Lemming-Like Thinking as Reason for Political and Scientific Fiascoes
Published: 2003-11-01

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1. Introduction

Homo sapiens is a social animal, equipped with herd instincts, thus susceptible to mass and group psychological effects. Our social nature can have positive consequences, for example symbiotic and synergetic effects, but also negative consequences, like uncritical conformism and lemming-like loyalty.

In order to prevent negative consequences of group psychology, group dynamic effects influencing a group of humans must be understood. Next, it requires courage and stamina to name problems and to keep pointing them out even if the group pressures to ignore them. Research has shown that only a small percentage of any group of humans has the skill to step out of the group’s bias and observe and analyze its own group objectively with a mental and emotional distance. And after having gained the necessary insight, an even smaller percentage of humans has the strength and character to act accordingly, which might be helpful to the group in the long run, but which is very often detrimental for the acting individual.

The most important feature of a group caught in negative group dynamic is that it has turned self-referential. Information from the outside no longer reaches the group, or only in a reduced way. Instead of objective input from the outside, it receives biased information mainly from and about itself; it consists of informational feedbacks. When such a system gets out of balance, it frequently does not tend to recognize and correct mistakes, but to sweep them under the carpet or to simply repeat or even increase them. In technology, the result is called a resonance catastrophe, which, under certain circumstances, can lead to the total destruction of the observed system.

Irving Janis coined the term groupthink for the group dynamic behavior of social groups of humans as discussed here. The basis of this behavior is the tendency of every human group to exert pressure on its members to conform to the group’s norms. In the eye of its members or its leaders, these norms define the group, and in their mind, these norms thus create group cohesion and subsequently improve the group’s capability to compete with other groups.

Tensions within the group occur, if a minority of group members violates these written or unwritten norms, which may be consciously defined or only subconsciously assumed. Initially, the conforming majority tries to convince the heretics to abide by those norms. If this does not succeed, a process of ostracizing and exclusion commences. The more severe the norm violation is or the more important the violated norm is for the subjective self-understanding of the group, the earlier and the more intensive this process will be. The highest priorities have those norms which are considered untouchable taboos of a society.

However, the social censorship of non-normative or non-conformist views starts much earlier, namely in the mind of the potential dissident who, already prior to any possible ostracism, has moral scruples to oppose the group majority, knowing that this act would be considered as non-conformist/non-normative, or in other words: as outrageous and immoral. In his novel 1984, George Orwell described these ‘scissors in the head’ in an extreme way with terms like "Doublethink" and "Crimethink." The first term refers to the difference between what a potential dissenter really thinks and what he dares to explicitly think through in view of the consciously as well as subconsciously perceived conformity pressure. "Crimethink," on the other hand, is the well formulated thought or even the expressed thought violating norms, paradigms or taboos.

2. Symptoms

2.1. Self-Overestimation of the Group

Synergetic effects result in a group that can perform better than the sum of each individual member could, if they were by themselves, because the awareness of not being alone, but to fight for a ‘common cause,’ has a motivating effect on most group members, driving them to higher performances compared to a scenario where they all were mavericks.

On the other hand, the same effect may also result in the group overestimating its capabilities up to the point of a feeling of invulnerability of individual members. This is accompanied by uncritical optimism, self-destructive, sacrificial courage and a dangerously high preparedness to take risk on an individual level.

Another negative group dynamic effect is an uncritical assumption which is especially modern in democratic societies: that the majority is always right, in particular when it comes to moral assessments. The more dominant a majority is in a controversial matter, the less the majority opinion will be questioned by its members. This can lead to a point where the individual member no longer considers the moral consequences of its decisions and actions.

2.2. Narrow-Mindedness and Prejudice

Because what cannot be true is not true, group members often collectively try to hush up or explain away statements deviating from their norms, in particular warnings about detrimental developments and information, which run contrary to their views.

Very often, stereotypical views about the carriers of different ideas prevail, especially about members and prominent personalities of competing groups. These views are dominated by negative, often malicious judgments, in which the weakness and inaptitude of the adversary is put in contrast to their own (overestimated) strength just as much as their own alleged moral superiority is contrasted by the claimed moral inferiority or even evilness of the adversary.

