Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank and globalization critic, has a must-read essay in the current Vanity Fair, excerpted from his forthcoming book. He analyzes the consensus among plutocrats that our ever-widening wealth disparity is a jolly good thing, and concludes that for their own good, they had better reconsider the flimsy hypotheses and fantasies that support their house of cards.
He makes a clear case, noting that
Many, if not most, Americans possess a limited understanding of the nature of the inequality in our society. They know that something has gone wrong, but they underestimate the harm that inequality does even as they overestimate the cost of taking action. These mistaken beliefs, which have been reinforced by ideological rhetoric, are having a catastrophic effect on politics and economic policy.
There is no good reason why the 1 percent, with their good educations, their ranks of advisers, and their much-vaunted business acumen, should be so misinformed.
But there is: groupthink. And I’m beginning to think countering it is a key to change.
In Well-Maladjusted and The Impasse, my last two blog essays, I’ve been examing the culture of politics, looking for ways to encourage more people to “refuse to adjust to absurdity,” in Van Jones’ winning phrase. What could help people see the enormous disparity between our national self-image and so many of our collective behaviors? What could awaken a feeling of collective responsibility for our massive prison population and what it says about us? What could bring home the truth of spending six or more times as much on each prisoner as on students; CEOs making nearly 400 times as much as the average worker (as compared to 40 times as much only 30 years ago); or spending more than two annual National Endowment for the Arts budgets on war every day of the year?
A reader responded that the point is to shatter denial, a defense mechanism driven by fear. The belief that certain leaders are securely in charge and have all the answers insulates you from facing the damage hidden behind their assurances, the implications for you and your loved ones. A strong foundation of trust and compassion are needed, my reader said, for people to feel safe enough to begin to experience the emotions walled off by their denial. One-to-one—for instance, in a psychotherapy setting—I’ve seen this happen. From a social psychology perspective, the point seems astute, but really, really daunting. How do you create for a very large group of people—especially people espousing harmful views such as white superiority or the suppression of women’s freedom—the feeling of being held and understood that supports facing fears, thus releasing their grip on awareness?
But then I started to wonder whether a different intervention might be easier to pull off. When I look at our political culture, I wonder how much of this widespread denial is actually grounded in deep individual fear, and how much is the byproduct of powerful group pressure—inherited or transmitted denial, let’s say. Many thanks to education blogger Anthony Cody, who reminded me of social psychologist Irving Janis’s notion of groupthink, which describes the way group pressures reinforce unexamined assumptions and produce bad decisions. (Cody just published a great blog about data-obsessed education, using the same concept to deconstruct the thinking of the testing-based “standards” movement that is destroying education.)
Consider the 1% and their emissaries, such as Mitt Romney and Fox News, using Irving Janis’s 8 symptoms of groupthink:
1. Illusion of invulnerability. Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
2. Collective rationalization. Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
3. Belief in inherent morality. Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
4. Stereotyped views of out-groups. Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
5. Direct pressure on dissenters. Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
6. Self-censorship. Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
7. Illusion of unanimity. The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
8. Self-appointed “mindguards.” Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.
As with every cognitive bias and distortion, whether individual or collective, the antidote to groupthink is awareness: to know that all of us are susceptible to this type of group pressure, and to resist it by ordaining questioning, especially of foundational assumptions, as part of every decisionmaking process. So what would encourage and enable that?
The experts on groupthink list helpful steps, such as making every group member a critical evaluator; starting delibertions with an open mind, rather than a predetermined prescription; talking with people outside of the group about its deliberations, and reporting back; conferring with outsiders who can challenge group views; inviting a “devil’s advocate”; and paying attention to warning signs, constructing alternative scenarios based on them.
The throughline there is committing ourselves—whether we are part of the 1% or the 99%—to genuine openness, including openness to competing views; and ensuring this through commitment to practical steps that are never skipped.
If Stiglitz is right (and I think he is very likely to be), then the 1% currently sitting on top of the world are due for a big tumble when the conditions he describes are ripe: “[A]s more money becomes concentrated at the top,” he writes, “aggregate demand goes into a decline.” People stop spending, and the economy tanks, bringing down the top as well as the rest of us. As financial transactions continue to supplant manufacturing capacity and other productive investment, as “Efforts are directed toward getting a larger share of the pie rather than increasing the size of the pie,” he writes, the few get richer for a while, but eventually, there’s not much pie left. Think Nigeria, he says; think Congo. “Today’s widening inequality extends to almost everything—police protection, the condition of local roads and utilities, access to decent health care, access to good public schools,” Stiglitz writes. As more people perceive the unfairness of the economic order, as upward mobility becomes less and less plausible, the social glue of mutual responsibility and stakeholding erodes.
The groupthink represented by the pyramid that puts the Koch brothers at the top, Mitt Romney kneeling at their feet, Fox News spreading the social gospel of the plutocrats, and a vast viewership obligingly repeating its false claims—that one is especially easy for me to spot, since it attracts me not one iota. But on a smaller scale, I’ve seen groupthink operate in progressive groups too: people self-censor, tacitly understanding that their views are beyond the boundaries of a consensus that has become an orthodoxy; and instead of welcoming the devil’s advocate, we wish he or she would disappear.
Yesterday, a friend expressed his hope that in his second term, President Obama would extract himself from the warm bath of approbation drawn by a set of economic advisors who partake of the groupthink consensus that brought us Corporation Nation. A useful first step would be bringing in some principled dissenters, people of proven integrity, and refusing to marginalize them. Joseph Stiglitz, perhaps? He’s clearly learned a lot about countering groupthink since he left the Clinton administration 15 years ago.
Actually, it would be a useful first step just about everywhere, no?
I recently discovered the Alabama Shakes, a group of young musicians who fuse R&B roots and some kind of imagined future in which yearning bears no shame. “You Ain’t Alone”: “You ain’t alone, so why you lonely?” (And you ain’t, you know. I’m here too, and there’s quite a crowd with me.)