How Groupthink is Turning Kids Into Moral Midgets

Groupthink is a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1918–1990). Janis served as a research psychologist at Yale University and was professor emeritus at the University of California.

Groupthink “occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of ‘mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.’ Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.”

Groupthink was operating at Penn State University for more than a decade. Groupthink is more common than you know. Shifts in moral thinking are guided by Groupthink. Few people want left out of the group, especially when career advancement is on the line. There are numerous examples of Groupthink in history: Salem Witch Trials, French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Adolf Hitler, the perpetrators of the Holocaust, mass suicide at Jonestown, nearly every government program from Social Security to Obamacare, and the normalization of homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderism.

No social group is immune from the effects of Groupthink. Intelligence has nothing to do with it. The people at Penn State have university degrees, and yet, they stood by while they knew that evil was in their midst. Social commentator David Brooks offers an insightful explanation that makes Groupthink look rational:

“I don’t think it was just a Penn State problem. You know, you spend 30 or 40 years muddying the moral waters here. We have lost our clear sense of what evil is, what sin is; and so, when people see things like that, they don’t have categories to put it into. They vaguely know it’s wrong, but they’ve been raised in a morality that says, ‘If it feels all right for you, it’s probably OK.’ And so that waters everything down.”

About the time Jerry Sandusky was molested young boys at Penn State and in his home, there was an article written that caught my attention. While most people are shocked that intelligent people can stand by while they witness evil taking place right before their eyes (Andrew Breitbart, Ann Coulter and Grover Norquist are examples for their support of the homosexual organization GOProud), Kay Haugaard is not.

Kay Haugaard has taught creative writing since 1970. As with most of her classes, students read and discuss Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” Jackson’s lottery isn’t about winning millions of dollars by picking the right series of numbers; it’s about human sacrifice that a small town accepts and takes part in with no questions asked. As the years of teaching this story have passed, Haugaard began to see a change in the moral perceptions of her students. Their views on right and wrong had been dulled by the rhetoric of moral neutrality, “the danger of just ‘going along’ with something habitually, without examining its rationale and value.”1 Haugaard’s closing comments are chilling:

No one in the whole class of more than twenty ostensibly intelligent individuals would go out on a limb and take a stand against human sacrifice.

I wound up the discussion. “Frankly, I feel it’s clear that the author was pointing out the dangers of being totally accepting followers, too cowardly to rebel against obvious cruelties and injustices.” I was shaken, and I thought that the author, whose story had shocked so many, would have been shaken as well.

The class finally ended. It was a warm night when I walked to my car after class that evening, but I felt shivery, chilled to the bone.2

We’ve become a nation of moral bystanders. Deep down the majority of Americans know certain behaviors are wrong, but they’ve been cajoled into believing that nothing can be said in objection to the new amoral climate. If we do react, we are labeled “intolerant” and “insensitive” to different “lifestyle choices.” Christians are told that they are not being “loving” when they enter an opposing opinion on moral questions.

The change in moral perceptions and attitudes has been stunning. “After the horrendous crime against the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, a young Yale student has this observation: ‘Absent was a general outcry of indignation . . . [M]y generation is uncomfortable assessing, or even asking, whether a moral wrong has taken place.’”3

Where are young people getting this type of thinking? At schools like Penn State. Parents send their children off to the big-name university for the sake of prestige and they come back as moral midgets, and they wonder why. Of course, it doesn’t happen to every child, but it happens to enough of them that we are beginning to see the effects of an immoral backlash.

  1. Kay Haugaard, “The Lottery Revisited,” Unriddling Our Times: Reflections on the Gathering Cultural Crisis, ed. Os Guinness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 138. []
  2. Haugaard, “The Lottery Revisited,” 141. []
  3. Peter Jones, Capturing the Pagan Mind: Paul’s Blueprint for Thinking and Living in the New Global Culture (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 50. []