06 January 2008

Abuse and Groupthink: Post-Game Analysis [Part 3 of 3]

Authors like Kathy Krajco and Anna Valerious take the position that many bystanders who ignore or tacitly support the type of behavior that I have described here, based on my observations, are actually making a deliberate moral choice. I agree in certain circumstances; where groups are involved, however, I think that moral choices can sometimes be foreclosed by groupthink.

As I stated above, and have previously discussed here in some depth, abuse has been shown to impair people's ability to remember, and their ability to think clearly and rationally - especially in a group setting, especially in a cult or cultlike setting. Groupthink has an incredibly negative effect on people's ability to reason. I personally believe groupthink is the group manifestation of cognitive disruption in an abusive or coercive setting.

I observed Pica to be almost omnipresent in her particular group. When the group would gather, she was there, would soon appear, or had just recently left. She seemed to invest a great deal of time flattering specific group members [in my assessment]. Flattery must be repeated to have the strongest effect. One compliment will not switch off a person's critical awareness - in fact, it may instead stimulate it; but repeated flattery can become agreeable. From my viewpoint Pica's flattery seemed transparent; but to people hungry for acknowledgement and appreciation, accustomed to the kiss-and-kick dynamic that characterizes abusive homes and workplaces, flattery might be a welcome and comforting change.

From my observations, in my opinion, Pica was also strongly anti-intellect. Not anti-intellectual; anti-intellect. Anti-thought. Anti-memory. She expressed explicit contempt not only for thought, but for thinkers, on more than one occasion. My impression was that, in response, some people almost begged Pica to do the thinking for them. I also saw what seemed to be 'anxious dependence' in some cases; if Pica was absent for any length of time, some people seemed to become surprisingly agitated.

Some group members seemed to make a conscious choice to avoid seeing the disparity between Pica's self-portrayal and her actual behaviors. Others seemed attracted by the very behaviors I would have expected to cause qualms. Still others seemed confused and vulnerable.

How can this be explained? In my assessment, groupthink was very much in operation.
Conscious or half-conscious denial definitely protects members of a group from unpleasant facts. This is common among first-degree relatives of alcoholics and substance abusers, etc. It preserves the "comfort" of belonging... one need not consider discomfiting facts and behaviors that one does not see.

For those who seemed actually attracted by the negative behaviors, at least two explanations exist. It is common for people to mistake meanness, in its various manifestations, for strength; our abusive culture does a poor job of teaching the difference between them. In addition, people who experience cult, clique, or gang-type circumstances when growing up may be drawn to them in other settings. What we experience at home will feel like home.

And for the vulnerable and confused - kind words, a welcoming group, a sense of belonging - who can blame anyone for wanting these things?

Finally, the process of 'enemy creation' carries a powerful, if subconscious message: stray from the fold, break ranks with the group, and this is what will happen to you.
Again, I emphasize that my interpretations of the behaviors I have described here, in this specific situation, are opinions; my description is based on my perceptions. The specific situation I am describing is only one sample from a larger pattern of human interactions. At this point, the discussion needs to move beyond this specific set of events, and focus instead upon that larger pattern.

What can be done in groupthink situations? Sadly, very little. If my analysis is accurate, groupthink is a type of 'thralldom'. The group identity becomes extremely important to the people involved. An individual who confronts the situation will just trigger "enemy creation"; a group of individuals doing likewise would also encounter this backlash.

Cult thralldom is powerful. Participants who have simply been 'fooled', and those for whom participation is a conscious choice, stand the greatest chance of eventually seeing the gap between the 'face' of the cult and the 'reality' experienced by cult members - whether the cult per se is a clique, a gang, a political movement, or a religious organization.

What can be done for oneself, when confronting a situation like this, is to keep one's own critical reasoning skills sharply honed, and going at full throttle. Watch what the putative leaders disparage; watch who they disparage; compare these things and persons to the actual behavior of that particular leader. Be slow to endorse and slow to join; when you see evidence of bad faith, step aside. Let the performance go on without you.

What can be done for any other person in a situation like this, whether it be an abusive marriage, a 'mean girl' clique, or a full-blown personality cult, is first to stay out of the situation yourself. Avoid becoming enmeshed. Don't swallow flattery, don't accept unacceptable behavior because the commercials are amusing or appeals are being made to your emotions. Instead, establish a reasonable distance between yourself and the clique, gang, or cult, but make sure the people you care about know where and how to find you.

Groupthink seems only to be broken in the same way it is established - one mind at a time. Keep your mind out of the groupthink dynamic, and you can stand ready to assist others as they break free. Stand in readiness to hear them, believe them, support them, extend nonjudgmental compassion to them, and validate them. That is all an outsider can do. The hard part - becoming willing to believe that they were deceived, or that there were many negatives they consciously or unconsciously avoided seeing, and then making the long, difficult, painful, even risky choice to leave groupthink behind - is their work to do, and theirs alone, one by one.

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