Groupthink and the fear of standing alone

The recent riots around the country have been hotly debated from a social, demographic and political perspective. A shooting was cited as the catalyst, hot weather has been blamed as a trigger, but whatever the cause, during the activity itself, many participants were prone to behaviour known as 'groupthink'.

Groupthink is a concept that was identified by the late Yale psychologist Irving Janis that refers to faulty decision-making in a group. Groups experiencing groupthink do not consider all alternatives - they desire unanimity at the expense of quality decisions.

The TV show 'Candid Camera' had a clip of people getting on an elevator and turning backward just because everyone else did. Of course we all laughed. But possibly we would have done it too - because of the groupthink phenomenon. We don't like to admit that we succumb to groupthink ourselves but it is true, we tend to follow the pack, like birds in a flock or sheep in a field, we follow - and sometimes at our own peril, like in the recent riots.

Click here to watch the Candid Camera video clip.

The two leading theories of conformity are that people look to the group because they're unsure of what to do, and that people go along with the norm because they are afraid of being different.

Years of research show that people tend to go along with the majority view, even if that view is objectively incorrect or even contravenes someone's beliefs. Now, scientists are supporting those theories with brain images. A study in the journal Neuron shows when people hold an opinion differing from others in a group, their brains produce an error signal. The brain's 'anxiety area' becomes extra active, while the 'reward area' slows down. This makes us think we are too different and causes us to consider conforming.

Dr. Gregory Berns, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia uses an approach called 'neuroeconomics'. His research is particularly interested with regard to the role of the basal ganglia in processing novelty and reward and how the amygdala region of the brain guides our decision making. His studies have focused on risky decision making and its neurobiological underpinnings and the neurobiological mechanisms of political conflict.

Berns' research, which he describes in the book 'Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently', found that brain mechanisms associated with fear and anxiety play a part in situations where a person feels his or her opinion goes against the grain.

As his team found in their experiments, when someone conforms to a group, they might not be doing so out of fear of being excluded. What other people say they see actually gets inside their mind and can alter the information coming from their eyes- even before they are aware it is happening. With eyewitnesses to crimes therefore, it is important to interview people alone, preferably before they've had the opportunity to compare notes with other people. The same process probably occurs inside the jury room too. Anyone who has been on a jury knows how group pressure can change how you see evidence.

Berns explains why this happens from two points of view. One reason is that they know what their eyes are telling them, yet they choose to ignore it and go along with the group and therefore belong. The second explanation is that hearing other opinions, even if they are wrong, can actually change what we see, distorting our own perceptions.

Using an fMRI scan, he could see what was happening inside the brain. He found that, during the moment of decision, his subjects' brains lit up, not in the area where thinking takes place, but in the back of the brain where vision is interpreted. In short, those peoples' brains were placing greater emphasis on what they were being told by other people than on what they were seeing with their own eyes.

For those people who went against the group there was another intriguing result - their brains lit up in the amygdala area, which Berns calls 'the fear centre of the brain'. He interpreted this as a fear of standing alone.

The research demonstrates that humans are pack animals, predisposed to thinking and acting collectively.

Published September 2011

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