“Dumbmobs”: Are Smart Mobs More Vulnerable to Groupthink?

For one of my grad school term papers, I took a look at the social psychology phenomenon called “groupthink.” “Groupthink” is a term first coined by psychologist Irving Janis in 1982, and is described as a “deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressure” (Janis, 1982). According to Janis, norms “soon emerge in the group” that “actively prevent its members from considering alternative courses of action” (Janis, 1982).

The other day, I was a little bored, and as I tend to do, I went off to think about something nerdy. In the case, I started pondering the idea of smart mobs — groups of people who organize online and then proceed to take social action — and I started to wonder.

Are smart mobs more vulnerable to groupthink? I’m inclined to believe so. Some of the causes of group think:

    • Highly cohesive groups are more likely to engage in groupthink: Similar norms, values, and perspectives lead to an illusion of concurrence.

    • Homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology: Smart mobs coalesce around specific issues — especially when it comes to Facebook groups. Single-issue driven politics and action certainly do not add for diversity in group formations.

    • Isolation of the group from outside sources of information and analysis: smart mobs are likely to read the same news, as they’re likely reading the same papers, blogs, and RSS feeds. Information is passed back and forth, and these nuggets are constantly discussed.

Groupthink is quite dangerous. It’s been responsible for the failures during the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and the massive failures in Iraq policy.

So, when groups assemble on a whim, without much critical thought — what happens then? How can groupthink be prevented in smart mobs? Classic solutions on avoiding groupthink (all implemented by Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis), such as canvassing a wide range of alternative actions, formation of distinct subgroups — are impossible to implement online.

Groupthink and its unintended consequences, I feel, are concepts to ponder as we start to truly form groups online and begin to “activate” them into action.

~ by Brad Levinson on July 26, 2007.

One Response to ““Dumbmobs”: Are Smart Mobs More Vulnerable to Groupthink?”

  1. Great post. While I think your criticisms are largely correct, I don’t think its necessarily true that smart mobs would read the same blogs. I don’t don’t know anyone who reads 40-50% of the blogs I read. Also, they inevitably read them in a different way–each user has a unique way of interfacing with the informational bells and whistles of blogs. Which means there is some significant diversity in groups, despite some remarkable similarities. Just because everyone in high school reads Romeo and Juliet, Huck Finn and Government 101 doesn’t mean that they will have the same opinions.

    Second, all those considerations have to be compared to a world of top-down dictatorial hierarchy. Would a hierarchical system made a similar, better, or worse decision? Otherwise its not a fair analysis.

    Have you looked into the “Wisdom of Crowds” literature or the “crowd sourcing” literature? If you haven’t both are pregnant with information on the subject.

    Hope you get better!

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