot. His question was about Russian behavior in the world and whether Putin wanted to create a new Cold War.
Putin wiped the floor with him pointing out the hundreds of NATO bases and numerous wars which put Simpson’s aspersions into their rightful place.
Jeremy Bowen is another who has lost his way. I saw a recent report from him from the position of a Christian militia unit fighting terrorists in Syria.
Again, BBC arrogance was on full display. His report made generalised comparisons between him meeting Serbs in Bosnia in the 1990s and these Syrian fighters, clearly indicating that he doesn’t listen and is not interested in Syrian views on western complicity and the White Helmets.
In the usual group-speak he described the Syrian Government ‘the regime’ and Al Qaeda as ‘rebels’. His report simply rubber-stamped the BBC coverage of the whole conflict.
This arrogance is typical of journalists who rely on their past achievements, creating an air of gravitas to impress their audience. The reality is his reporting is based on no substance and outdated and lazy assumptions.
The madness of John Sweeney
Ex-BBC nowadays, John Sweeney’s arrogance is off the scale. These days he spends his time on Twitter attacking lockdown sceptics, like Peter Hitchens accusing him of ‘killing’ his Mail on Sunday column readers with his views on Covid-19 lockdown.
Sweeney is off his trolley but the reality is he probably always was as this clip during his BBC days shows.
This behaviour, extreme as it is, certainly suggests groupthink played a big part somewhere in his career.
An illusion of sanity
BBC Dateline is a current affairs TV panel discussion which I occasionally watched. The panel which changed regularly were seemingly well qualified with foreign writers and journalists which included Russia or Arab affairs experts.
Sitting around that table they gave the impression of people who knew what they were talking about.
However, when you listened carefully to what they were saying, there was very little substance. Their arguments, all based on a simple premise that Russia/Syria are bad, the West is good, tempered with a little occasional criticism of western policy to give the illusion of balance.
Occasionally you would have a more pro-Russia expert on but with the prevailing consensus of the rest of the panel, his or her views would be ridiculed. It got to the point any dissenting panel member started to self-censor to sound more credible, perhaps to remain on the panel. This is the dilemma for any progressively minded BBC guest nowadays.
Peter Hitchens who complains the BBC never invite him on, appeared on Good Morning Britain (GMB) recently. As is normal with many GMB debates, the discussion on Covid-19 descended to retorts and abuse and was simply not the forum for Hitchens to get across his well thought out points on the big picture.
But I don’t think he would have fared any better on the BBC. The BBC create an illusion of civilised, intelligent discussion but the reality is there is no substance, depth or balance. The crucial discussion points about Covid-19 or conflict in the world don’t get a hearing. The premise and the rules are already set in stone before the guests arrive.
There are many reasons why the world is in its current madness and on the brink of serious conflict.
Groupthink in government, the media and the general public is probably a key factor as this represents the thinking culture alongside and below the psychopaths and war criminals who pull the strings.
It’s almost impossible to break this cycle by chipping away at it. But it’s possible a large event connected to Covid-19 or a major war will be the catalyst which might shock us out of our distorted view of reality.
In the meantime, independent commentators and ex-MSM like Peter Hitchens, Anna Brees and Tareq Haddad, are putting their careers on the line and self-interests aside. We can only encourage others employed by the BBC and other media to be brave and do the same.
Certainly, the consequences will be far more disastrous doing nothing and not speaking up.
In the sudden, new founded willingness to demonstrate on the streets perhaps those participating might be better reflecting on who and what the real enemy is.
Party politics, Brexit and Black Lives Matter really don’t matter.
Groupthink, escalating world conflict, All Lives Matter, including Syrians, Libyans, Palestinians and Blacks,(including those outside of US,UK and Europe) together with the post-Covid-19 march to an uncertain ‘new normal’, are the issues which matter right now.
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