The Error of “Group Think”

What is “group think”? It’s the opposite of individuality. Individuality resides in the independent use of your mind. “Independent” means objective, which means you independently use a rational method of thinking about people, situations and events.

Rational does not necessarily mean “right”. Rational refers to a methodology more than an outcome. A rational methodology refers to reasoning things out based on available facts and logical, non-contradictory thinking about those facts. Reason will often lead to truth, but there’s no guarantee that it will lead to the truth, at least right away. The good thing about reason is that errors are self-correctable — once again, using reason. And reason is the only means of ever discovering the truth about any given matter. There’s no alternative to reason.

Anyone who engages in “group think” surrenders his responsibility to reason for himself. To one degree or another, the group thinker relies upon the conclusions of others to tell him what’s true, rather than himself.

For example, “These people at Alcoholics Anonymous think I’m doing OK. Therefore, I’m doing OK.” But what is the standard of “OK” here? Is that standard objective, and if so — what is it? Or is the standard merely other people in the group seeming to think you’re OK?

Another example, “People like me. I must be OK.” Again, by what standard are you OK, or not OK? What exactly is it that people like about you? Is it the truth, or not? And, if it is the truth — what do you think of their standard?

Individuality and reason require a lot of thought. The person who succumbs to group think is surrendering the responsibility to think — i.e. to ask and answer the kinds of questions I just asked, in these examples. Each and every time he surrenders this responsibility, he “gets off easy,” but, in another sense, makes life harder for himself. How? Because, by evading his responsibility to think for himself, he goes through life dependent on the appraisals of others.

In a complex and sophisticated world, an individualist surely relies on others. For example, he doesn’t study brain surgery so he can make his own diagnosis and do his own brain cancer treatment. He might not even know about all the inner workings of his car, or his computer. He hires or relies on others to have this knowledge. But he still takes responsibility for thinking. He’s aware when knowledge is required, what knowledge (or expertise) he’s lacking and why he needs it. Even with an expert, he questions contradictions and asks the expert for explanations about his conclusions. The individualist’s reasoning is always engaged and active, even if his knowledge is lacking in some particular area. Providers of goods and services are experts, but all consumers must be thinkers.

“Group think” kills individuals intellectually and psychologically. It eats away at one’s basic sense of confidence. It undermines one’s capacity to feel in control of one’s destiny.

A group think person wants to be a member of “the pack.” An individualist welcomes social relationships, but not for their own sake.

A group thinker welcomes social events because they enable him to feel complete, whole and validated. An individualist values a social event if the other participants are objectively worthwhile to him, based on their minds, character, values or specific interests.

A group thinker loves being around “people”; an individualist loves particular persons.

It’s not possible to switch from being a group thinker to an individualist overnight. But you can view group think and individualism on a continuum. If you do, then you can gradually become more of an individualist and less of a group thinker. You have to challenge your errors in thinking when they occur, correct them, and start establishing your life based on reason rather than the opinion of the majority. The opinions or conclusions of others are no longer the standard. The individualist internalizes the question, “What do I think, and what’s the proof for what I think?” This has to replace the group thinker’s habitual concern with, “What do others think?”

Individualism forms the basis for a free society. Individualism is deeper than a style, or even an ethical code. It’s the way one uses one’s mind in tackling all of life. It’s the expression of philosophy in daily life.

Group thinkers are often content with socialism and government controls. They like the validation of knowing what others want them to do, and laying out the rules for them. Individualists must have freedom in order to cope and actualize all their abilities. They would rather make their own errors, along with their own corrections, than unthinkingly follow what someone else has told them to do — someone whose role is not one of earned authority, but merely of arbitrary power (or personal popularity).

It’s true that there’s strength in numbers. But the numbers must refer to thinking and independent minds. A society filled with people who look to other people to do all of their thinking for them won’t survive, as a society, for long. Nor will any individual.