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It was my pleasure to be invited for a return interview with John B. Wells on Caravan to Midnight.
Listen to the interview here:
“While nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody knows what’s going on around here.”
In his eerily prophetic 1975 novel, The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner describes the Delphi pool, a futuristic incarnation of the Las Vegas betting boards. It works this way:
Ask large numbers of people questions to which they can’t possibly know the answers. For example: How many victims died from influenza in the epidemic of 1918?
Even though few of the subjects know anything at all about the question, their guesses will cluster around the correct answer. In the novel, the principle held true even for things that hadn’t happened yet, creating a reasonably accurate window into the future.
As it turns out, Mr. Brunner wasn’t far from reality. Although his system doesn’t hold true for actual statistics, it’s right on target when applied to human psychology.
In a recent series of experiments, marketing professor Gita Johar of Columbia University and her team discovered that people in the company of others are more likely to accept unverified reports as true than people who are by themselves.
More compelling still is that the company we are in doesn’t have to be physical to impair our natural skepticism. Even in a social media setting – connected only virtually with other people – we are more likely to accept information at face value, especially if it fits in with our preconceived notions.
Professor Johar explains this as a manifestation of herd mentality, an unconscious response to the belief that there is safety in numbers. We don’t feel the need to question or fact-check because we rely on the group for authentication, even as everyone one else in the group simultaneously relies on everyone else in the group.
Welcome to the modern Delphi pool for the dissemination of fake news. The more people who hear a report, the more likely they are to believe it. In no time at all, news becomes accepted as fact regardless of accuracy, even when it is easily verifiable as false.
With groupthink becoming the standard of our times, we not only become less able to recognize the truth – we become less interested in doing so. We condemn reports as fake news not because they are factually incorrect but because they refuse to conform to our own vision of reality. As long as we keep company with others who are similarly disinterested in the difference between true and false, we have no reason to question the status quo.
In fact, probing for the truth can be positively dangerous. One word against the party line is guaranteed to bring down upon our heads the wrath of the ignorant majority among our own allies determined to hold fast to their fabulist misconceptions.
So as accusations of lying – real and imagined – fly back and forth across the aisle, we have to ask ourselves a question: do we want to do anything about it, or have we become too comfortable with our culture of falsehood to seek resurrection of the truth?
King Solomon says, A sophomoric person believes every word, but an insightful person minds his every step.
If we want to live in reality, we have to break away from the delusions of the herd and follow the path that leads back to the real world. If we want true answers, we have to be willing to ask hard questions – and then we have to be able to face up to the truth no matter how uncomfortable or how unpopular that might make us.
“The hate and division must stop. And must stop now.”
~President Donald Trump
Is this the best we can hope for from the president who tells it like it is? Do we need yet another uninspired chapter lamenting the “cycle of violence” added to the tedious narrative of moral equivalence?
After eight years of an administration too feckless to acknowledge radical Islam as the leading force behind global terrorism and so vapid as to dismiss the Fort Hood massacre as “workplace violence,” we have a right to expect the new regime to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis for what they are.
To his credit, the president got there… eventually. But it took him way too long. If we want to stop these kinds of incidents before they start, we need to confront them with clarity and courage.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The sad reality is that we have to let bigots and racists hold rallies like the one last weekend in Charlottesville. And the sadder reality is that we have to encourage young idealists like Heather Heyer to put themselves on the line by speaking out against bigotry and racism, even though we know it sometimes ends in tragedy.
But passion has to be tempered with reason. Case in point: the outcry against Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not immediately launching a hate-crime investigation is all heart and little head.
The very term “hate-crime” is symptomatic of the ethical confusion of our times. With left and right more polarized than ever, each side brands the other side as evil and thereby legitimizes its own hateful rhetoric.
The result is that we criminalize the motives of people we don’t like and excuse the actions of people we do. And that just leads us deeper into the quagmire of moral anarchy.
WHAT GOES AROUND…
The day after the Charlottesville attack, a drunken American tourist got it into his head to give the Nazi salute in Dresden, Germany. A scandalized local physically attacked the man, then fled before police could arrest him for assault.