2.3. Conformity Pressure

I already mentioned the tendency of group members to be obediently submissive, to censor themselves even before any reprisals become effective or even before they are consciously aware of possible reprisals. Believing that the opinion of the group or at least the majority of its members are right has as a consequence that doubts are already blocked when they have barely come to mind; that the doubter does not spell out his doubts, because he tends to underestimate the justification and importance of his arguments.

This swallowing down of contradicting opinions results in a lack of objections, which the entire group misinterprets as a tacit agreement, which in turn increases the impression of conformity, thus enhancing the conformity pressure – a fatal vicious circle.

If the self-understanding of a group is challenged in spite of this conformity pressure, in particular if central dogmas and taboos are attacked with strong, rational arguments, this usually does not result in objective discussions of these arguments, but in accusations against the dissident to be disloyal to the group or that he has malicious or immoral motives.

The next step in increasing conformity pressure is reached when a group develops self-assigned "Guardians of Virtue," who make sure that all members abide by the group’s norms and that information running contrary to the group’s paradigms are kept away from the group, so that nobody doubts the objective and moral correctness of the group’s actions. In extreme cases, larger groups even institutionalize such censorship by assigning individuals or even entire departments with the task to ensure that the group’s norms are respected by all members, and that offenders are reported and subjected to disciplinary measures, which are often defined in meticulous detail.

3. Consequences

In exceptional cases, Group Think may well have positive effects, for example if a group is in deep crisis, the only way out of which is extreme cohesion of its members to prevent disintegration of the group and when extreme, self-sacrificial efforts of individual members are the only hope for success. But even in these exceptional cases, Group Think has a series of negative effects, which may even increase in a crisis:

3.1. Poor Collection and Processing of Information

The result of a wrong confidence in possessing the absolute truth is often that only such information is sought or taken seriously which fits into the preformed opinion. Intentional searches for information challenging preconceived views do not occur or are ostracized or suppressed as an unwanted "heresy".

Even if information contradicting preconceived views is gathered, it is frequently not objectively interpreted. It is simply forced into the existing image, often contrary to its obvious meaning.

3.2. Incomplete Survey of Alternatives

Because of the group’s bias, alternative objectives and courses of action are ruled out dogmatically when operative goals and strategies are set, which means that alternative scenarios are not even assessed for their potential qualities. Thus, potentially better goals and strategies are rejected out of hand.

3.3. Failure to review Old Decisions

Even if strategies agreed upon encounter enormous difficulties, and even if the initial objective seems to be unreachable, a critical reassessment of old decisions is often avoided, because doubts about the correctness of old decisions is considered a lack of loyalty and any alternative suggestion is considered to be a heresy.

3.4. Failure to Examine Risks

False information and examination of the reality necessarily results in a faulty assessment of risks involved in suggested courses of action. Group Think thus results in careless action, aggressive, conflict-prone economic or political behavior. Economical and political disasters are very often provoked by such behavior.

3.5. No Alternative plans

Believing in the group’s infallibility results in a lack of finding and surveying all reasonable alternatives, so that the group has backup plans in case it turns out that the initial evaluation is wrong. Thus, once agreed upon, plans without alternatives are being pursued even if they have already failed.

4. Antecedent Conditions

Group Cohesion: A trivial condition is of course that the group has any kind of identity giving it cohesion.

Insulation from Criticism: Decision makers of groups tend to insulate themselves from criticism coming from the outside. Outsiders are usually not taken seriously or are even rejected as hostile to the group.

Hierarchy: Authoritative hierarchical structures prevent or impede the forwarding of criticism from the bottom to the top.

Faulty Decision Making Procedures: No formalized procedures are implemented, which renders it unlikely that critical views from inside and outside reach the decision makers without negative consequences for the critics.

Homogeneity of the Group: One major factor for a group’s cohesion, its homogeneity, is at the same time its weakest spot, if this homogeneity is also given for views decisive for the decision making process.

Stress: Threats against the group from outside – even if only perceived subjectively – increase the tendency for Group Think, because conformity pressure grows in such situations.

5. Remedies

The first step in avoiding Group Think and the failures regularly resulting from it is to prevent the conditions listed above – except, of course, for group cohesion, which should just be kept at a reasonable level.

