Critical Thinking and “Group-Think”

Who was it when I was a kid, who reminded us from the television, to “put on your thinking cap?”  Was it Miss Patty on Romper Room, with her magic mirror, or was it Captain Kangaroo, or Mr. Green Jeans?  These TV shows and characters were the 1950s predecessors of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.   A quick Google search confirms it was Tom Terrific, a part of the Captain Kangaroo television series.

At any rate, the takeaway is, have you “put on your thinking cap” today?  It’s especially important that you do so when you go to the polls or send in your absentee ballot in a little over a week.

Back in the 90s when I was writing my master’s thesis, critical thinking was a thing.  Right in my professional wheelhouse erupted the question, “Am I thinking for myself, or submitting to group-think, a psychological phenomenon about a sociological issue?”

Key to belonging to a group is a thing called “group-think.”  If we don’t go along with the thinking of the group we closely associate with, we feel like we’ve betrayed our tribe.  But let me encourage you, along with Tom Terrific, to “put on your own thinking cap,” and think critically, for yourself.

We are a people, pretty quick to jump on the bandwagon of what’s popular with our closest associates, or culturally acceptable, instead of stopping in our tracks and observing for ourselves just what we believe, through personal experience. Reflection seems to be a luxury we cannot afford in this society of instant access to anything and everything.

The slow to speak and slow to anger biblical concepts encourage us to stop before reacting. We often regret our instant reactions.  Upon reflection, “I didn’t mean what I said.”  

After some reflection and unemotional thought, most situations surprisingly resolve on their own. Given some time and reflection, even awful stuff usually reduces from an overwhelming emotional boil, down to a manageable simmer.  Have you heard the expression, “simmer-down?”

All of us could benefit from asking some critical questions of what we think.  In fact, when I joined my Methodist Church when I was fourteen years old, part of the catechism was to memorize and recite the Apostle’s Creed…” I believe in God the Father…”  At the time, that was the right thing to do – for me.  But, since the critical thinking thing, I’m less willing to accept what “they” believe, as my own – until I’ve identified what “it” is and reflected on it, sometimes for years.

For example, do I believe what I believe because they believe it or because I believe it?  Am I an unquestioning follower, or am I a leader?  Do I follow the group, or follow the leader (a children’s game, by the way), blindly?  Or, do I hear another rhythm in my head or heart, and move confidently to its cadence? 

In group-think, individuality is forsaken for expected conformity to the group.  Consensus is forced, when maybe a little bit of tension is what would produce the greater good.  Disagreement, given a chance, can fuel smarter and more thoughtful outcomes.

Harmony is paramount in group-think.  In fact, dissonance is felt to be dysfunctional to the smooth operation of groups and is discouraged at all cost.

My go-to example of “group-think,” from personal experience was when many years ago I served on a local jury.  It was a banal, he-said, he-said case, with no clear evidence other than the word of two combative inmates at the jail.  When it came time for deliberation, I was floored when a man – no foreperson was chosen or appointed – announced that, “we all know he did it, so let’s just go in and get this over with so we can go home.”  Everybody “agreed,” and that was that.

The fact was, I didn’t agree or disagree and really wanted some discussion, but surprisingly for me – a person who usually asserts my voice into the conversation, I stayed silent.  Group-think took over and I didn’t have the fight in me at that point, to stand out as an individual in that particular crowd.  But I think for the sake of accuracy in our decision, and for justice to have at least been attempted, I should have insisted on a modicum of rational discussion and individual responsibility.

Although I didn’t disagree with the group, I tacitly agreed when I stayed silent.  I surrendered to the group decision, even though my own thoughts screamed from within for a more thorough reflection on the matter at hand.

Critical thinking in my graduate school academic training (a little more recent than the jury-thing) required questioning the obvious; digging deeply, below the surface of things; a very non-group behavior.  In terms of belief systems, critical thinking demands that we don’t accept the whole of creeds, dogmas, ideologies, or the recycled thinking of others, at face value. 

Instead, we ask why, and we dissect and sort out those creeds and decide for ourselves what syncs up with our personal experience and sits with our souls, peacefully – not comfortably, because comfort can be a crutch of the status quo.   When a belief is really our own it should deeply rest or settle with us from our core, to our surface.

It seems one of the best opportunities in the world to practice critical thinking and avoid “group-think,” is coming up for Americans.  On or before November 3, 2020 we shall vote for our governmental representatives, after having thought critically for ourselves and ignored the noise of the groups yelling at us electronically.

I encourage you to vote privately – that’s a novel experience in this “voice-vomit” culture.  Vote thoughtfully and critically.



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