Christopher Booker: The Tyranny Of Groupthink

  • Date: 01/03/20
  • Christopher Booker, Mail on Sunday

Janis adapted Groupthink from a thinly disguised picture of life in Stalin’s Soviet Union, where the sense of a ‘group mind’, personified in ‘Big Brother’, was ruthlessly reinforced by means of endlessly repeated slogans, and ritualised ‘hate sessions’ directed at anyone daring to dissent in any way from the party’s line.

These people may be convinced intellectually that their view is right but their belief cannot be tested in a way which could confirm it beyond doubt. It is simply based on a picture of the world as they imagine it to be, or, more to the point, would like it to be

Chosen as Word of the Year in 2019, ‘woke’ was originally used about people sensitive to social injustice and racism.

However, it has become associated with an obsession with the pursuit of grievances – real or imagined – and has created a suffocating culture of authoritarianism.  

Here, Christopher Booker- in a book written shortly before his death last year- examines the havoc it is causing. 

Wherever we look, tensions and divisions exist in society that would have been hard to imagine even ten years ago.

And the issues that tear us apart are numerous: the growing influence of ‘identity politics’, whereby people form narrow and rigid alliances defined by their race, sexuality or cultural background; the omnipresent influence of social media; the fanatical intolerance of animal rights activists; the rise of Islamic terrorism; the chaotic state of British politics following the EU referendum.

Random and unrelated issues? Not at all.

It is my belief they are all connected by a phenomenon that has in recent years become increasingly influential in British life: ‘Groupthink.’

Coined in the 1970s by Irving Janis, a professor of psychology, it refers to a group of individuals fixated on a particular view of the world, whether or not there is any evidence to support it.

So convinced are they that their opinion is correct that they cannot believe any sensible person would disagree.

Most insidiously, this leads them to treat all those who differ from their beliefs with contemptuous hostility. Groupthink now comprehensively governs our lives in Britain.

From the way we are ruled and policed to the way our children are educated – even to the received wisdom about global warming – Groupthink in its many guises is at the heart of it all.

We meet its followers socially, we hear and read them incessantly in some sections of the media, and we endure our politicians speaking in the cliches of Groupthink all the time.

The psychological condition from which they are suffering is contagious, extremely powerful and increasingly showing itself to be potentially very dangerous.

Meanwhile, in Bristol, police officers painted their fingernails blue to highlight the problem of ‘slavery in nail bars’. When this attracted witty comments on Twitter such as, ‘What about nailing some criminals?’, the bosses at Avon and Somerset Police reacted by issuing a statement saying: ‘If anyone found these comments offensive, please report them to Twitter. If you feel that you were targeted and are the victim of a hate crime, please report this to us. We take this issue extremely seriously.’
Meanwhile, in Bristol, police officers painted their fingernails blue to highlight the problem of ‘slavery in nail bars’. When this attracted witty comments on Twitter such as, ‘What about nailing some criminals?’, the bosses at Avon and Somerset Police reacted by issuing a statement saying: ‘If anyone found these comments offensive, please report them to Twitter. If you feel that you were targeted and are the victim of a hate crime, please report this to us. We take this issue extremely seriously.’

Groupthink is most prevalent when we come up against people who hold an emphatic opinion on some controversial subject, but who, when questioned, turn out not really to have thought it through. They have not looked seriously at the facts or the evidence.

They have simply taken their beliefs on trust, ready-made and second-hand, from others.

But the very fact that their opinions are not based on any real understanding of why they believe what they do only encourages them to insist even more vehemently and intolerantly that their views are right.

Like so much that affects our daily lives in Britain, it all began in America. In January 1987, an estimated 500 students and staff gathered at California’s Stanford University to listen to an address by the civil rights campaigner, the Reverend Jesse Jackson. What happened next had unimaginably far-reaching consequences.

As Jackson finished speaking, his audience surged angrily across the campus to a meeting of the university’s governing body, chanting words which became infamous: ‘Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go.’

The target of their fury was a compulsory Western culture course designed to introduce students to history, ideas and literary classics. But to the protesters, everything about it is was deeply offensive.

For example, they were incensed that set texts were all written by ‘dead white males’ such as Plato and Shakespeare.

The concerns and views of women, black writers and other racial and cultural groups, they argued, had been shut out.

