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Saturday, August 31, 2013

5 Social Tools In The War On Groupthink

The #1 problem we face today is not physical, i.e. that we cannot live together on this planet. It is social-psychological, i.e. that we cannot get groupthink, "mob justice," the "herd mentality," out of our heads.

Groupthink has always been with us. The modern-day version is branding. It started out as a decision-making technique: The simpler you think, the easier it is for me to sell you my version of soap flakes...breakfast cereal...motorcycle.

But branding has become way too successful. We see people living a glorious life on TV, we want the things they have, but our minds are dumbed-down by preoccupation with consumption. We fail to see the real world and to challenge and change the status quo for the better. (As Marx pretty much predicted.)

Last night on HGTV they had this show called Amazing Water Homes. One home was like an aquarium with walls. Another was a house built on top of a waterfall, the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Yet another was a house sitting on a tiny rock island in the middle of nowhere.

Every house nice. Every house innovative. But here's what I was trying to figure out:

If innovation were a product like Coca-Cola, and we wanted to duplicate the "secret recipe," how could we do that from scratch? 

Why can't everyone have an innovative house?

The opposite of groupthink is innovation. So let's challenge the obstacles that get in the way of the latter:

  • Failure to promote the necessary psychological qualities: Perhaps independence from the group rather than a kind of merging with one's peers; perhaps critical thinking; maybe an enjoyment of play and the view that serious things can and should be fun.
  • Stupid educational practices: How about eliminate standardized tests and force kids to actually write once again; how about catering to different learning styles; how about bringing our children to the workplace, where they can combine skills learning and exposure to real-world problems?
  • Pitiful gender norms: The HGTV show featured innovators who just "happened" to be males and an extended interview with the "long-suffering girlfriend" of one of them. Although it is true that we control our own choices, when women are lionized only for being self-sacrificing, deferential, etc. we encourage them to minimize their own ideas and ambitions unnecessarily. I recently saw this movie, "The Other Woman," where the "career woman" was portrayed as cold, uncaring and out of touch while the "relationship woman" was portrayed as sympathetic, human and worth caring about. Similarly, we must overturn shameful racial and ethnic stereotypes: The stereotype of the "brilliant and kooky Caucasian genius" is very, very overdone in Hollywood and was prominent in the HGTV show, as it seems to be everywhere.
  • Non-existent or non-communicated public incentives:  We can do a lot more to encourage innovation at the governmental level. Financial grants, computers, deregulation, partnerships, contests...the sky is the limit, but where is the effort? If it is there, the communication is sorely lacking.
  • Vast economic divisions: It was noteworthy that one of the innovators had a large, open plot of land in Wisconsin and time and space to be creative, thus he could build a gigantic fish tank without having to juggle two part-time minimum-wage jobs that might suck the creativity out of him. Can we not figure out a way to take the massive resources that we already have, the technologies already at our disposal, and simply disperse them more effectively?
We could do all of these things, if we wanted to. But we haven't really wanted to, so far. Because we haven't framed the problem correctly, and therefore don't see it as urgent, if we see it at all. Here it is:

Life is going to get worse for most people unless we start applying new solutions to old problems.

We haven't accepted the idea that change is necessary. 

Trying to maintain the status quo may be psychologically comfortable, but as resources grow scarce it will be impossible for many to maintain.

We haven't accepted that change means doing things differently.

The definition of change is that it means adapting to something unfamiliar.

We can't stop fighting amongst ourselves for limited spoils.

We continue to think that survival is about "getting and protecting." In reality it is about "creating, sharing and multiplying."

Let's take back that space in our heads, get off the groupthink train, start seeing our problems as urgent, and solve them creatively and together. Then we can all share in the rewards.

* All opinions my own.