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Mosby There’s a Hole in Your Armor: Overcoming the Threat of Groupthink in the Tribal Construct

Discussion in '3 Percent' started by melbo, Mar 7, 2015.

  1. melbo

    melbo Hunter Gatherer Administrator Founding Member


    (Reader “Old Crow” sent me a pdf the other day. It was a thesis from the Naval Post-Graduate School entitled GroupThink: A Significant Threat to the Homeland Security of the United States by James E. Riccuti, from December of last year. Correctly, he mentioned that it had some interesting relevance to the current trend of article subject matter on this blog.

    Since it’s an issue I’d been thinking a lot about lately anyway, as a factor in metacognition, it was a particularly well-timed piece of reading. –JM)

    The term “groupthink” was coined in 1952 by William Whyte, Jr, in an article for Fortune Magazine. In 1972, social psychologist Irving Janis produced what is generally recognized as the essential work on groupthink entitled Victims of Groupthink. In it, Janis traced the phenomenon in foreign policy fiascos, ranging from Pearl Harbor to the Vietnam War. Janis pointed out that the problems arose in foreign policy when the policy making insiders, who prized their membership in the elite circles more than the quality of outcomes from their decision-making, remained silent, rather than voicing their doubts or disagreements rather than making waves.

    A more recent example of the same problems can be seen illustrated in Robert Jervis’ book Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War. Jervis discusses the fact that the US government spends massive amounts of money on gathering and analyzing intelligence, and still suffers catastrophic failures as the end product remains a flawed and imperfect thing. Analysts are influenced and corrupted by political influence, poor decision-making, stovepiping of information, and epic levels of groupthink at multiple levels.

    Groupthink and Social Identity Theory
    Social identity theory is a theory of group dynamics that is closely related to groupthink. Both areas of study involve the dynamics of in-group and out-group (in the tribal context, we use innangard and uttangard), as well as the decision-making processes within groups. To comprehend groupthink, a person needs to understand in-group and out-group dynamics established by social identity theory, which plays such a critical contributing role in groupthink.

    Social Identity Theory hypothesizes that individuals have the tendency to self-categorize into groups for the purpose of socially constructing their own identities closely reflecting the belief systems of the affiliated group. Group membership in such a self-selected group offers the individual an identity that often grants a perceived sense of belonging and a positive self-image. THIS IS CRITICAL to understanding, recognizing, and overcoming the weakness of groupthink.

    While there are social psychologists that argue the validity of the Groupthink Theory, common sense, borne of the empiricism of life experience tends to validate the theory, in my personal experience.


    Groupthink occurs when members of a group prize their membership in that group more than the quality of decisions or consequences of the decisions that result from their membership in that group. The group members frequently sanction the group consensus, or a respected leader’s preconceived agenda, censoring their own doubts, disagreements, or other potential courses-of-action that their personal experiences and education—outside of the group—indicate would be superior.

    When suffering from groupthink, people may reject outside opinions, even in the face of empirical evidence of disastrous consequences, vociferously defending the faulty decisions of the group. THIS IS NO DIFFERENT THAN DRINKING GRAPE KOOL-AID, AS A GROUP!

    We see this a lot in the preparedness community, and even more so in the III% community. We have our beliefs, and they tend to be relatively homogeneous. When they do differ, they create ugly schisms that people are happy to sit behind their computer screens, and threaten violence over.

    The problem arises when we cannot step outside our preconceived notions of morality, legality, and what is right. This can range from white supremacists blathering that anyone who doesn’t support their “all joos must die” is a self-loathing shitbag, to anarchists arguing that “all government is theft,” to the fundamentalist that believes my use of the word “fuck” in my writing somehow offends their God and thus completely invalidates any of the points I am making.

    It can range from the arguments that the Constitution is a divinely inspired document versus the idea that it was—and is—the most advanced form of man-made governance available thus far in the human experience, however flawed (my stance), versus the argument that it was all part of a multi-generational conspiracy to control the human race as slaves to Lizard Alien Masters from outer-fucking-space.

    It can even be as benign as the group of late middle-aged preppers who are offended by my constant rantings on the importance of serious physical conditioning for preparedness and combat survival, deciding that since I’m “obviously” not talking to them, they should disregard what I’m talking about (incidentally, I’m sure this applies to a lot of other writers as well. I’m just limiting it to my first-hand experience).

