Science seldom illuminates the ins and outs, ups and down, or odd vagaries of politics, but sometimes…. it gets close.
Take the common phenomenon, infrequently acknowledged, collective delusion. Science has a lot to say about it – when it occurs, what causes it, and how certain behaviors give it away.
In short, reputable medical journals suggest that we humans are susceptible of groupthink, far more often than we like to believe. Interestingly, they also suggest types of circumstances, as well as causes, for groupthink.
Believe it or not, some of the most common circumstances and causes include stress, political instability, lack of critical thinking, and an abundance of emotion, especially fear, anger, jealousy, envy, and anxiety.
Fascinating in the qualified literature is another fact: “Mass media coverage” can “fan the flames” and widen the circle of groupthink, increasing the emotions that spawned it, including fear suspicion, anxiety, and doubt. This spreads the belief in conspiracy.
Tied to the phenomenon is a tendency – when emotions run strong – to fill-in gaps in reason, logic or facts with inferred, imagined, hoped-for or “magical” dot connections.
Examples in scientific literature are many and compelling. They go back hundreds of years, and range from small and local, to large and national. Science indicates a “collective delusion” can also get the better of a widening group, with groupthink sustaining it.
Unfounded or unsubstantiated fears, hopes and group convictions, which would strike others as obviously suspect, false or impossible to sustain – can dominate a mutually reinforcing group.
This is especially so if that group stands to collectively avoid an adverse outcome by indulging the fear, or could benefit from the collective assessment, even if those looking in from outside do not see the links, logic or validity of the groupthink.
Perhaps the strongest recent exposition on the amazing power, or simple attraction, of mass delusion – including unfounded conspiracies – comes from no better source than Scientific American.
According to a recent article on how collective delusions start, nest and spread, even among well-educated and politically engaged populations, the phenomenon is common – and can get out of hand at times.
Rather shockingly, Scientific American describes a range of collective delusions, often appearing “in different guises.” For example, the idea of “sonic attacks” on the US Embassy in Cuba, republished as presumed truth, was belied by medical research. Still, fear and circumstances gave the notion staying power. The idea seemed plausible, aligned with perceptions, and satisfied our suspicions. In truth, “likelihood of attacks was virtually zero.”, says investigators.
In this same way, political conspiracies spread. Why? “How do otherwise logical and informed 21st-century people fall under the spell of these mass delusions?” The answer is revealing. Common in our internet age is the “rapid, spontaneous and temporary spread of false beliefs within a circumscribed population.”
The “circumscribed population” can be “virtual,” or “bounded only by cyber-connections to a shared source of misinformation,” and may be fanned by media. Examples include – no kidding – a resurgent “flat earth society.”
Experts note “collective delusions emerge under a combination of several conditions.” While “each of these precursors is straightforward enough … it is harder to foresee when they might occur in concert.”
What are the conditions? “Multiple people” who are “sufficiently connected” and similarly situated or motivated. “A collective delusion is more likely to take hold if the group is undergoing … distress,” including possible “unemployment, political destabilization or … threats …”
What happens next? “Stressors are potent enough to trigger … a psychosomatic response or scapegoating behavior.” In this context, “scapegoating involves blaming a group of innocent (or possibly nonexistent) others for causing problems …”
Specifically, “when conditions are ripe, this catalyzing subset of group members sets off a chain reaction,” and “they begin to seek and identify external causes for their distress, or sources for its relief.”
Caught up in their own fears and enthusiasms, theories and blame-casting, “responses spread” and “contempt for the scapegoats grows.” At this stage, “people … toss critical thinking out the window, looking for and finding imagined threats” and “conspiracy theories are spawned …”
One almost does not need to hear more. Widening groupthink produces an unwillingness to listen to contrary views, dismissal of critics, and the circle grows. In the context of current events, what does all this mean? Maybe nothing. Possibly something serious.
Overzealous, overwrought House Democrats, personified in Congressman Adam Schiff, are running an impeachment inquiry from the secretive Intelligence Committee, and may exemplify groupthink – writ large.
Their circle operates to the exclusion of much objective information, dismissing critics, and driven by causes that fit with collective delusion. They operate with blinders and pathos described in Scientific American – and medical literature – as close to collective delusion.
They avoid key elements of truth seeking, dismiss observations founded on reason, logic and facts from those outside the groupthink circle. Their special fears, enthusiasms and conspiracy talk are fanned by mass media.
Exact elements described by Scientific American fit their state of mind. In odd corroboration, Mr. Schiff dismisses critics seeking to reorient the chair to reason, logic, rules or facts he does not wish to hear. He avoids eye contact, while promoting central the groupthink tenets. As one NY Republican noted, his rhetoric is outsized, to the point where he appears “sick.” The beleaguered chairman seems increasingly desperate to keep the circle together, and to be believed… on the issue of impeachment.
In sum, groupthink is not a sickness, so much as collective self-deception – a situation in which a group indulges fears or hopes without grounding, to advance or assuage some higher purpose. In practice, it can lead an insular or self-reinforcing group in the wrong direction, to wrong conclusions, spawned by recourse to an absence of “critical thinking” and overactive emotions.
Desperate to redefine reality, they fill gaps in logic and fact with suppositions and suspicions, unsupportable inferences and conspiracy theories, a special brand of “magic” known only to the group. Then they work to silence doubters and widen the groupthink circle.
Science of course cannot begin to explain politics, and modern politics is infested with wild ideas, delusional aspirations and fears, a tendency to indulge emotion and speculation, as well as imperious impeachment talk.
But in all seriousness, something is badly off within that committee, and it scents of collective delusion. Facts do not support impeaching this president, yet a collective cabal on the Hill, saturated in groupthink, cannot steer clear. They press forward, ignoring indicia of truth.
To change course would require humility, a return to critical thinking, honesty and break from the collective trance. It would also now divide the Democratic Party, putting thoughtful, rational individual observers of the facts on one side, and collective group thinkers on the other.
Nevertheless, Americans may be observing an example of how science helps to explain the curious, increasingly un-self-aware, potentially dangerous onset of groupthink or collective delusion in this wandering political probe.
Science seldom illuminates the vagaries of politics, but sometimes…it gets close.