I Think, You Think,
We All Think Groupthink

by Mary W. Matthews

Groupthink. It sounds like something out of 1984, doesn’t it? In Victims of Groupthink, psychologist Irving Janis defined it as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

Janis identified eight symptoms of Groupthink:

Examples of Groupthink abound throughout history. Nazi Germany is of course among the most obvious, as are the witchhunts of the Middle Ages. But modern examples abound too. Think of the Roman Catholic Magisterium, insisting in July 2003 that its priesthood must be exclusively male, single, and chaste no matter what. Think of the certainty of al Qaida, the I.R.A., and other terrorist groups that the best way to please their gods of “peace” is to murder and destroy. Think of Jerry Falwell’s claim that 9/11 was the fault of feminists, gays, abortionists, and the ACLU.

Think of the Bush Administration’s obstinate insistence that tax cuts are the only perfect panacea. Think of its serene certainty that all the U.S. had to do was send in a few troops, and within days Iraq would fall at our feet with hosannas, eagerly adopt U.S.-style democracy, and unanimously become devoted followers of Franklin Graham.

“Oh, well,” you say. “We’re in Mensa. We’re too intelligent to fall for Groupthink.” Symptom one: the illusion of invulnerability.

“If we invade the Bay of Pigs, we will overthrow Castro
and bring glory to JFK. Nothing could possibly go wrong.”

Mensa may in fact be peculiarly vulnerable to Groupthink, particularly collective rationalization and the belief of some subgroups that they are morally righteous. Our history has demonstrated this on dozens of occasions.

In Mensa: The Society for the Highly Intelligent, Victor Serebriakoff, the man who rescued Mensa from death in 1953 and almost single-handedly made it what it is today, describes what has since become a familiar process:

  1. A group of Mensans does good volunteer work and has some initial success.
  2. An out-group forms, consisting primarily of “misfits and underachievers,” whose raison d’être appears to be to criticize, harass, and libel the first group.
  3. The workers are eventually harassed into saying “I do not need this <bleep>!” and resigning.
  4. The out-group, left in charge, discover that its principal talents are destructive. A period of “squabbling decline” sets in, with many Ms becoming inactive or letting their memberships lapse.
  5. A new set of active enthusiasts appears and the cycle starts again.

This first happened to American Mensa just a few years after its founding. AML began in 1961, largely through the efforts of Peter Sturgeon, John Codella, and Margot Seitelman. While Sturgeon remained LocSec of (then) New York Mensa, Codella served as Chair of American Mensa from 1961 to 1966, during which time, largely thanks to Codella’s genius for publicity, we went from six to 9,000 members.

A group of three Mensans formed, calling itself the Special Interest Group for Reform in Mensa, and attracted other Ms to their purpose, which was to get rid of both Codella and Victor Serebriakoff. SIGRIM portrayed Serebriakoff as a vicious, unscrupulous tyrant and Codella as an autocratic elitist. It made both men’s lives miserable with public accusations of arrogance, suppression of political opposition, and worse. The libelers even accused VVS of embezzling from his employer, and spread the falsehoods that his son was a delinquent and his 13-year-old daughter had had several abortions.

Serebriakoff wrote, “The most effective and able Mensa builder in North America . . . [was] John Codella.” (The History of Mensa agrees, saying that “Sturgeon could not praise Codella highly enough.”) VVS continued that Codella after many months “[was] driven to resignation . . . by this long campaign of energetic and unscrupulous harassment.” SIGRIM forced Serebriakoff himself to the periphery of Mensa for several years, and AML went through another, similar period of turmoil in the 1970s.

Serebriakoff described individual members of SIGRIM as “charming in person.” Just so, soldiers as individuals may be delightful people, but nevertheless participate in massacres without apparent guilt or remorse. Groupthink.

“Open-goods trains with lattice sides in the Chunnel?
What could possibly go wrong?”

The cycle Serebriakoff described has happened at all levels of Mensa, from the international to the local. It happened in Tampa Bay Mensa in spring 2003. The editor of the Tampa Bay Sounding accidentally offended the group’s LocSec, who promptly began a campaign of publicly vilifying the editor. The editor eventually resigned, unable to stop the attacks any other way and knowing that the reply “I am not the Evil Bitch Monster of Death!” would be as credible to those who did not know her as the reply “I am not a crook.” The LocSec continued her campaign of character assassination for several more weeks, portraying her ousted colleague to everyone who would listen as emotionally disturbed, impossible to work with, and “poisonous.”

Two things trouble me about this (yes, I am that LocSec's EBMD). First, every other member of the Tampa Bay ExComm knew for a fact that their LocSec was publishing defamatory falsehoods about a fellow ExComm member, and not one has raised the slightest public objection at any time. Are they as ethically corrupt as their LocSec? Are they morally supine? Or have they fallen victim to Groupthink?

The other thing that troubles me is the response I got from friends around the country. “Something similar happened in Washington, D.C.!” “Something similar happened in Ohio!” “Florida!” “Texas!” “Michigan!” “California!” “Illinois!” And several other local groups. You the reader, if you are a Mensan, may know of a similar incident in the history of your own local group.

It seems to me that the answer in all these instances — the ouster of Codella, the sidelining of Serebriakoff, and dozens of others — is Groupthink. The active members of Mensa, whether in-group or outside destroyer, begin to take for granted that because their initial motivation was laudable (at least in their own eyes), all subsequent judgments and actions are too — that it is impossible for them to take action detrimental to the group as a whole. They begin talking only to each other, forgetting the old adage, “Cultivate your enemies. They are the only ones who will tell you the truth.” They quell dissent; dissenters fall silent; and their group presumes that silence is agreement. And the next thing you know, another obtuse and destructive decision has been made by some of America’s brightest minds. Many dissenters treated to Groupthink never have the heart to work for Mensa again.

“We’re highly intelligent scientists, not soldiers. Let’s negotiate with that giant carrot-thing that looks like James Arness. An advanced alien lifeform is bound to be peaceful.”

Groupthink will never go away; it is inherent in humanity’s gregarious nature. So what, as Mensans, can we do when we see it happening?

“Of course we should proceed with the Edsel — everyone will love it!”