How Groups Become Extreme

Originally published on The Huffington Post, March 12, 2012

In two recent op-eds in the Huffington Post (“Is Truth in Politics Possible? Is Truth Possible in Anything Human?” and “Absence of Truth: Why the Republican Candidates Can’t Get Anywhere Near the Truth”), I argued that historically there are at least four different kinds and meanings of “truth.” There are of course more than four. But four is enough for my purposes.

Very briefly, first, there is traditional, primarily fact-based, impersonal, seemingly emotion-free, and unbiased scientific truth. (Science isn’t emotion free at all and it’s certainly not completely unbiased. It just hides its emotions and biases better than most fields. It also kids itself that they aren’t there. As someone with a Ph.D. in engineering, this doesn’t mean that I don’t believe strongly in science. I not only believe strongly in it, but I condemn those who don’t. Since it is done by humans, I just don’t believe that science is perfect.)

Second, there is speculative, philosophical, and theory-based science.

Third, there is community-based, social truth. This kind resides in the social customs, morals, religion, and wisdom of a community.

Fourth, there is also the kind that resides in the social customs, morals, religion, and wisdom of a small unit, typically a particular family, or close set of friends.

I also argued that all four of these ways fundamentally presuppose and depend deeply on one another. They couldn’t exist let alone work without the others.

I also argued that the current crop of Republican candidates has lost complete touch with truth (reality) because it is the captive of primarily one and only one way of knowing. In brief, the Republican candidates are the captives of the most primitive and debased forms of the third and fourth ways of knowing. For instance, in rejecting evolution and global warming, they are rejecting not only science, but rational thought itself. No wonder why liberals such as myself are so outraged and turned off by their ignorant rants.

But the question I want to raise here is: “How did the Republican Party become so skewed in its thinking? How did it become the captive of a perverse way of knowing and concept of ‘truth’?” There are of course sound historical answers to these questions starting with Goldwater’s humiliating defeat in ’64. As potent as these explanations are, I want to offer a different one.

In the late 60’s, a lifelong friend and colleague, Ralph Kilmann, and I hit upon the idea of putting all those with the same psychological outlook into the same group. Using a psychological test, we put all those who believed in the first way of knowing into one group; all those who believed in the second way into another one, etc. We then gave all the groups the same open-ended exercise: “What is your group’s definition and/or idea of ‘society’s most important problem?'” We also asked each group to: (1) build a collage of their problem definition so everyone could see their thinking, (2) give their collage and problem a short identifying name or label, and (3) list as many characteristics of their problem and collage as possible.

In this way, we were able to “see” personality, which by definition is an “internal state of mind,” and thus very difficult to observe by the untrained eye.

The exercise worked so well that my colleagues and I have been using it for over 40 years to help groups and organizations of all kinds to understand why different people don’t see the world in the same ways. The purpose is not only to help them understand one another better, but to use their differences constructively.

Putting people who all think alike into a common group does at least two things almost instantly. One, the particular group in which people are put very easily and quickly reaches strong, if not nearly complete, agreement. Two, the differences between the groups become magnified and even more intense. This makes it even easier to see differences in personality.
Notice carefully that we gave an open-ended exercise for if we had defined the exercise precisely, then in effect we would be operating primarily out of the first way of knowing. We deliberately wanted to give something nebulous on to which all the groups could project their different personalities.

After the groups have presented their collages, it quickly becomes apparent that each of them is speaking a totally different language. If one’s native language is German and another’s is Chinese, one usually doesn’t hesitate to involve a translator, particularly if one’s negotiations are crucial. But, one rarely involves a translator if people seem to be speaking the same language when in fact they are not.

If in addition, one introduces people into each group who are especially aggressive and extreme proponents of their particular way of looking at reality, then the groups quickly become even more extreme and one-sided. It then becomes virtually impossible for them to see that there is anything worthwhile in other ways of conceiving of reality.

In short, it is rather easy to create extreme groups. Indeed, over time, more moderate members are expelled for not adhering to the “group line.” And, the more that are expelled, the more extreme a group becomes.

I wish we could do for society at large what we are able to do in our workshops. There we are able to step back and explain how we created the groups, how and why they speak different languages, and help all the participants to come to see that the problems we are facing are so complex that they can’t even be properly defined, let alone solved, by one and only one way of looking at the world.

To build up their capacity to understand and appreciate different ways of apprehending reality, one of the other things we do is to create mixed groups. We then give them complex problems such as global warming that cannot even be defined, let alone solved, unless they integrate different ways of thinking.

To put it mildly, it takes a great deal of practice and encouragement to appreciate all four ways of knowing. To say that we desperately need more people who can do this is one of the great understatements of our time.

For this reason, I am utterly appalled when Sen. Santorum says that “going to college is an elite idea.” Really! College is one of the best, but not only, places where we can learn about ourselves by having our ideas challenged.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, March 12, 2012

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Investigator with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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