Are you nodding your head in approval? That’s only natural. But ignorance, loutishness, and racism are not illegal, nor should they be. If we want to live with freedom, we have to tolerate those who wield their freedom irresponsibly, if not criminally.
And when they do cross the line into criminality, we should let the law work the way it was meant to work. It’s a sure bet that the deranged extremist who rammed his car into the Charlottesville crowd had convinced himself he was acting on the side of the angels. But he should be prosecuted as a murderer, not as a zealot.
… COMES AROUND
What sparked this ugly episode was the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a southern hero revered in his time for his honor and nobility. Should we ignore General Lee’s support of slavery because of his other virtues? Or should we discount his virtues because he fought for slavery?
No and no. People are complicated, and often contradictory. That’s why attributing motive is both tricky and risky.
It’s easy for us in our age of equality to condemn man’s oppression of man, as we should. But it’s also unjust to demand the same level of moral clarity from those who lived in different times with different values.
Indeed, when the values of future generations undergo another sea-change – as they will – who will defend us for our beliefs and actions before the indictment of our grandchildren?
IT’S NOT ALL BLACK AND WHITE
What are ethics but the slippery discipline of gleaning the spirit of the law from within the letter of the law? Even more slippery is the awareness that the morality of Man is subject to human bias and shifting cultural values. Sometimes the law is wrong; and sometimes so are we.
We dare not excuse every historical movement merely because it seemed right in its time; but neither should we condemn all those who lacked the moral clarity of our own times. 19th Century slavery and 20th Century Nazism were both evil. But they are not equivalent. And 21st Century white supremacism is much closer to the latter than to the former.
So how do we navigate these treacherous moral waters? We look to our leaders, who have the responsibility to help us set our collective moral compass as much as they have the obligation to steer the ship of state.
King Solomon says, A magic rests on the lips of the king; let his mouth not betray him in judgment.
You’ve got the helm, Mr. Trump. Be very careful what you do with it.
In spite of its exceptional popularity, or perhaps because of it, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series produced its own share of controversy. Critics complained that Harry is a chronic rule-breaker, that the vividly depicted magical backdrop will divorce children from reality, and that the books instill no redeeming social values in the children who read them.
It is true that Harry does demonstrate a certain disregard for rules and regulations, but he is openly criticized by his friends and teachers alike for this, and he gets into trouble as often as not on account of his rule breaking.
It is also true that Ms. Rowling’s depictions of a magical world are mesmerizing in their detail and verisimilitude, but it’s precisely this vivid imagery that has turned millions of television-addicted preadolescents into avid readers. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine any book causing children to become more detached from reality than the glut of fanciful movies, video games, and trading cards with which they come into contact daily.
The third argument, however, is where Harry’s critics really miss the boat. The books are steeped in such universal ethical lessons as honesty, discipline, and loyalty, to mention only a few. And from a Jewish perspective, Harry Potter can offer our children (and us as well) a contemporary insight into the destruction of the Temple that we commemorate today, on the 9th day of the month of Av.
Throughout the Harry Potter series, many of the advocates of evil and the defenders of good share a common character trait: an irrational insistence upon the “purity of blood.” Although the leader of the forces of evil himself comes from a mixed background, his followers are dedicated to purging the wizarding world of “mudbloods,” those who have non-wizard blood flowing in their veins.
But it isn’t just the wicked who display this kind of genealogical prejudice. Many of the defenders of good, even as evil threatens to destroy them and their society, refuse to join forces with potential allies because of irrational prejudices.
J. K. Rowling may never have studied Jewish history, but her series provides a perfect parable for the causes of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Even as the Roman siege upon Jerusalem tightened, the Sadducees, the Zealots, the Sicarii, the Essenes, and other radical groups refused to address the common danger that threatened every Jew, sometimes even forming alliances with the Romans in hope of gaining the upper hand over their political enemies within the Jewish people. The Romans exploited this infighting until both the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish nation was broken.
