Our Challenge: GroupThink and Cognitive Dissonance

Groups naturally look for consensus and will often come up with a false consensus, even when individual members disagree. This video uses the space shuttle Challenger disaster to dissect this phenomenon and show how you can avoid it.

The "glittering web" of false assumptions, entrapping even the rationalists within the Christian, textual tradition, is not due to a lack of education, or erudition, or even on basic credulity, but on phenomena known as GroupThink and "cognitive dissonance".

"Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome."

"In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas, or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.[Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.][Festinger, L. (1962). "Cognitive dissonance". Scientific American 207 (4): 93–107. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1062-93.]"

In 1959, 71 students in an introductory course at Stanford University participated in an experiment that was advertised as dealing with "Measures of Performance." The subjects were told that they may be asked to give feedback on the experiment since the department is looking to improve the experiments in the future.

In the UK, these ways of thinking have had a recent airing, after the Chilcot report into how the UK invaded Iraq. The USA came to the same conclusion earlier:

Riding the 'Assumption Train'
"The group concluded that the intelligence community suffered from "collective group think" which led to the presumption that Iraq had an active and growing weapons of mass destruction program.
""This group think caused the community to interpret ambiguous evidence such as the procurement of dual use technology" to mean Iraq had an active weapons program, Roberts said. "It is clear that this group think also extended to our allies" and other nations, "all of whom did believe that Saddam Hussein did have active WMD program.""
'Group Think' Led to Iraq WMD Assessment (Fox news)

There is no easy way out for those caught in such a trap. For more: The Why Factor: GroupThink

"Science has changed the world because it prioritises evidence over conviction. Judgements are subservient to what the data tells us. The problem is that in many areas of our world, evidence is revised to fit with prior assumptions - and the tragedy is that we are often unaware of this process because it happens subconsciously. It is noteworthy, for example, that the Chilcot report nowhere states that Blair was actively deceitful.

"The good news is that we can combat this tendency, and measurably improve our judgements, when we become alert to it. Indeed, the hallmark of pioneering institutions is that they deal with cognitive dissonance not by reframing inconvenient evidence, but by creating systems that learn from it (and thus avoid related biases such as "group think"). This should be the most important lesson of Chilcot."
(Chilcot: Why we cover our ears to the facts (BBC Magazine 10 July 2016))

This suggests two possible solutions:
  • Self-awareness - become aware of the mental processes within your own state of mind and that of the group.
  • Our institutions of learning, history and archaeology must become more pioneering, rather than just support the old, Christian mythologies.
In short, no matter what evidence I present, based on whatever reliable archaeology, our understanding, our history, our culture, needs individuals and institutions to escape that 'glittering web'. This is not down to just me, but to you, to all of us.

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