14 November 2009


In his paper, Why I Do Not Attend Case Conferences Dr. Paul Meehl, psychotherapist and former APA president, pointed out that:

In one respect the clinical case conference is no different from other academic group phenomena such as committee meetings, in that many intelligent, educated, sane, rational persons seem to undergo a kind of intellectual deterioration when they gather around a table in one room.

He identified a groupthink process by which [t]he most inane remark is received with joy and open arms. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, this phenomena is not limited to psychiatric case conferences and appears to extend to any time a group of people get together, including in mailing lists, social functions, and professional get togethers. In many such groups a form of reinforcement occurs, negative opinions are not tolerated, and if the group leaned a certain way before getting together, they will lean more strongly in that direction after leaving the group.

According to Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling, based on Janis and Mann's A psychological analysis of conflict, choice, and commitment: Groups where groupthink is taking place have a tendency to pressure group members who dissent or challenge the groups collective beliefs; they will deny or dismiss or rationalize away evidence that is contrary to the way they already lean; and they will tend to develop a firm belief in their own ethical standing. Some members of the group may also take the role of mindguard--members who protect the group from adverse information that might shatter their shared complacency about the effectiveness and morality of their decisions.


Evidence of these and other problems is not difficult to find in Neopagan circles. In larger groups, statements such as don't rock the boat are very common and tolerance can--ironically--become a buzzword for putting down dissent or enforcing the group's own ethical standards to the exclusion of others. It is not uncommon to see groups cast out, shun, or ridicule those who make statements that might be perfectly acceptable--if perhaps disagreed with--by any individual member independent of the group dynamic.

This group reinforcement mechanism is one of the ways in which group mythology can come about. Where people organically grow a set of beliefs about themselves and their group, simply as a function of people reinforcing each other without any form of an outside sanity check. Combine with a little UPG which may or may not be valid, and some interesting consequences can fall out of this.

This can also lead to individuals developing very particular views about the nature of what they do that may not extend to others doing similar work, but who are not a member of that group. Even if none of the issues of groupthink exist, there is a strong possibility of selection bias.

As spirit workers who deal extensively with UPG and spirits on the behalf of others this poses a particular problem for us, since it affects our ability to validate our experiences. The concept of Peer Corroborated Personal Gnosis (PCPG) is particularly susceptible to this, since it is affected not only by cultural biases but by group dynamics of that particular group of spirit workers. A message from a deity or a spirit to an individual can take an entirely different timbre if there is a form of group reinforcement going on, and the potential for boundary violations goes up tremendously.


Combatting this is not easy, as groups serve numerous useful purposes. They form support networks, resources for ideas, and can provide sanity checks of their own. In a small community as Pagans or Spirit Workers, groups provide a great means of socialization, finding romantic partners, and finding clients.

How can one work with and exist within groups, while at the same time avoiding succumbing to groupthink? I do not have any solid answers here, but here are some possible things that can help, (adapted and influenced by Janis's work, but not taken directly from that):

  • Encourage dissent and actively solicit people's objections and doubts. Allow them to air such thoughts without censure. Let people finish their thoughts before objecting to them.
  • Keep conversation civil. People who disagree are not the enemy, they simply have a disagreement and may be operating from different, and still valid, premise.
  • Engage in critical thinking and analysis of your own ethical structures. The specific ethics that you follow tend not to be as important as that you are actively considering them.
  • Avoid generalizing statements such as "all" or even "most" without empirical evidence when talking about people (or spirits, for that matter).
  • Don't assume you are right about anything.
  • If asking for confirmation, don't tell the individual what you concluded.

The last point, in particular, is especially important. It is easy to introduce confirmation bias into a situation without intending to, simply by telling someone what you found before asking them to confirm it.

None of this can cure it, and the problem of groupthink is notoriously tricky in governments, businesses, and organizations all over the world. At the same time, it is something we need to be talking about, so that we can be better aware of it when it does come up.

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