    If you, your family, and your tribe suffers from groupthink—especially if you don’t recognize it—there is a serious, severe, dangerous hole in your preparedness armor. You’ve GOT to begin to recognize it, and then start finding ways to overcome it.


    Irving Janis hypothesized that there are several antecedents that lead to groupthink. When these antecedents are present in a group, they are MORE likely to engage in groupthink. Among these antecedents are:

    • Insulation of the decision-making group.
    • Lack of impartial leadership and established methods and procedures.
    • homogeneity of the decision-making group.
    Of course, among the traits that classify a group as a “tribe” are “mutual exclusivity.” This is some degree of homogeneity within the group that separates it—defines it—as different from other groups and the rest of the world. Further, the concept of innangard, versus utangard, is the very definition of insulation of the group and their values, from the outside world. Avoiding that mutual exclusivity and insulation is completely counter to the concept of building and strengthening a tribe.

    Thus, it would appear, that avoiding groupthink and strengthening the tribe are mutually exclusive goals, right?

    Well, not necessarily. The second antecedent, if countered, can go a very long way towards overcoming the other two. Having leaders within your tribe who establish and enforce impartial, valid decision-making and analytical methods can help overcome the homogeneity and insulation of the tribe to avoid groupthink.

    Establishing Leadership

    I know, sure as shit, some fuckwit is going to pipe in with a comment claiming that I’m setting myself up on some sort of pedastal because I want to be a leader. Well, go piss up a goddamned fast-rope, I’ve publicly and privately told people within this community, and within my own community, that I lack any interest whatsoever in leadership roles. In fact, as I pointed out to a class host in Colorado a few years ago, I’m a horrible choice for a leader, because I’m entirely too corruptible. I recognize that about myself. Beyond that, I’m actually a lazy motherfucker, and I know from experience, being a good leader is a metric shit ton of work, the which I’m just not interested in.

    Nevertheless, the fact is, leadership is necessary, from both a tribal perspective and a combat survival perspective. Whether you want it or not, in a collapsing social environment, I can guaran-goddamned-tee you, you WILL have leadership, for better or for worse. You’re either going to get the leaders you select, or you’re going to get the leaders you deserve, because you didn’t select the leaders you should have. It’s that simple.

    Selecting good leaders for the survival of the tribe can take a variety of forms. It may very well be that “natural leaders,” those individuals with the charisma, character, and capabilities to be admired, will naturally be placed into those positions, by default, as the members of the tribe turn to them for guidance in difficulties. Alternatively, it may be that a tribe establishes a more democratic form of electing leaders, through public acclaim or through an actual election. Finally, for those “tribes” too naïve to be bothered with selecting leaders, well, the leaders you get are what we call “masters” to your servitude.

    When choosing leaders, we need to look for those who will make a conscientious effort to avoid the pitfalls of groupthink. Doing this however, requires that the leaders—and the members who select those leaders—recognize what Janis posited were the eight symptoms of groupthink in an organization.

    1) Belief in inherent morality. Obviously, we believe we are moral people. Someone who doesn’t believe they are basically an intrinsically moral person has some serious issues. Belief in your morality however is not synonymous with “because I am inherently moral, every decision I make is inherently moral.” We need to recognize that even good people make immoral choices and decisions.

    Further, while our belief systems may not be exactly the same, we need to recognize the importance of a shared sense of morality within the group, while simultaneously recognizing that our definition of moral may not be the same as a neighboring group’s. Morals are exceedingly tribal in nature.

    “Thou shalt not murder.” Well, perhaps. That makes a lot of sense, from a modern moral stance, until you start looking at the source material, and the number of murders that “righteous” men committed in the literature. It starts to make one Hell of a lot more sense when you consider it from a Judaic, tribal law perspective, that considered members of the tribe as human and others as “Gentile.”

    “Thou shalt not murder members of the tribe [because doing so weakens the tribe’s ability to defend itself from outside threats].” Damn, that makes sense, doesn’t it? Doesn’t jibe with our modern definition of good morals, but it makes sense, and from a tribal perspective, putting the tribe above outsiders, it’s damned good morals.

    So, our morals are good. Sharing morals are good. Believing in the righteousness of our morals is good.
    Assuming that a) our morals are the ONLY “good” morals and b) are the same “good” morals shared by others who share other aspects of our beliefs is not only naïve, but also a recipe for the weakness of groupthink.

