How to be an independent thinker

Written by Kimberlee Joi

When you find yourself on the side of the majority, you should pause and reflect” –Mark Twain

If you have worked in corporate America or a prototypical business setting of any sort, you are familiar with the oft reviled brainstorming session. You, and several of your co-workers, are rounded together to analyze a problem or come up with a solution or idea. The concept is that grouping several brilliant minds together at one time will produce exponentially more ideas- better ideas, perhaps- than one brilliant mind on its own. This seems like a common-sense endeavor, but these sessions often go left really quickly when put into practice. 

I have been in more brainstorming sessions than I care to recall and what typically starts as a feel-good crowd-sourcing exercise often unravels into consensus-seeking. The desire to gather multiple ideas ultimately turns into a desire to place one idea, of one individual, above all the rest. One person in the group, usually the most vocal and the most forceful, expresses an opinion; another agrees with that opinion based on the first person’s believability, followed by another and another until the opinion becomes the consensus of the entire group without any substantive evaluation of whether that opinion is legitimate or valid at all. Under the guise of collaboration, this is how groupthink usually gives way.

Groupthink decision making often forces individuals who oppose the popular viewpoint to stifle their own individual opinions and perspectives and align with the majority. The term “groupthink” was originally coined in Fortune magazine in 1952 by William Holingsworth White. But, Irving Janis, a social psychologist, pioneered the initial research on groupthink theory in the early 1970s. Janis described group think as:

“A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group, when the members’ striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”[1]

While it is easy to suggest that people have more fortitude and conviction in order to avoid falling prey to groupthink, there is some science that suggests that falling into groupthink may in some ways be an involuntary physiological reaction. Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns has found that when we take a stance different from the group we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection.[2]Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”

I have been placed in group settings where I too suppressed my opinions. I see myself as individualistic by nature. I am an only child. I am an introvert. I tend to march to the beat of my own drum. It is NOT in my nature to bend to the will of others.  However, in certain group settings, I do feel pressured to self-censor; because I do not want to be labeled as “difficult” or viewed as a person that does not know how to be a “team player“- a cardinal sin in the work world. There are also times when I have agreed with the opinion of the majority because it was an expedient option—I was tired of defending my position and wanted to free myself from the discussion altogether. So, I chose the path of least mental resistance.

Groupthink does not just play out in the workforce but in a variety of other settings as well. The herd mentality also exists in politics, social relationships, and in schools settings to name a few. Throughout U.S. history, groupthink has resulted in calamitous consequences (i.e. the Salem Witch Trials, Nazi propaganda leading to the Holocaust, the Jonestown Massacre, and the Invasion of the Bay of Pigs).

Nowhere is the herd mentality more prevalent than on social media platforms. Pew Research Center and Rutgers University recently conducted a study on a phenomenon referred to as the “spiral of silence.” The “spiral of silence” is the tendency not to speak up about policy issues in public when your own viewpoint is not widely shared.[3] The study found that in both personal and online settings, people were more willing to share their views on controversial subjects if they thought their audience agreed with them.

Some have theorized that groupthink is necessary to some degree in order to reach solutions and advance our positions. That is, when those in a group discussion do not share fundamental agreement on core issues it is improbable that there will be a compromise at all, and thus a solution.

But, groupthink has far more negative consequences than it does positive consequences. The most negative upshot of groupthink is that it does not allow for challenging opinions or ideas that might be dangerous or irrational. The leader of a group can proffer any idea, and it will go virtually unchallenged by the remainder of the group because of fear of being cast as an outlier. If the outlier chooses to speak up anyway, the leader of the group, and his or her acolytes, can use their “strength in numbers” to downplay or outright dismantle the opinions and ideas of the outlier—even if those opinions and ideas are accurate.

If we are truly seeking greater knowledge and greater understanding, we cannot undermine the value of constructive conflict, or disregard those whose vision may be different from our own. Although forcing individuals into groups can be a useful way to exchange ideas, it is only helpful when dissenters are allowed to have their say.

When those with unpopular opinions have a meaningful opportunity to be heard, it not only allows us to assess our viewpoints and come to more accurate conclusions, but it also encourages people to want to collaborate in the future. The Cornerstone OnDemand “The State of Workplace Productivity” Report reveals that 50% of employees would be motivated to collaborate if they received positive recognition for the input they shared.[4]

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who famously declared: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” If we wish to grow our understanding, we cannot analyze our opinions in an echo chamber. We have to allow others to challenge how we think, and we must be willing to challenge ourselves. If we can manage to mentally distance ourselves from the solution we’ve convinced ourselves is right, and in turn allow mental space to hear the views of others without immediate judgment and disdain, then we may slowly begin to see a paradigm shift in the cultural value of groupthink versus individuality and independence.

Kimberlee Joi is currently a part-time blogger/freelance writer and litigation attorney with more than 12 years of experience in the field of labor and employment law.  Her blog, scrivenista, is her passion made visible through writing.  Kimberlee Joi is a political enthusiast, passionate foodie, and recovering coffee-addict.  In her free time she enjoys traveling, reading, and binge-watching “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.”