The Insidious Bias of Groupthink

We are bombarded daily on television, radio and social media, with well-crafted pronouncements, by paid political operatives, pundits and activists.

They purport to tell us how to think, what to feel and who to support. The implicit message is if you wish to belong, then follow us. The messaging is reinforced by a host of social and other groups and organizations, which take their cue from these paid spokespeople; adopting the talking points, as their stated cause. Anyone not faithfully repeating all of the talking points is banned.

While diversity is a much-repeated slogan, the inclusivity is only skin-deep. Diverse opinions are typically scorned. Is it any wonder then that many remain silent so as not to experience the pain of rejection, by erstwhile friends and colleagues?

The enforced thought discipline and lack of genuine debate is in stark contrast to our traditions. Our Sages[i] treasured how marvelously G-d created humanity with each person having a face and mind unlike any other. They recognized the virtue of having a full range of different perspectives and expressions. Thus, the Sages were able vigorously to disagree with one another on matters of law and policy. Nevertheless, they were good friends, who socialized and supported each other[ii]. Their motto was there are seventy faces of Torah[iii]. It is a noble model, worthy of emulation.

Sacrificing this sublime aspect of humanity on the altar of conformity and groupthink in support of some contrived cause is unworthy. Does everyone have to march in lockstep, repeating the same cadenced refrain, just to feel a part of something? The image is jarring because it’s all too reminiscent of a totalitarian society bereft of personal freedoms. Whether it’s government, a non-governmental organization, dominant college campus group or mob[iv] enforcing groupthink discipline, the result is the same; it oppresses an individual’s right to think and speak for his or her self.

Groupthink tends to be self-reinforcing. Unchallenged by dissident voices or meaningful debate, there is hardly any assurance that the positions taken are correct ones. What if the groupthink is wrong? The age of prophecy ended millennia ago. Ever since then, the Sages[v] counseled, be deliberate in judgment. Said another way, a person should not be so sure about his or her opinions or judgments.

Absent healthy debate, an intellectual laziness often sets in. Critical thinking and judgment faculties are impaired by the need to conform and lack of genuine debate. There is also a tendency to overrate the wisdom of pithy catch phrases that lack precision and nuance. I can’t help but wonder, doesn’t it feel silly just mindlessly to mouth uniform talking points, prepared by some activist leader or communications expert, without any critical examination of the underlying validity or wisdom of the pronouncements? It resembles the double speak sloganeering of the Orwellian world of 1984 and, perhaps, that is what is intended.

The Bible, in this week’s Torah reading of Parshat Shoftim, provides a profound insight into the nature of this societal malady. Those occupying positions of presumptive moral or legal authority, who receive gifts or other remuneration, may not necessarily be reliable when it comes to matters of judgment. They may be wise and knowledgeable, but they may also be biased.

The Bible[vi] deems it axiomatic that receiving remuneration creates a problem of incipient bias. Interestingly, bribing someone to do what he or she would otherwise have done anyway is also proscribed[vii].

The bias may manifest itself in a variety of manners. It may just be viewing a person more favorably and, therefore, presumptively accepting the validity of their statements. The result, though, is a suspension of the critical function of healthy skepticism, which is so important to making an informed and well-reasoned decision.

The Bible uses the term ‘Shochad’ to describe the animating cause of the problem. It is typically translated as a bribe; but its meaning is much more nuanced. As Rava in the Talmud[viii] explains, the term is a contraction formed by the words “Shehu’ and ‘Chad’; meaning that he (i.e.: the beneficiary) becomes as one (i.e.: of one mind with the benefactor). Rava then goes on to discuss the psychological mechanics of how this occurs in practice. In essence, the beneficiary identifies with the benefactor creating an identity of interests. Thus, the beneficiary tends not to find fault in the benefactor, because that is perceived as finding fault in his or her self. This is so even when he or she wants to do the right thing[ix].

It is not only money that triggers this kind of response. As this Talmudic text goes on to point out, the bias can also result from friendship or mere words[x]. This is a critical observation. Who among us has not felt pressured to conform to the thinking of a social or other group to which we belong? We identify with the members of the group or we wouldn’t have joined the group in the first place. However, why does that require we share the same point of view on everything and all hew the party line or face expulsion?

The result is often punishing, whether a person chooses to remain in the group or, voluntarily or involuntarily, leave. Suffering in silence offers very little solace. There is also the oppressive boredom of not having anyone with whom to have an intelligent discussion of ideas. What’s the point, if no one will debate and offer any other perspective? With everyone feeling pressured just dogmatically to recount the party line, effectively, it is tantamount to talking to oneself.

What happened to being a part of a big tent, with a diversity of points of views and lively conversations? Unfortunately, whether it’s in the real world of relationships or in the virtual world of social media, insularity appears to be the sacred rule of the new world order.

It’s not easy to break out of this mold. However, being overly concerned about what others think about so many matters that are only tangentially relevant to the actual day-to-day struggles of life is such a distraction. It soaks up an inordinate amount of energy, which can better be devoted wholeheartedly to doing good deeds that really matter. The opportunities to do so are often found right in front of our eyes; not in some remote locale where we are powerless to do anything constructive. Let’s concentrate on doing what we can and doing it well. The Talmud[xi] states if you do something wholeheartedly, then G-d will help you to succeed. It is truly one of the secrets of life; be complete and wholehearted with G-d[xii].

As we approach the period of the High Holy Days, there is little time to waste, let alone for anxiety about what others say or think. Our charge is not to be a devoted member of a do little and say much group. It is also not to share in the mindless distraction of groupthink. It’s about actually doing good deeds and performing all of the other Mitzvot, wholeheartedly and with joy.

[i] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Brachot, at page 58a. See also Bamidbar Rabbah 21:2 and 13:16.

[ii] See, for example, the Mishna Keritot 3:7 (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Keritot, on page 15a), which records Rabbi Akiva, who disagreed with Rabban Gamliel on many matters, joined him to shop for meat for his son’s wedding. See also Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai who had many fundamental disagreements about the law but they still didn’t refrain from marrying one another (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, at page 14a).

[iii] See Bamidbar Rabbah 13: 16 and Zohar 3:20a:5.

[iv] Our founding fathers here in the US also recognized the problem. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, it is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. They crafted a system of governance designed to prevent tyranny of the majority. This includes our form of representative democracy as opposed to direct democracy. The system also has checks and balances & rule of law, imbued with a spirit of liberalism, which recognize the minority has rights too.

[v] Avot 1:1.

[vi] Deuteronomy 16:19.

[vii] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot, at page 105a and Sifre Devarim 144:10

[viii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot, at page 106b.

[ix] Ibid, Rashi commentary thereon.

[x] See also Rif, Sanhedrin 2b; Maimonides, Mishne Torah, The Sanhedrin and Their Penalties 23:3; and the Vilna Gaon’s Aderet Eliyahu commentary on Deuteronomy 16:19.

[xi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim, at page 32a.

[xii] Deuteronomy 18:13.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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