The Talmud tells us the cause of the destruction was senseless hatred. Jew hated Jew not for what he did but for how he identified himself. Instead of recognizing how much they had in common, instead of strengthening their commitment to Jewish values, instead of working together in the face of a common enemy, Jews squabbled over political agendas and schemed for political gain, deaf to the entreaties of the sages that they set aside their differences, blind to the impending holocaust that Rome would bring down upon them.
Nearly 2000 years later, we are still quarreling senselessly with one another and overlooking enemies who seek our destruction. If we haven’t learned the lessons of our own tradition, perhaps we can learn a lesson from Harry Potter’s headmaster, Dumbledore: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Of course, the talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva said it more simply in aftermath of the Temple’s destruction: “Love your fellow as yourself: this is the great principle of the Torah.”
What makes him your “fellow”? That he chooses good over evil. And how do you love him? By setting aside your differences and seeing him for who he is, not for what he believes — and certainly not for what he calls himself.
Originally published in 2001 by Jewish World Review.
What can we learn from ravens? Everything we need to know.
If you’re fed up with the politics of tweeting, maybe it’s time to trade in your Twitterfeed for raven song.
New research shows that corvids — a variety of raven — are more adept than chimpanzees at solving puzzles, recognizing symbols, using tools, and preparing for the future. Most significantly, corvids are able to delay gratification, forgoing immediate pleasure now for bigger rewards later.
If this sounds eerily familiar, it should. The now-famous Stanford Marshmallow experiment that began in the 1960s demonstrated that higher levels of self-control in nursery-school-age children foretell a lifetime of dramatically greater success in academic achievement, professional success, and psychological well-being.
So we should be asking ourselves: if ravens can learn from experience and plan for their future, why aren’t humans doing a better job of it?
LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW
Massive deficits to fund blossoming entitlement programs might feel good now, but what’s going to happen when the birds come home to roost and the bills come due? Partisan posturing and government gridlock might provide talking points for the next campaign cycle, but how does it serve the national interest to point fingers instead of finding solutions for our problems? Watered-down and politically-correct school curricula may buoy self-esteem and promote social agendas, but what will happen to the next generation when they have to compete in a world that won’t cater to their feelings?
As the culture of short-sightedness grows ever more entrenched, it becomes more urgent for us to start changing our thinking now. As Robert Redford quips to his secretary in Spy Game: “When did Noah build the ark, Gladys? Before the rain, before the rain.”
Speaking of Noah and the ark… perhaps we can find a new lesson in that very old story.
After the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, Noah released the raven, and then released the dove. However, a careful reading of the verses reveals something curious: where Noah sent forth the dove to see if the waters had abated, scripture gives no reason at all for why he sent out the raven.
What’s more, although Noah waited seven days to send out the dove the second time, there is no indication that he waited to send out the dove the first time after he sent out the raven. And whereas the dove returned to Noah because it found no place to rest its foot, the raven continued circling the ark until the earth became dry.
FAR AS HUMAN EYE CAN SEE
The classical commentaries offer a variety of explanations to resolve these contradictions. But let’s engage in a bit of creative interpretation for the sake of political allegory.
What if Noah had a different reason for sending forth the raven? What if he recognized that the raven possessed a more profound faculty of insight, not merely to report on the present status of the earth but to extrapolate beyond the superficial conditions of the moment? Might the raven symbolize mankind’s obligation to project its inner eye forward? Might the moral of the story be that we must hold ourselves accountable so that we never again to sink to a level of corruption that brings about global devastation?
The sages of the Talmud teach that everything follows the beginning. If we start with the end in mind, then the road to success carries us where we want to go. But if we set off in pursuit of our own gratification, then we are likely to wander into oblivion.
The greatest accomplishments of human history were set in motion by visionaries who imagined futures no one else considered possible. Nelson Mandela endured 27 years in prison rather than renouncing his convictions, eventually breaking the hold of apartheid on his country. Mohandas Gandhi devoted his life, and ultimately gave his life, for the ideal of human rights and non-violent revolution. The Framers of the Constitution envisioned a society of freedom and equality, risking their lives and their fortunes to bring democracy into the world.
Greatness requires vision and self-sacrifice, both of which are in short supply. But if we’re wise enough to learn from ravens, then we’ll soon find ourselves soaring like eagles.