How to Avoid the Trap of Groupthink

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“M asses are always breeding grounds of psychic epidemics.” – Carl Jung

It would be a vast understatement to note that we live in difficult times. We are currently plagued by a contagious virus and the viral surge of mob mentality. Lies are held as truth and the United States Capitol is stormed by bloodthirsty mobs. Millions of people have become ill from Covid-19 and many have died. A terrible marriage of sorts has arisen between both epidemics.

In instances of mob mentality individuals surrender their individual consciousness.
groupthink in dc

Develop the capacity to differentiate from groupthink

The virus has become a political issue and politics has driven the inadequate medical and scientific response to it. As much as people struggle to find answers to the social and biological plagues, there is a common orientation that can improve both situations. It’s called consciousness. To become a conscious individual you have to be capable of doing one critical thing. You have to develop the capacity to differentiate from groupthink and the mass of opinions, both scientific and psychological.

For everything human has its origins in the psyche.

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This writing will shed some light on the idea of psychological separation. For everything human has its origins in the psyche. The best science and psychology come from the creative mind that thinks outside of the box. I am by no means claiming authority on mass or mob thinking, but I may have a few useful thoughts on the matter.

I also don’t claim to have the medical or scientific credentials to speak with great authority on the current world pandemic. Aside from teaching middle school for some time and a love for the subject, that’s the extent of my expertise. I did learn that good science demands a willingness to explore the unknown and rigid preconceived notions. Let us remember the plight of Galileo. Galileo spent many years under house arrest for proclaiming a heliocentric solar system. Earth revolves around the sun; it is not the other way around as much as you would like it to be. Good personal psychology demands as much. Do you want to continue to try to solve things, as Einstein noted, with the same kind of behavior and thinking that got you into the problem to begin with?

Do you want to continue to try to solve things, as Einstein noted, with the same kind of behavior and thinking that got you into the problem to begin with?

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groupthink immunity
There is another relational piece to the idea of mass mentality and groupthink, and a mass viral pandemic. How immune is the individual to the viruses, both physical and psychological?

Groupthink and the masses

There is another relational piece to the idea of mass mentality and a mass viral pandemic. How immune is the individual to the viruses, both physical and psychological? We know there are people who test positive with COVID-19, and yet may only experience minor symptoms. Others become quite ill and die.

Additionally, some individuals succumb to the power of a mob mentality and others are able to resist. They are able to walk away or stop the frenzy. In a sense, these individuals are not as affected in a pronounced way and seem to have a form of immunity. Like with COVID-19, we could say that their differentiated immune system sets them apart. Now this is sometimes a matter of genetics in the case of COVID-19, and can also be nurtured through a vaccine. In the case of psychological differentiation, it may take a good bit of therapy or a particularly strong moral sense to separate from the masses. We can identify such people today.

While I disagree with his politics greatly and have never been a fan, Mitt Romney set himself apart. He was the only one of his political party in the Senate who voted for President Trump’s conviction in the first impeachment trial. At significant inconvenience, he separated from the groupthink of his fellow colleagues. Unfortunately too few, if any, demonstrated that during the Capitol riot.

Examine the mob mentality, groupthink, and individuation

The mythologist Joseph Campbell had some good thinking about mass mob mentality and groupthink. He shares that in this mentality, individuals surrender their individual consciousness to a cult. The cult or its leader thinks for you. A guru often does the same. Campbell offered a story of a British prisoner during WWII. He was placed under guard in the grandstand of a massive Nazi march displaying very powerful pageantry and propaganda. He watched thousands of soldiers march with arms raised to hail Hitler. He shared that the mass mentality was so powerful that it took enormous effort to keep his own hand from lifting. But he succeeded. He was differentiated psychologically.

Yet there are many people who do not have a sense of psychological differentiation from others. Now this does not mean that a person rejects social participation to live as an isolated hermit. It does mean that one has differentiated themselves as a unique human being and knows when to join in and when to say “no thanks.”

An individual may have a different style of dress, a different lifestyle, or a tattoo. But a differentiated individual is wearing their true self.

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Carl Jung’s term for this process was called individuation. Individuation is not individuality. Many people put on the mantle of individuality through external means. An individual may have a different style of dress, a different lifestyle, or a tattoo. But a differentiated individual is wearing their true self. If they have a persona, they know it. Individuation in its core is deep, not surface changeable. The little Italian sports car that I drive may be a statement of my individuality. But it does not make me an autonomous psychological being. That takes work!

Undifferentiated people are susceptible to lies. Lies told over and over seem to be accepted as truth. Joseph Goebbles, the Nazi propaganda minister knew this well. So did the writer George Orwell in his classic “1984”. I’ll leave it to the reader to see where this familiar pattern shows up in our country today.

With little critical thinking capacity, individuals join like minded people. As Carl Jung pointed out – the greater the mass of individuals, the greater likelihood that people will be convinced of their version of the truth, and the greater the catastrophe.

lies in groupthink
The greater the mass of individuals, the greater likelihood that people will be convinced of their version of the truth.

The need for more exploration and personal reflection

Now this is a topic that demands much more exploration and clarification beyond my few thoughts and opinions presented here. It is a topic that can lead to much misunderstanding. But it is a critical part of understanding a person’s psychology. As a practicing psychotherapist, I serve to help people understand themselves more fully. Helping a client to differentiate themself from groupthink is an important part of the process. It is important to recognize the face of groupthink in all its different disguises – religious, ethnic, cultural, and family of origin. Groupthink can serve to separate an individual from the true nature of their being. This is most likely what Jesus of Nazareth meant in the gospel of Matthew. He stated that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. To set an individual at variance with the members of their own family.

The crucial message here is to be able to differentiate when your soul calls for it.

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It sounds harsh but the crucial message here is to be able to differentiate when your soul calls for it. It’s fine and good to be participating members of whatever group or system that provides identity and emotional grounding for us. As I get older I find comfort in my Italian-German heritage and the customs they provide. But as Joseph Campbell noted, you have to be ready to detach from them at times when the bigger picture needs to be grasped. As Campbell noted, the big picture now is our common humanity. That is, the essential unity of all beings out of which our imagination works.

Your Turn: How do you deepen your own capacity to differentiate? I’d love to hear what’s helped you in the comments below.

Peter E. Gradilone

Peter is a Licensed Psychotherapist at Clarity Therapy. He works with adults and adolescents and draws from cognitive, spiritual and analytical perspectives to help people reach their full potential.

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