A culture of open and objective critique has to be cultivated, which includes the repeated encouragement to critique. A system must be implemented which channels such critique effectively to the decision makers, surmounting all the hierarchical hurdles.

Such an institutionalization of critique must not only include internal critics, but also critics from outside of the observed group, who are to be invited regularly to the decision making procedures or whose views should at least be presented and explained on a regular basis.

Advocati diaboli are especially effective, that is, individuals who intentionally take positions in opposition to – or even hostile against – views and strategies agreed upon, and who try their best to defend these positions. This forces the decision makers to convincingly harden their views against such argumentative critic or, if this is not possible, to revise their views.

It has to be pointed out and stressed over and over again that all analyses and all research is initially open to all results. This means that those results which are most radical and diametrically opposite to the expected results should be defined and discussed. Under no circumstances should they be excluded a priori from consideration or marked as objectionable. For each of the case scenarios under consideration, courses of action are to be outlined, preferably by different, independent groups, whose different results are henceforth to be discussed.

Searching information about an objective must be an ongoing process and has to include in particular such information which contradict hitherto held views, because only this information are able to reveal dangers resulting from decisions already made.

6. Group Think and Revisionism

6.1. The Anti-Revisionists as a Group

6.1.1. Definition of this Group

The group dealt with here consists of 95 to 99% of the entire population of all western societies, that is in an order of magnitude of probably up to one billion people. The only factor that defines the cohesion of this group is their sometimes fanatical opposition to fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, and National Socialism. Leading members in the hierarchy of this group, that is in media, politics, and academia, may each have other individual reasons, which contribute to their identification with this anti-group, like scholarly, economic and political aspects, but these reasons will not be considered here.

Fact is that almost all attempts to subject German history of the years 1933-1945 and those aspects of general European history entangled with this era of German history to a critical revision, encounter sometimes fanatical resistance by this group with the declared reason that such endeavors are an attempt to revive or rehabilitate fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, National Socialism and so on.

6.1.2. Structure and Symptoms

Leading Jewish organizations like Yad Vashem, the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center are on top of the anti-revisionist Hierarchy. Whatever these organization declare is taken as sacred law by their group. Ideologically seen, we deal here with Jews, committed Zionists, and dedicated German-Haters. This is the absolute, impenetrable hierarchical top of this group. Historians, political scientists, sociologists, and religious scholars, who have dedicated their career to the Holocaust dogma, define the correctness of factual statements. Politicians of many nations define the rules – sometimes only by setting school curriculums and memorial days, but sometimes even by enacting penal laws. These rules define what is to be believed, what has to be commemorated and honored and how. Finally, the media – in some countries together with the public prosecutors – watch with eagle eyes that announced truths are accepted and behavioral rules are obeyed. Ideologically seen, this elite is essentially – at least subconsciously – anti-racist/egalitarian on one hand, but anti-German as well as philo-Semitically racist on the other, two irreconcilable ideological poles, to be sure, which is, however, typical for this worldview.

The almost unassailable power of the upper hierarchical level has led to a hubris when it comes to defining alleged historical truths, which is then abused to deduct a political pseudo-wisdom that has become as widespread and universally accepted as nothing else in mankind history. This absolute power has led to a moral overestimation, in which "Auschwitz" is defined as the absolute zero on the moral scale, the absolute evil. As a result of this, victims of "Auschwitz" as well as all activities apparently in opposition to "Auschwitz", are considered to be absolutely good.

This moral hubris and extreme power resulted in a worldwide conformity pressure. Revisionist periodicals like The Revisionist are full of examples about the legal and social repressions of individuals who dared to criticize dogmatic views of this group. This is not restricted to Holocaust revisionists, who challenge the central taboo of this group head-on, but also for critics who merely scrutinize more marginal issues, like the "race question," the "Jewish question," or similar topics.

Insulation from criticism is total. Everybody who opens his mouth, within this group or outside of it, will be socially ostracized and may even end up in prison. Internal critics are silenced, if need be with threats of violence, as was shown by the example of the Jew David Cole. Academic critics lose their job, their career, their academic degrees, and sometimes even their freedom (Stäglich, Faurisson, Reynouard, Plantin, Walendy, Witzsch, Rudolf…). These opponents of this group’s views are dehumanized and depicted as devils incarnate and treated accordingly.

