The Modern Decline in Independent Thinking

by Stephen Mills on March 12, 2011

The Internet was supposed to expose us to many new viewpoints, broaden our horizons, generate new ideas, and so on.  To some degree it has but there is a very serious hidden danger in the fact that we are always connected to others.  It’s not just that we are connected to others, it’s who and how we are connecting.  We  participate in groups through the Internet or other media technologies to a degree unimaginable just a couple of decades ago.  So even though the impact of groups on individual thinking has always existed, its impact is much greater today.  We are losing our ability and opportunity to think independently and in my view this has serious consequences.

How Groups Impact Our Thinking

Recent research involving fMRI brain scans appears to show that when we are in groups we are conforming unconsciously and are less thoughtful.  We are not carefully considering other viewpoints; we are simply thinking less and conforming automatically.  So just the fact that we are so easily exposed to the opinions of others carries the danger we will stop thinking for ourselves.

There is something called the availability heuristic that causes us to think something more likely the more easily we can bring to mind examples of it.  That’s why we worry about very rare events like airplane crashes, school shootings, stranger abductions, etc.  Dramatic exposure to these in the media seriously skews our beliefs about the likelihood of these events.  It also means you will think your ideas are more reasonable and common simply because you know other people who agree with you.  No matter how uncommon or loony your ideas, you can find like-minded people online.

Do people consider the merits of a proposal or its source?  Evidently the source can be more important since Israelis will actually prefer a peace solution proposed by Palestinians and Palestinians will prefer a solution proposed by Israelis if the proposals are mislabeled as to which group is the source of the proposal.  The same phenomena has been demonstrated for Democrats and Republicans.

When you’re in a group you look to see what other people are doing and you do the same.  It’s called social validation.  Groups create polarity naturally and a group will display a more extreme position than would be expected by examining the views of the individual members.  Groupthink inhibits alternatives, minimizes conflict, and enforces conformity.   The need to maintain consistency will push you to continue with the same position once it is articulated.  This is especially true once you make your position known to others.  Group participation makes your thinking public and so you will be more motivated to maintain that position in the future.  Group brainstorming has actually been shown to be less effective than individual brainstorming.

Confirmation bias will cause you to readily dismiss evidence that disconfirms your view and overvalue evidence that confirms it.  Amazingly, experiments have shown that simply evaluating or considering balanced pro and con evidence will cause your position to become more extreme and hardened due to confirmation bias.  So engaging in debate and discussion doesn’t necessarily make you more objective.  In fact it likely will have the opposite effect.

There are mountains of evidence in psychological research documenting these phenomena.  It’s a miracle we can even think in groups at all.  Maybe we can’t and the group effects simply overpower individual thought.  Almost everyone will protest that they are immune to this; that it may be true for other people but not for them, but as we have seen these effects may be unconscious.  Whether you realize it or not you are being influenced heavily.

Once upon a time if you had a unusual or extreme view you would have difficulty finding that comforting group confirmation.  Nowadays no matter what you think you can find comfort and confirmation online.  It’s like a drug hit for an addict.  It makes you feel good.  You think X and you want to find out if it is true so you do a Google search and confirmation bias does the rest.  We are self-sorting ourselves into groups that allow us to avoid thinking for ourselves.

Difficult, reflective, self-challenging, and careful consideration of opposing evidence and arguments are almost impossible when participating in groups whether physically or virtually.  Once we start moving in one direction, these group dynamics will push us powerfully and unconsciously into more hardened and extreme positions regardless of the merits of the arguments.

Those self-organizing internet movements may be powerful, but complex thought is not part of them.  People watch FOX News or CNBC because they tell them what they want to hear.  We all go to the internet to get confirmation and feel good whether we realize it or not simply because we can.  Information availability means we inevitably will suffer from confirmation bias.  We are not becoming more objective and open minded, we are becoming more committed to our existing beliefs.

What Can You Do?

The real world is not clean.  It is messy, complex, and difficult to get our minds around.  Issues are rarely anywhere near as simple and clear cut as we often see them.  These black and white positions are mostly fantasies created by our own minds.  I’m guilty of this myself.  It’s not a matter of simply exposing yourself to all sides and viewpoints.  As research has clearly demonstrated, confirmation bias and group dynamics will inhibit your ability to think independently.

