The Hypnotic Allure of Groupthink
by Thandazani Mhlanga | 22 April 2022 |
My picture of hypnosis, thanks to the movie industry, involves an unimaginably comfortable couch, a swinging pendulum, and the hypnotist’s persuasive and gentle voice counting down. But that concept always calls to arms the thinker in me to defend logic.
Thus, I have tended to write hypnosis off as elaborate quackery. (Health insurance providers tend to agree: many see it as an alternative therapy and don’t cover it.) Its 18th-century origins with the German physician Franz Mesmer didn’t help its case: he believed in an invisible fluid that flows between people, animals, and things in general. He called this fluid “animal magnetism,” and according to Mr. Mesmer, it could be manipulated to influence human behavior. It’s no surprise that animal magnetism has joined history’s long line of discredited and largely forgotten ideas.
Though the issue doesn’t come up often, Adventists have been rightly wary of hypnosis, regarding it as a sort of mind control. (Ellen White’s comments on “mesmerism” and mind-control are contradictory, depending on when in her life she was writing.)
Yet there may be something that happens in organizations like the church that is similar to hypnotism, and that’s what I want to talk about.
Suggestibility and mind control
The English word “hypnosis” comes from the Greek word hypnos, which means to sleep. This is only a descriptive definition of the observed state of consciousness during the hypnotic process, but it is somewhat misleading about the reality.
According to a piece published in the peer-reviewed journal, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, hypnosis involves both induction—the process for making the state of hypnosis occur—and suggestion—i.e., what the practitioner induces the subject to do in this state. The method of induction is hotly debated in the field, but it seems clear that hypnosis in clinical work isn’t as glamorous as Hollywood’s version.
The second part, hypnotic suggestibility, is “the ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts, or behavior.” What strikes me about this definition is that it implies that any alteration of someone’s feelings, ideas, and behavior by suggestion, with or without consent, might just be an exercise in hypnosis. Under that definition, the possibility of hypnosis comes uncomfortably close to home: it weaves hypnosis in with advertising, politics, and (sad to say) preaching.
And it also sounds very much like a phenomenon I see displayed with disturbing regularity in the church, and that I want to explore: groupthink.
Is groupthink mind control?
A piece in Psychology Today defines groupthink as
a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible. The problematic or premature consensus that is characteristic of groupthink may be due to group members valuing harmony and coherence above critical thought.
So, with that definition in mind, I ask: could suggestion, not unlike that which happens in hypnosis, be the reason behind the long list of non-optimal decisions often made by organizations?
What groupthink does, first and foremost, is to coerce you into surrendering critical thinking for the group’s good. Then it arms you with a new vocabulary that reflects the group’s ideologies. The consistent and strategic use of that vocabulary turns it into a hypnotic (using that term loosely) cycle that leads to more groupthink behavior.
Let’s consider the use of the word blood, a loaded word that religious and political leaders often employ. Consider the following statements:
- “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants; it is its natural manure.” (Thomas Jefferson)
- Blood alone moves the wheels of history. (Martin Luther)
- The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood. (Otto von Bismarck)
- The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. (Tertullian)
- If you close your eyes and place your finger on any spot on the map, it will bleed Christian blood. (Anonymous)
There’s a chance that some of those statements invoked feelings in you. The question is, was it rational thought or merely piety or patriotism? Consider the quotes rationally: Does the tree of liberty need to be watered by the blood of patriots? Is it truly its natural manure? Was the blood of the martyrs really the seed of the church? (You may even suspect me of being not pious or loyal enough when I question the use of these statements as motivators for missions or for patriotism.)
The argument could be made that the word blood is intended to disarm rational thought and lead us to what can only be called groupthink behavior—where patriotism or piety obscures rational thoughts.
Our own imaginary psychologist
Many successful institutions, from Fortune 500 companies to sporting teams, have psychologists on their payroll. I wonder if having a behavioral psychologist involved in the everyday function of the church would help us be aware of the dangers of groupthink? Could a psychologist help us not to lose touch with our logical side, when we’re tempted to let the group control our decisions?
Or what if we had pre-membership psychological counseling? Though I am not a trained behavioral psychologist, I’m imagining how the conversation with a behavioral psychologist might start:
“Look here,” my imaginary psychologist might say, “now that you are becoming a member of this group, there are natural psychological processes you will need to guard against, or else you could hurt yourself and others in the name of faith:
- “You might find yourself thinking that you belong to a special group of people, who are the only ones who got Christianity right. When you find yourself entertaining that thought, you are flirting with spiritual groupthink.
- “When you find yourself grouping those who share your ideas and those who don’t into “saints” and “lost souls” respectively, you are neck-deep in groupthink. Remember: all are people in need of a Savior.
- “When you finally consider yourself able to finish the statement, ‘The Bible is all about….(fill in the blank),’ and thinking that everything else is incorrect—that is, when you find yourself entertaining the thought that you have identified the grand theological theme of the scriptures against the views of others—you are on your way to groupthink.
- “If you consider yourself able to finish the statement, ‘You are not a true follower of Jesus until you… (fill in the blank),’ the exceptionalism that is characteristic of groupthink is tightening its grip on you.
- “When you find yourself indulging in an apocalyptic interpretation of everything around you without entertaining any doubts about your interpretations, tread carefully: disappointment, anger, and resentment may not be far behind.”
How to stop groupthink?
But I am not a behavioral psychologist.
And I do believe that there is wisdom in the multitude of counselors (Proverbs 11:14; 15:22; 24:6); an old African proverb says a fly that does not heed advice will always follow the corpse to the grave.
But I also believe that merely going along uncritically with what everyone around you is thinking, or what the church or our family or our country wants us to think, is a sort of societally approved hypnosis. Groupthink is another kind of mind control. We must of course listen to one another and respect each other’s ideas, but never suppose that just because everyone in my church thinks a particular way that I must think that way, too.
And so I ask: would a team of behavioral psychologists help to keep us from hypnotizing ourselves, by means of groupthink, into believing that we know more than we do? And so what better place than this to bring such a perplexing issue? I am confident that this community’s wealth of ideas and experience will help us to unravel this issue and expose its components.
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker, and author who is currently studying ancient Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have been blessed with three beautiful girls who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.