Mercatornet: Groupthink today: an endless circle of scapegoating

George Orwell invented the term “groupthink” for his dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, first published in 1949. A few years later, the term was already in clinical use to describe a common psychological phenomenon.

The idea is that people have a tendency to conform their own thoughts to those of the people around them, while believing themselves to be independent thinkers. Peer pressure is at least an important element in groupthink. With successful propaganda, bad actors can take advantage of groupthink, as a technique with which to control a society. This is what happens in Orwell’s novel.

A theory of mob violence by the French philosopher René Girard sets the phenomenon of groupthink in a wider anthropological context. Girard argued that human desire itself is mimetic. In other words, human beings don’t just conform their thinking to others, but also copy their desire from others. Like groupthink, human beings are unaware of the origin of their desire, believing it to be something that originates in themselves. When multiple people desire the same things, rivalry results, leading to jealousy, snobbery, hatred and violence.

This chaotic situation doesn’t remain a matter between individuals. Gradually, society bifurcates into antagonistic groups, each united by a common hatred of the other. As one group gets larger than the other its hatred of it grows, rather than reduces, in proportion to its increasing superiority. When the larger group includes almost all of society, it becomes a mob, and seeks the annihilation of the smaller group, or in some cases, the individual—the scapegoat, onto whom it has channeled all its hostility.

For the mob, the scapegoat is the source of all problems, and must be eliminated for the greater good. Nearly everyone in the mob believes this, and anyone who challenges it is denounced and banished. Few dare question the mob, and instead succumb to groupthink. It’s much easier.

Mahon is very much on to something, especially his conclusion. Read it all and see what you think.