    2) Stereotyped views of outsiders. Again, the concept of innangard and utangard requires us to separate our tribe from outsiders. I use the term “mutual exclusivity.” It’s what defines “us.” “I’m an American!” “I’m a Baptist!” “I’m a Mormon!” “I’m a Special Forces soldier!” “I’m a US Marine!”

    That exclusivity however, does not require us to blatantly stereotype all outsiders, even though it often does. “Niggers can’t think as well as white folks can!” Well, how do you explain someone like Thomas Sowell? Because, he’s black, and anyone who thinks that man is stupid.

    “All Asians are super-smart math nerds.” Well, except the Chinese-descent kid I went to basic training with that couldn’t add to 20, without taking his goddamned boots off.

    “People who don’t prep are blind sheep that won’t last ten minutes when TSHTF.” Well, sure they will, Princess. You’re a special snowflake because you’ve got beans and rice in the basement. Except, what a about the dude who’s got a team of ex-pipehitters on tap, all of them with multiple deployments downrange worth of experience, and the day he realizes TSHHTF, decides to put the crew together, to go take what they need to protect their families? They’re not going to last ten minutes against a bunch of untrained, out-of-shape “preppers” with Mosin-Nagants and a years’ supply of beans in the basement? That’s a PERFECT example of groupthink in action; groupthink that will get you killed deader than fuck.

    Stereotyping outsiders, even in less obvious ways, will lead to faulty decision-making.

    3) Self-Appointed “mindguards.” Mindguards is a term Janis used to define those members of a group who self-appoint themselves as what could be termed “inquisitors.” These are the people who ridicule and deride anyone or any opinion that differs from the established storyline.

    If you think these people don’t exist in our “community,” go play in traffic.

    4) The illusion of unanimity. This symptom is often seen in groups, when people refuse to speak up with differing opinions or hypotheses. This may be out of fear of the “mindguards,” or the simple fear of losing their self-identity as part of the group. Unanimity is important, as part of the tribal structure. We need to present a united front to the outside world. Within the group’s inner sanctum however, inside the safety and security of the innangard (“inner yard”), we need to not only feel, but actually possess, the freedom to disagree with one another—especially when we’re looking at decision-making and analytical issues.

    Failing to point out an obvious failure, or that something has been overlooked, in the spirit of unanimity, is a derivative of the fifth symptom of groupthink,

    5) self-censorship.

    6) Collective rationalization. Collective rationalization is what we see when a bunch of whiny bastards start moaning about trainers telling them they need to do PT. “But, I’m old.” “Damn right! I’m old too! These young punks just don’t understand!” “Yeah, right! They’ll be old too one day! Then, they’ll understand!”

    You’re right. I will be old someday. I’ll be old and still be a bad ass, because I won’t die from someone else telling me that being old is an excuse, and helping me rationalize my failures and weakness.

    Collective rationalization is what we see when people start bemoaning their ability to make friends and build tribes, because “everyone else is a sheep!” “Damned right! Kids these days can’t even be bothered to show respect, let alone put food storage aside!” “They think because they’re going to protect us, we should help feed them!?”

    Perhaps, “kids” these days are disrespectful because they don’t perceive you as being worthy of their respect. Old age does not wisdom equate in a protected, soft, whiny society where other men carry your water by wearing a gun and a badge and hunting the predators for you. No, I don’t think you “owe” your preps to anyone…but I also don’t think I owe you fuck all in the way of protecting your food preps because you’re too lazy or “old” to do it yourself. All your buddies standing around agreeing with you doesn’t change that.

    The problem with collective rationalization is that it leads to all the other symptoms. Standing around, listening to your friends tell you that it’s okay you’re a fat fuck who can’t walk up a flight of stairs doesn’t do you any good. It reinforced your belief in inherent morality (“It’s okay to be fat! You’ve got a thyroid problem!”). It reinforced your stereotyped views of others (“John can front squat 300+ pounds? And run a sub-1:00 300 meter shuttle run? He must be on steroids!” I’m not.). It creates the illusion of unanimity (“Yeah, fat fuckers of the world unite!”). Collective rationalization is collectivism. Period.

    7) Direct Pressure on Dissenters. Yeah, this never happens in the preparedness community, right?

