“Groupthink,” as we understand it, is bad, we all know—or at least we think, or say, we do. Maybe we just label it away when we need or want to do so, creatively and self-delusionally opting instead to think of our thoughts, and how we act on them, as part of a shared “consensus” or “standards of practice.” If groupthink is bad, and it is, it would also be bad if we convince ourselves we’re not engaged in it, when in fact we are.
The [London] Sunday Telegraph columnist and author Christopher Booker’s new book Groupthink: A Study in Self Delusion, his last book, provides a good opportunity to self-diagnostically put philanthropy through its groupthink paces. Booker founded the satirical Private Eye magazine in 1961, began writing for the Sunday Telegraph in 1990, and was a decidedly non-groupthink, climate-change skeptic.
While the word itself may first have been coined by The Organization Man author William Whyte in 1952, the concept of groupthink was first deeply explored and widely introduced by Yale research psychologist Irving L. Janis. Purposely connoting Orwellian Newspeak, as described in Janis’ 1972 Victims of Groupthink, he uses the term “as a quick and easy way to refer to a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity over-ride their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”
Janis bases his conclusions on certain case studies of groupthink, all of them in failures of U.S. foreign policy—from intelligence failures preceding Pearl Harbor to the 1965 escalation of the war in Vietnam.
“Although Janis several times in his book made lists of the ‘symptoms of groupthink,’” according to Booker in his new Groupthink, “we can draw out the three which are absolutely basis to the way groupthink works, and relevant to all the other examples we are about to look at in this book.” Booker’s study includes political correctness and the “European project,” among other phenomenon, though nothing directly philanthropy-related.
A checklist of symptoms
Booker’s first defining rule of groupthink is that “a group of people come to share a common view, opinion or belief that in some way is not based on an objective reality,” he writes. “They may be convinced intellectually, morally, politically or even scientifically that it is right. They may be convinced from all the evidence they have considered that it is so. … In essence, their collective view will always have in it an element of wishful thinking or make-believe.”
His second rule of groupthink is that, “precisely because their shared view is essentially subjective, they need to go out of their way to insist it is so self-evidently right that a ‘consensus’ of all right-minded people must agree with it,” he continues. “Their belief has made them an ‘in-group’, which accepts that any evidence which contradicts it, and the views of anyone who disagrees with it, can be disregarded.”
The third rule, which Booker considers the “most revealing consequence” of all this, is:
To reinforce their ‘in-group’ conviction that they are right, they need to treat the views of anyone who questions it as wholly unacceptable. They are incapable of engaging in any serious dialogue or debate with those who disagree with them. Those outside the bubble must be marginalized and ignored, although, if necessary, their views must be mercilessly caricatured to make them seem ridiculous. If this is not enough, they must be attacked in the most violently contemptuous terms, usually with the aid of some scornfully dismissive label, and somehow morally discredited. The thing which most characterizes any form of groupthink is that dissent cannot be tolerated.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess—apparently chided once too often for making contributions that are called “unhelpful”—classically noted this same tendency last year in the education-research context. “It turns out that when someone says ‘that’s not helpful,’ what they usually have in mind is ‘shut up and get with the program,’” he writes. “Of course, the people instructing others to be ‘helpful’ are always hugely sure about how to ‘fix’ things—even though that assurance is rarely accompanied by obvious expertise in the specific stuff (pedagogy, instructional materials, assessment, bureaucracy) that they’re out to fix.” He’s also properly lamented this as “bandwagonism.”
Checking the list
By Booker’s rules, one can wonder whether there may perhaps be an instance or two of symptoms of groupthink, of heavy-handed treatment of Hess-like “unhelpful” dissent, in the philanthropic context.
* Generally, for example, in reaction to the kind of consensus being overbearingly developed and promoted by the decidedly in-group Council on Foundations, that which became the Philanthropy Roundtable was formed in 1987 as a project of the Institute for Educational Affairs and then became its own independent entity in 1991 …
* Still generally, one could perhaps notice an imbalance between the amounts of support given by establishment philanthropy, for another example, to grantees with different positions on, oh, climate change and what to do about it—and maybe a certain imperious attitude about, and toward, those with the position that can’t be allowed to infiltrate dialogue or debate …
* More specifically, commenting on a 2019 Chronicle of Philanthropy article about donor-intent objections to the Surdna Foundation’s grantmaking by members of the donor’s extended family, the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy’s Aaron Dorfman wrote, “This piece should not have been published. I expect better from the Chronicle.” …
* The above examples are all essentially public. One can plausibly presume that there are also many discreet, but graceless notes or phone calls from figures at the top, or invoking the authority, of the country’s philanthropic establishment to university presidents, research-center directors, think-tank executives, or journal editors about non-conformingly and unhelpfully “problematic” professors, fellows, and authors …
As the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation thoughtfully and correctly—helpfully, even—observed before the Booker book, pressures to conform to an idée fixe “lead to carelessness and irrational thinking since groups experiencing groupthink fail to consider all alternatives and seek to maintain unanimity. Decisions shaped by groupthink have low probability of achieving successful outcomes.”
Booker’s Groupthink would additionally conclude that they outright delude. Worse, they sectorally self-delude. Study, and studiously sidestep, them and their symptoms.
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