Dissenters within this group are not accepted at all, not even for a second. A critical review of reigning views and decisions is not only not encouraged, but also expressively condemned and punished.

If this group gets into a precarious situation due to obvious failures uncovered by daring dissenters, rather than admitting mistakes, a wave of propaganda is unleashed against these evil dissenters in order to increase the coherence of the group and to reinforce the uncritical belief of all members in the moral superiority and objective correctness of the group’s views and dogmas: media campaigns are launched, movies are made, museums built, memorial days announced, Holocaust education made compulsory, etc… The resulting extreme hysteria of the group’s members leads to an extreme form of Group Think, against which only a tiny minority can resist. Under such hysterical and threatening conditions, 99% and more of all humans start cutting out thoughts in their minds already at such an early point that they consider mere doubts about the correctness of the prescribed truth already as worthy of condemnation and punishment. Thus, a potential doubter develops guilt feeling already before he has even finished his heretical thoughts.

All symptoms and conditions listed above are given for the group under consideration, some of them to an extreme degree. I therefore conclude that this group has indeed developed an extreme form of Group Think, as it can hardly be found with any other group on this planet.

6.1.3. Consequences

Since the end of World War II, entire academic schools in history, sociology, political science, and also in other affected areas (like human biology), whose views could or can somehow be associated with fascism, racism, anti-Semitism or National Socialism – no matter if justly or unjustly so – have been prevented from participating on an equal level in scholarly discussions and controversies. This led unavoidably not only to scientific imbalances in those areas, but also to imbalances in the affected societies, because essential aspects and facts have been excluded from the decision making process. It is hard to determine how much this fact contributes to today’s problems of mainly western societies, but in some areas an influence can hardly be ignored, for instance in analysis and controlling the middle east conflict, the worldwide migration, collapsing birth rates of Caucasians with resulting instability of pension systems, the increasingly desolate condition of western educational systems, as well as the effect of international mega-capitalism and neo-imperialism under the cover of the term "globalization."

In the meantime, the decision makers in Jewish lobby groups and in science, politics, and media have maneuvered themselves into a position, where an admission of profound mistakes is no longer possible without a fundamental destruction of their credibility. This would resemble a social suicide of this group. It can therefore not be expected that these power elites will ever stop pursuing the strategy of inducing hysteria in the masses in order to keep up the conformity pressure. Thus, as a result of increasingly uncontrollable political, social, and economical imbalances, this system will have to collapse on a worldwide basis before any fundamental change seems to be possible.

6.2. The Revisionists as a Group

6.2.1. Definition of this Group

I define as members of this group all those who are seen as adversaries or even enemies by the first group discussed above, which includes: Biologists who are convinced that human characteristics and behavior is mainly genetically determined; political scientists who prefer national values over international ideologies; sociologist and pedagogues who reject egalitarian views on education; opponents of the Jewish faith and of Zionism; historians who view the German-European history in a more balanced, differentiating way. These subgroups are necessarily very heterogeneous, thus having only a very low group cohesion. Although some representatives of these subgroups are aware that all of these different subgroups are in a mutual, though involuntary confrontational position against the worldwide dominating ideology of the first group discussed above, only the subgroups develop group structures, which usually do not differ from the structures of any other average group. No structure exists that would give those subgroups a common basis to form a super-group, thus no Group Think can develop either.

In a more narrow sense, I define as members of the revisionist group all those individuals who have a critical attitude towards the dogmatic core of the first group, that is Holocaust revisionists, a subgroup of the before mentioned critical historians. This group has a structure that is quite different from "normal" social groups, mainly as a result of measures of persecution, repression, and ostracism to which the members of this subgroup are exposed. Subsequently, I will therefore focus on this subgroup.

6.2.2. Structure and Symptoms

Although the ideological make-up of this subgroup is anything but homogeneous, the proportion of individuals who have anti-Semitic, racist, or National Socialist views or who at least do not have any problems in associating with such individuals, is many times higher within the group of Holocaust revisionists than in the average population. To a certain degree, this unbalanced consistency is a counterpart to the ideological bias of the anti-revisionist group. The possible danger emanating from this reduced heterogeneity is thus similar in both groups.

