"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Rise of the New Groupthink

In an article in last Sunday’s (1.15.12) New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/opinion/sunday/the-rise-of-the-new-groupthink.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=groupthink&st=cse, the author decries the spread of teamwork, collective thinking, and other forms of what she calls ‘groupthink’. 

SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone — and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” In other words, a person sitting quietly under a tree in the backyard, while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, is more likely to have an apple land on his head. (Newton was one of the world’s great introverts: William Wordsworth described him as “A mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”)

Solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence. “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible,” Picasso said. A central narrative of many religions is the seeker — Moses, Jesus, Buddha — who goes off by himself and brings profound insights back to the community.

I have written previously on this subject (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2011/11/brainstorming-doesnt-work.html):

Brainstorming was always a colossal waste of time, subject to group dynamics which favored the more outspoken, were often dominated by the boss who had her/his own predetermined conclusions, and were time-wasteful with the lengthy presentation of ill-conceived or at least ill-prepared ideas.

I have always favored individual enterprise – the individual, reflective, thoughtful, and ordered development of an idea; the justification for it; and the logical presentation of it.  Brainstorming sessions are just the opposite, for they are the venues for poorly-formed or –thought-out ideas.  I think that workers like brainstorming sessions because they are easier than the more disciplined and rigorous thought process that is required to develop an idea.

The problem is that groupthink occurs everywhere – in offices, businesses, industry, and schools.  In my opinion, this is because of our currently distorted view of equality, a legacy of the Sixties.  During that revolutionary period young people rightly demanded radical changes in the social structure – a dismantling of the white, male, monied, and elite ruling class, and the institution of a much more inclusive civil and political society.  While this was undeniably positive – today’s much more socially, racially, ethnically, and sexually integrated society is a direct outcome of the movement – the clarity and purity of its philosophy and ethos have gotten grossly distorted. 

Freedom of speech has been curtailed for fear of offending one of the formerly marginalized groups.  Education has been diluted because of a misplaced theory that all students are equal, regardless of the difference in ability obvious to all.  Affirmative action, once a very positive force for breaking the stranglehold that white unions and other hidebound institutions had on labor, has been distorted – because of the same twisted view of equality.  Proponents of ‘diversity’ choose to ignore differences in ability and prefer some vague notion of racial, ethnic, etc. ‘equality’.  In short, groupthink has been around a long, long time.

Things are beginning to change – the value of the individual is gaining currency. Cooperative, collaborative, and other socially engineered teaching and working systems are coming under increased scrutiny.  The true genius of America, critics argue, comes from those creative, innovative, risk-taking individuals, and our institutions must at the very least develop programs which support them.

The author of the Groupthink article cites Steve Wozniak of Apple:

The story of Apple’s origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr. Wozniak wouldn’t have been catalyzed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew. And he’d never have started Apple without Mr. Jobs.

But it’s also a story of solo spirit. If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.

Intentionally so. In his memoir, Mr. Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me ... they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone .... I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

And yet Groupthink persists:

The New Groupthink has overtaken our workplaces, our schools and our religious institutions. Anyone who has ever needed noise-canceling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I’m talking about. Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has “a room of one’s own.” During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.

Our schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question. [My italics].

Articles like this and the many more I have cited expressing concern about the persistent PC groupthink in primary, secondary, and post-secondary education, suggest that perhaps the tide is turning – turning back, actually, to first principles.  “All men are created equal” did not mean that all men are equal; just that all men are created with the same divine endowments to realize their humanity and their potential – equal opportunity under the law was the vision of our founders.

History is cyclical and epochs run their course.  Groupthink and collective enterprise will not last forever.  A reasonable balance between individual enterprise and social equitability will be restored as the value of the individual gains credence and support.  I can only hope that PC and Groupthink will wither and die sooner rather than later.

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