Back in the Seventies, a psychologist from Yale University identified a phenomenon he called ‘groupthink’.
It’s what happens when people are so anxious to conform and get along together that they ignore alternative viewpoints and end up making bad decisions.
Anyone who’s sat in an office meeting knows how it can work. Someone comes up with an idea that, frankly, isn’t terribly good. But everyone around the table is so keen to avoid conflict and reach a consensus that they talk themselves into agreeing.
It feels disloyal to point out inconvenient flaws in the argument, or suggest other ways to solve the problem. Creativity and independent thinking are suppressed; facts that don’t fit are ignored.
Maybe I’m heartless. Maybe I’m mistaken. But I’m not convinced that the answer to the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Syria is to open our borders to tens of thousands of refugees
Before long, it starts to seem morally wrong to pipe up against the prevailing view. Who wants to be the mean-spirited contrarian, standing in the way of progress and contradicting what all right-thinking people in the room clearly believe?
The irony is that everyone is so busy agreeing with each other, it makes them even more convinced they’re all wise and wonderful, when they’re blinding themselves to reality.
The Yale researcher, Irving Janis, suggested groupthink was one of the factors behind various fiascos involving the U.S. government — from the failure to anticipate Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor to the Bay Of Pigs invasion of Castro’s Cuba.
But I’m starting to wonder if there’s some dangerous groupthink going on in Britain right now, about the awful refugee crisis engulfing the Mediterranean.
Maybe I’m heartless. Maybe I’m mistaken. But I’m not convinced that the answer to the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Syria is to open our borders to tens of thousands of refugees.
I’m not sure it’s right for our country and I’m not sure, ultimately, it’s right for the Syrian people. And according to a number of polls conducted this week, I am not alone in having these concerns.
In one survey, only one in four people favoured taking in more than 10,000 refugees. In another, two-thirds said they were worried that the images of drowned children risked distorting the debate.
Yet on social media and among our broadcasters and politicians, there’s a very different consensus.
In fact, people in these groups —often privileged, always fond of their own voices — have been competing with each other to insist we offer asylum to ever greater numbers.
Those who haven’t joined this collective orgy of emotion are condemned as immoral, cruel and stupid.
This is itself a classic example of how Janis suggested groupthink works. The group insiders not only over-rate their own goodness and competence, but they also dangerously underrate the abilities and humanity of those who dare disagree with them.
Now, I challenge anyone not to be moved by that awful image of poor little Aylan Kurdi lying dead in the surf. Of course it was horrific. Of course we must seek a solution to this crisis and do what we can to ease the suffering of all involved.
However, I’ve worked with many refugees over my years as a doctor, including in outreach projects that helped asylum seekers. I am acutely aware they require a lot of support.
Inevitably, they will have witnessed and endured terrible things that can leave deep mental scars. The language barrier makes helping them cope with these problems especially hard. It’s no small burden for a country to take on.
It is entirely disingenuous for our leaders not to acknowledge that an influx of refugees has an impact on public services — not just in health but in education, housing and welfare. What frustrates me is that the people so enthusiastically insisting that we welcome large numbers are not the ones who will feel the pain of all this.
The Twitter hashtag mob will, largely, continue with their comfortable lives untouched. It’s mostly the poor and the sick who will feel the impact of refugees coming into their community.
There are countless other arguments here — not least the danger of encouraging yet more people to risk their lives on dangerous journeys.
But it’s not the specifics of these arguments that I’m worried about today. It’s the way influential groups in society are exerting pressure — consciously or unconsciously — to stop those arguments, and the feelings behind them, being expressed.
It’s psychologically unhealthy for people to think they have no right to voice sincerely held convictions. And at a practical level, it’s dangerously counterproductive for dissenting voices to be shouted down by a chorus of people desperate to show how caring they are.
Surely we need open, rational debate so we can thrash out solutions. If people’s worries or objections are unfounded, then expose them to the light and watch them wither away. Don’t try to shove them under the carpet.
The idea of groupthink was partially inspired by George Orwell’s nightmarish novel 1984, which used a similar term ‘doublethink’ to describe the way people manage to live with totally contradictory ideas to survive under a dystopian dictatorship.
But in the age of social media, fostering competitive compassion and intellectual conformity, groupthink may be a bigger threat than anything Orwell imagined.