3 Ideas in 2 Minutes on Group Dynamics
Mice on a Raft, Groupthink & The Tenth Man Rule
I. Mice on a Raft
English actor, comedian and writer Stephen Fry on an alleged experiment by psychologist B.F. Skinner. It shows how our human consciousness can be an impediment:
If you take a load of mice and put them on a plexiglass tray and float them on the water. Because they are unaware of the risk therein, they move around randomly. And their random movement makes the tray even. They’re just randomly moving around.
If you scale it up and put humans on it, they sink within seconds. Because they think, “Oh we’re tipping, we must run to this end. And of course they all run to that end and so it tips over. In other words, consciousness is the problem, attempting to deal with it, being aware of it is the biggest problem of all. And that’s something new to us. Because in the old days we lived in small groups who just didn’t know how awful humanity was. What sins we were committing, how dreadful we were making the world. […]
Whereas really we should just be unconscious and get on with living and randomly run about in our tank and then we never sink.
—Stephen Fry, Jordan B. Peterson Podcast, S. 4 Ep. 22
Groupthink has become a well-known psychological phenomenon. It was coined by psychologist Irving Janis in his 1971 Psychology Today article:
I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell used in his dismaying world of 1984. In that context, groupthink takes on an invidious connotation. Exactly such a connotation is intended, since the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures. […]
The main principle of groupthink, which I offer in the spirit of Parkinson's Law, is this: ‘The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups.’
—Irving L. Janis, Groupthink, Psychology Today
I’ve written in more detail about Groupthink as a misapplied heuristic in a post about mental shortcuts.
III. The Tenth Man Rule
You’ve heard of devil’s advocacy, but have you heard about its cinematic version called the Tenth Man Rule? It’s an institutionalised way of arguing against a prevailing opinion or orthodoxy. It was introduced in the zombie blockbuster World War Z (2013):
If nine of us who get the same information arrived at the same conclusion, it’s the duty of the tenth man to disagree. No matter how improbable it may seem. The tenth man has to start thinking about the assumption that the other nine are wrong.
—Mossad Chief Jurgen Warmbrunn, World War Z
If this idea intrigues you, check out my popular long-form essay on the Tenth Man Rule. 🐘
Have a great week,