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At its best, there is support and unity and common goals when groups gather.

I have to confess that I had never heard of ‘groupthink’ before this week. I stumbled on the term in an article, which defined groupthink ‘as the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group, resulting typically in unchallenged, poor-quality decision-making’. This piqued my interest enough to read on and reflect on our priority to understand behaviour as a first priority.

Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of individuals reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the consequences or alternatives. In schools, we see groupthink most often within the adolescent cohorts, in which students gather in tight-knit huddles to avoid sticking or standing out. Older students are often (but not in all cases) more comfortable standing apart from their peers, both physically and metaphorically, and are generally more independent in their decision making. Fresh from an Intercol Week, we know groupthink can certainly emerge in sporting and spectating crowds too.

At its best, there is support and unity and common goals when groups gather. However, one of the most important aspects of groupthink that is sometimes overlooked is the fact that because the behaviour is dispersed over a group, the individuals no longer feel any personal responsibility for the outcome of the group behaviour. These are times when parents can find themselves at a complete loss to reports of the decisions and actions of their child. The typical pressure we would want and hope our young people to feel from their conscience or moral code can be diluted by the presence of the group, which in turn allows them to act and behave in ways that they would never do on their own. Paying attention to this – to group dynamics and the individuals within – is key to fostering a positive culture.

Many of us have been that parent at some point in our children’s lives, who has struggled to comprehend their choices and/or actions. In order to understand how groupthink may have been a critical influence at these times, Dr Nicola Davies, a researcher of social psychology, provides the following  considerations:

– Deindividuation – when people are part of a group, they experience a loss of self-awareness.
– Identity – when people are part of a group, they can lose their sense of individual identity.
– Emotions – being part of a group can lead to heightened emotional states, be that excitement, anger, hostility, etc.
– Acceptability – behaviours that are usually seen as unacceptable become acceptable when others in a group are seen carrying them out.
– Anonymity – people feel anonymous within a large group, which reduces their sense of responsibility and accountability.
– Diffusion of responsibility – being part of a group creates the perception that riotous or unacceptable behaviour is not a personal responsibility but a group one.

We will, of course, further unpack the concept and impact of groupthink in future mentor sessions and musters. But I thought it may prove helpful to share with you too these considerations for discussion across the dinner table, as you check in on your son’s daily experience at school.

On a global scale, it is not difficult to link groupthink to England soccer fans, the siege of a Capitol Building or the recent protests closer to home. Even more locally, the awareness and consideration of groupthink informs our focus on and commitment to an inclusive school culture – one in which every student feels confident to be himself, comfortable in his own skin, and with the courage to make his own decisions whenever he enters the school gates. Know that we are in partnership with you in encouraging and supporting him to do just this.

Marcus Blackburn
Deputy Headmaster/Head of Senior School