    8) Illusion of invulnerability. This, in the preparedness culture and the III% community takes two forms. One if the idea that “I’ve got beans, bullets, and band-aids, so I can just hole up and hang on. I’ll be fine.” The other is, “I’ve got my guns! If I’ve got my guns, they can’t take my other rights away! Right?….right?….uhm…..right?”

    You are not invulnerable. I’m not invulnerable. No one is invulnerable. We need to constantly make an effort to recognize our vulnerabilities, and figure out WHY they exist, as well as how to overcome them.

    Overcoming Groupthink

    So, how do we overcome groupthink? How do we select leaders that will not succumb to the ego allure of groupthink that deifies them? It’s actually really simple. We need to create a culture that discourages and discredits groupthink through established processes. We need to make the willingness to speak our minds and share our doubts a part of our tribal culture.

    Janis describes a few different steps that leaders and groups can take to reduce the incidence of groupthink in this manner.

    a) Each group member has a stated, doctrinal obligation to act as a critical evaluator and devil’s advocate.

    b) Leaders and members need to be willing to accept even harsh criticism and discourage people from soft-peddling their disagreements. Good manners are important, but sometimes even the boss needs to be told he’s acting like a fucktard. When the leader says, “Hey, we all need to give up our guns and food to this other group, so they’ll leave us alone. We can’t fight them, because they’re too strong!” Someone needs to tell him to eat a bag of dicks. Soft-selling your disagreement by saying something more polite like, “well, gee, that MIGHT be one option, but perhaps there might be others? I mean, I don’t know what they might be, but could we maybe decide we’d rather die fighting than being turned into slaves?” does not send the right message to the leader that he needs to harden the fuck up.

    c) When possible, group members need to be encouraged to seek input from outside subject-matter experts (SME), with relevant experience, and get their opinion on the ideas being put forth, and challenge the preconceived notions of the group members. This is what we do as trainers and bloggers, especially when we write stuff that offends your delicate sensibilities. Am I the only expert in the world on small-unit irregular warfare? Not just no, but fuck no. I would even argue that I’m no longer an expert, but perhaps a particularly talented amateur these days.

    At the same time though, as trainers—assuming we have actual experience in what we’re teaching, and aren’t simply reciting the doctrine verbatim—we do have a couple of things that your local group probably doesn’t. First of all, we have actual, real-world experience. While that value is limited by the nature of perspective, it’s still far more empirical than shit you imagined, based on reading books and watching movies.

    Second, we have a broader range of exposure, through seeing TTPs that are being developed across the spectrum of other trainers, possibly our former units, and even other groups that we’ve trained and taught. A good trainer isn’t resting on his laurels and only teaching what he learned five or ten or fifteen years ago…or even a year ago. Instead, he’s leveraging his contacts with other trainers and experts, and filtering those new, possibly “better” techniques through the spectrum of what his experiences have taught him will work and will not work in the real world.

    It doesn’t have to be a paid trainer though, and it doesn’t have to be just relevant to fighting. If you’re trying to develop an intel picture on a local jihadist mosque, asking your pastor his thoughts on it is not avoiding groupthink. On the other hand, bringing in a practicing Muslim who agrees that life in The Great Satan beats the shit out of living in a tent in the desert under Sharia law, gives you a SME opinion on the intel picture you’re creating.

    If you’re trying to develop an intelligence effort regarding a local outlaw motorcycle club by asking your brother-in-law that owns a Honda Gold Wing is NOT avoiding groupthink. Calling in an investigator from the gang task force from the local police department however, might be.

    d) Members should be encouraged by leaders—and more importantly, by tribal culture—to actively engage in constructive criticism, deductive reasoning, and devil’s advocacy.


    We’re all subject to the cognitive biases of groupthink. I’ve sure as shit been guilty of it. It’s actually largely unavoidable.

    Succumbing to groupthink is a massive hole in the armor of the protection that preparedness offers us. Overcoming it however, is uncomfortable, and risks expulsion and exclusion from the tribe. We need to make sure we’re developing and fostering a tribal culture that encourages us to recognize and defeat the weakeness that is groupthink. It takes courage to overcome that weakness. Not physical courage, but the moral courage to know that we’re standing up for what is right, and that doing so strengthens the tribe. Harden the fuck up, because cowardice is weakness.
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