As a result of the protests, and in the name of the new buzzwords of ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’, the university course was swiftly redesigned and new ones such as ‘gender studies’ and ‘feminist studies’ were introduced.

As Professor Janis saw it, Groupthink is a term ‘of the same order as the words in the Newspeak vocabulary George Orwell (pictured above) presents in his dismaying book Nineteen Eight-Four’
As Professor Janis saw it, Groupthink is a term ‘of the same order as the words in the Newspeak vocabulary George Orwell (pictured above) presents in his dismaying book Nineteen Eight-Four’

Political correctness as we now know it had been born.

Inevitably, the new ideas were swiftly and eagerly embraced in universities in Britain, which, of course, remain a hotbed of political correctness.

For instance, the philosophy faculty of Oxford University announced in 2018 that in order to attract more female students, its ‘diversity and equality officer’ should draw up a new reading list.

The result was that after 2,500 years of civilisation, during which all but a tiny handful of the world’s leading philosophers had been men, 40 per cent of the authors on the new Oxford reading list were now to be female.

To make room for the new additions, eminent philosophers from down the ages had to be ditched. Utter madness, you may think, and you would be right. But both of these events are a perfect example of Groupthink at work.

Let us examine this insidious concept in more detail.

As Professor Janis saw it, Groupthink is a term ‘of the same order as the words in the Newspeak vocabulary George Orwell presents in his dismaying book Nineteen Eight-Four’ – Newspeak being ‘propagandistic language marked by euphemism and the inversion of customary meanings’.

For Orwell’s seminal work centred on an imaginary totalitarian state of the future which attempted to brainwash all its citizens into a rigidly intolerant state of groupthink that obeyed all the familiar rules.

It was no accident that Janis adapted Groupthink from this thinly disguised picture of life in Stalin’s Soviet Union, where the sense of a ‘group mind’, personified in ‘Big Brother’, was ruthlessly reinforced by means of endlessly repeated slogans, and ritualised ‘hate sessions’ directed at anyone daring to dissent in any way from the party’s line.

Fiction also offers a perfect short parable of Groupthink in action in Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes.

When the emperor parades through the streets in what he has been talked into imagining is a dazzling new suit, all his obsequious subjects rush to acclaim it as handsome beyond compare.

Only the little hero of the story points out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes at all. He is stark naked.

The idea that he is wearing any clothes is wholly imaginary. Of course, those caught up in the ‘consensus’ make-believe angrily turn on the boy for pointing out nothing less than the truth.

Janis duly outlined three defining rules of Groupthink.

First, a group of people come to share a common view, often proposed by a few individuals deemed to be an authority on the subject, that is not based on objective reality.

These people may be convinced intellectually that their view is right but their belief cannot be tested in a way which could confirm it beyond doubt. It is simply based on a picture of the world as they imagine it to be, or, more to the point, would like it to be.

The second rule is that precisely because their shared view is essentially subjective and not provable, Groupthinkers go out of their way to insist that it is so self-evidently correct that a ‘consensus’ of all right-minded people must agree with it. 

Any contradictory evidence and the views of anyone who does not agree with them can be disregarded entirely.

The target of their fury was a compulsory Western culture course designed to introduce students to history, ideas and literary classics. But to the protesters, everything about it is was deeply offensive. For example, they were incensed that set texts were all written by ‘dead white males’ such as Plato and Shakespeare
The target of their fury was a compulsory Western culture course designed to introduce students to history, ideas and literary classics. But to the protesters, everything about it is was deeply offensive. For example, they were incensed that set texts were all written by ‘dead white males’ such as Plato and Shakespeare

Third, and highly significant, is the rule which states that in order to reinforce the conviction of the ‘in-group’ that their viewpoint is right, they need to treat the opinions of anyone who questions it as wholly unacceptable.

These people are crassly considered incapable of engaging in any serious dialogue or debate with those who disagree with them.

Those outside the bubble must be marginalised and ignored, and if necessary their views must be mercilessly caricatured to make them seem ridiculous.

If this is not enough, they must be attacked in the most violently contemptuous terms, usually with the aid of some scornfully dismissive label – such as ‘bigot’, ‘prude’, ‘xenophobe’, ‘Little Englander’ or ‘denier’.

Dissent in any form cannot be tolerated, as is seen too often in daily life today.

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