Stress is the main factor causing symptoms of Group Think in this subgroup, which has its origin in social persecution as well as sometimes legal prosecution. Members of this subgroup tend to generalize morally reprehensible behavior of some members of the anti-revisionist group, thus accusing all members of the anti-revisionist group to be morally inferior, which can, in an extreme case, lead to the confrontation with almost the entire rest of the world. This subgroup as well develops a sense for loyalty and exerts conformity pressure, leading to non-objective attacks against dissident members of this group who dare to criticize group specific behavior. However, since this subgroup lacks any organizational structure and executive powers – both prevented by permanent persecutory intrusions by the anti-revisionist environment – such attacks are only verbal and do not last very long.

Dealing with arguments and views of the anti-revisionist school of thought is the main focus of revisionist activity. Hence, an insulation of this subgroup from external criticism and a restriction of the search for, and interpretation of, information cannot occur categorically for principal reasons. Such a restriction can, however, occur on a lower level, that is when certain details are discussed, which still can be decisive. In this regard, the revisionist school of thought is not any different than any other normal school of thought, which all have the tendency toward a certain academic self-satisfaction.

6.2.3. Consequences

With its persecutory pressure, the anti-revisionist environment tries to push the revisionists into total social isolation. This isolation results in a lack of objective criticism rendered against revisionist theories. For mere self-protection, non-revisionists try to avoid being brought into context with revisionists, even if they consider revisionist views to be partly intriguing or even convincing. This tendency of outer isolation is increased by an inner tendency of this subgroup to suppress internal dissidents, whose dissent is seen as a threat to the group’s cohesion, which isn’t that strong anyway due to this subgroup’s heterogeneity and the permanent social pressure it faces. Both bear the danger that revisionists turn into a group of self-referential researchers and writers, or, as mainstream writers express it sometimes, that they develop a "cartel of self-quoters". Active resistance and counter measures are necessary to fight this tendency.

7. Observations

As all schools of thought, so does historical revisionism need critical, unconventional thinkers as well as individuals who are eagerly prepared to assume and introduce controversial or opposing standpoints into any discussion. It is necessary to break through the walls of social isolation, which the environment keeps building around the revisionist group. This can be done first of all by cultivating a culture of discussion, which does not only accept advocati diaboli, but gladly welcomes them. This is so because only if revisionist theories can withstand the critiques of its harshest opponents, can it be considered fit to convince the world – at least theoretically.

There are sometimes attempts within revisionism to exclude from a scholarly debate critical, unconventional thinkers who have accepted the revisionist challenge and want to answer on an objective, factual basis. Such a behavior is not only detrimental to the revisionist group at large, but even more importantly to the entire process of researching the truth.

Despite all the stress this group is subjected to and which should be taken seriously, controversies are the extra something in any scholarly discourse and the key to the truth. For this reason, papers should continue to be published in revisionist periodicals, which challenge revisionist views. As the editor of two such periodicals, I am sometimes criticized for opening the columns of my journals to contributions which appear to contradict "our" philosophy or whose lack of scholarly value appears to be "self-evident". It is exactly such dogmatic judgments ex cathedra which define Group Think and which are thus so dangerous. If a discussion shows that a certain view is untrue or untenable, it is much better to expose this fact to the world rather than to stay silent, and thus to give the impression that one has run out of arguments. And if it turns out that opposing arguments aren’t completely untenable after all, they will help to render our research result even more accurate.

As long as such an exchange or arguments is objective and is dealing with facts, it is worth a discussion. Everything in moderation, of course.

Further Reading

  • Irving L. Janis, Groupthink. Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1982
  • Paul ‘t Hart, Groupthink in Government. A Study of Small Groups and Policy Failure, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1994
  • Paul Kowert, Groupthink or Deadlock. When do Leaders Learn from their Advisors?, State University of New York Press, Albany 2002

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Germar Rudolf
Title: Groupthink, Lemming-Like Thinking as Reason for Political and Scientific Fiascoes
Sources: The Revisionist 1(4) (2003), pp. 422-426
Published: 2003-11-01
First posted on CODOH: June 27, 2012, 7 p.m.
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