You must physically, or more commonly now virtually, get out of the debates and rallies and off the stages and put down the bullhorns and signs and think for yourself.  It is nearly impossible in those situations to consider or appreciate nuances and complexities of the situation or see the legitimate aspects of other viewpoints.  You have to get out of all the polarizing debates and groups and away from your fellow devotees and do something that doesn’t feel natural.  You have to do some hard thinking primarily by yourself; without your standard arguments ready and waiting.  This is not easy or natural.  This kind of deep thinking is very difficult in our distracted world.  Here is a recent example of mine where I tried to do this.

A few weeks ago I picked up a book in the library that I could see was going to come from a perspective far different than mine.  It was written by a professional philosopher but it dealt with real-world practical implications of a particular viewpoint that I have written about multiple times on this blog.  Deep consideration of book length discussions is something I enjoy, but it is fundamentally an alone process.  It’s you alone with your thoughts and the thoughts of another person that you cannot in any way interact with.  I got lost in this book for several hours at a time in a flow experience.  This book seriously challenged my ideas.

I think my understanding is much deeper and my appreciation for the complexity of the topic has strengthened considerably.  I haven’t fundamentally changed my mind, but my nonetheless I believe I have a much richer understanding of my own position and it has softened and changed to some degree.  If I had chosen to participate in some type of forum or debate or group activity with others, it is likely the opposite would have happened; I would likely have hardened my viewpoint.

This type of growth can happen to me with surprising frequency.  Multiple iterations of experiences like this have caused me to completely change my mind on some very fundamental philosophical issues in my life.  Mostly though it usually just results in a more nuanced and complex perspective.  Sometimes I end up more convinced I was right all along.  I’m convinced it happens because I’m all alone.

My suggestion to you is to disengage from your special interest groups and discover the fine art of thinking for yourself.  Human nature makes it almost impossible to think for yourself while part of a group.  Social contact and interaction is important.  Intellectual and philosophical discussion is important, but the group dynamics of the modern world are making independent thinking increasingly rare.  As long as you understand both the power and danger of groups and act accordingly, you can enjoy the benefits and mitigate the dangers of this new connected world.  The only thing have to gain is your own independent mind.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Jacq March 13, 2011 at 9:45 am

Just curious – what was the name of the book?

I got off of a couple of forums recently because of the sheeple / group-think dynamic. Besides being a huge time sink, I don’t like being anywhere where people who have an opposing viewpoint are shut down, mocked or anything like that.
Jacq´s last blog post ..Reaching a new low and the magic “necessities” number

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John D. Buerger, CFP® March 13, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Another great post Stephen – Groupthink is one of the biggest challenges for most humans to overcome on their way to making smart choices with their money and getting the most out of life. I agree that quiet time alone (and completely disconnected) is healthy and desirable.
John D. Buerger, CFP®´s last blog post ..Financial Advisor- San Luis Obispo

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Nea | Self Improvement Saga March 13, 2011 at 10:29 pm

This is a very interesting topic. On one hand, I strongly disagree. However, that’s likely because I’ve been a free thinker most of my life. You know…that person who is never afraid to disagree with a group or stand out from the “norm.” And the person who is always eager to explore new ideas, to challenge my current beliefs. That’s me! I wasn’t raised to think for myself, yet somehow it’s a big part of who I am.

The more I think about what you’ve written here, the more I realize that it is true for so many people.

I’m not so sure I’d say it’s human nature as much as I think it is programming. We’re taught the importance of being accepted/fitting into a group in so many ways when we’re young. I think that boils over into the group-think issue. If it comes down to 10 against 1, most people fold. The ones that don’t are often stuck on adhering to the beliefs of some other group. Sad!

People seek out supporters of whatever it is they believe- and there is someone out there who believes pretty much everything.

I studied this topic in depth when studying for my MBA and we did many experiments in groups on these concepts. Group brainstorming can be effective when the right environment is created (someone designated to challenge every single idea, someone to keep bringing up ideas when a consensus is met, etc…), but I do think many people need to experiment with learning how to think instead of finding groups that confirm what they “should” think.
Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog post ..Is Japan’s Tsunami Disaster Your Wake-Up Call

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jenny123 June 13, 2011 at 3:29 am

I completely agree with your ideas, the internet is with a doubt growing into the most important medium of communication across the globe and its due to sites like this that ideas are spreading so quickly. Looking forward to another great blog. Good luck to the author! all the best!
jenny123´s last blog post ..unsecured loans

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