In Search of GroupThink

Last week I read a persuasive article about groupthink. Apparently it’s not a new concept, but it was new to me. The idea I took away from it is that we don’t actually think for ourselves. Instead we use each other as repositories of knowledge and ideas – kind of like everybody carrying around a few pieces of our collective puzzle, so no one can really think on their own. A hive mind, so to speak.

My first reaction was a resounding, “Not a chance. Not in my brain.” Then I thought that maybe this is everyone’s reaction…so that by trying to think for myself, I had plunged into a subversive groupthink. Whoa. It’s like being on some kind of 60’s LSD trip fifty years out of date.

Because I like to think I can think, I started wandering around my brain for glimmers of something original. Don’t try this at home. It feels like a Monty Python skit where everything is upside down and backwards. Maybe I need some good 60’s drugs after all.

You really need a guide and a comforting stash of chocolate to walk along the path I’ve been following. To continue with the unmatched similes, it’s a bit like going down Alice’s Rabbit Hole. Curiouser and curiouser. The Red Queen is shouting “Off with her head!” because after all, it may not be my own personal head anyway. And Alice (me) is growing bigger and smaller and going in and out and up and down in my quest for the white rabbit of original thinking.

I give up.

But then, not really. I actually like the idea of our communal repository of knowledge. As the article pointed out, it has served us well as a species. I don’t know how to fix a refrigerator (I don’t even know how one works!), but I do know how to write a book, teach a teenager, prune roses, and draw pictures of border collies. (Not every human skill has a survival purpose – thank goodness.)

I’m okay with that. But if you want to freak out, consider the reverse: imagine everybody having to know how to make candy canes, toilet plungers, seat cushions and asphalt. And then we all have to know how humans evolved, the exact proportions of keystone arches, and the details of every novel, political candidate, and arcane law about spitting on the sidewalk.

No way!…Way!… My brain hurts. And I wanted to learn how to make those fancy cupcakes I saw on Pinterest. Is there room to pin that idea into my brain? It wasn’t my idea…. but I was going to make ladybugs instead of spiders…. but that’s not really original…

Am I only a cog in an evolutionary brain dump?

As I write this, I am sitting on a packed airplane. All around me, people are reading books, chatting, sleeping, and watching movies. A father is getting diapers down for his child, a clearly nervous traveler is downing drinks and jabbing music channels, a young couple is spooning. Human experience that is universal and absolutely individual. We get it all and we get it in incoherent dribbles. Damn.

The article said that despite our illusions of independent thought, we exist in echo chambers that toss back only accepted and unchallenged ideas. That we never allow a dissenting opinion into our cognitive reality. And so we never question, never think an original thought. That social media has exacerbated this reflex until we all live in a snail shell of I think so too….

I disagree.

We walk our own paths. We live in an existential universe where knowledge is fluid and we each create a unique reality. We read books and write them; we absorb art and create mosaics; we listen to music and pour out new harmonies. We look at the stars and search for the infinite; we populate petrie dishes to wage war on disease. And someone, somewhere, all alone is building a better mousetrap (Actually I heard a woman in NY is developing mass produced rodent birth control – brilliant!).

The point of all this? Each of us is a lone scout for the human condition, and in our several and unique ways, we report back to the whole.

The hive mind is a partial truth. The original thinker is a partial truth. Our frustratingly limited brains cannot hold all the details, let alone perceive truth or knowledge in totality – so we do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. And the mix swirling around in our brains with the added secret ingredients of what we individually observe and think about, makes an unmapped smoothie of new, individual thought for each of us.

Such a conundrum of existence we are. What do you think?


The book that sparked the New York Times article that spawned this:
Why We Never Think Alone
By Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach
Illustrated. 296 pp. Riverhead Books. $28.