Groupthink vs whips

I started my blogging career with what I still consider one of my best posts, where I said that human history is very easily explained if you take into account the fact that (most)  humans are just plain dumb. Learning is hard, really hard. And it should, animals don’t learn if they can avoid to. It takes domestication and industrial amounts of drilling to make an animal learn some behavior. It follows that it takes domestication and quite large amounts of drilling to make people learn some behavior.

While this sinking ship called neoreaction is, if only etymologically, an anti-modernist, declinist crowd, the very fact that I’m here writing a blog instead of just copying and pasting quotes from old books, means I regard myself as having some new insight that wasn’t available to my forebearers. As I said earlier, cognitive science is full of true and powerful insights on how people think and why they do so. We now know not only of cognitive “biases”, often constructed as surmountable errors, but the very architecture of cognition. Reading through Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind should be a good replacement for years and years of degrees on ethics and moral philosophy, which I now visualize as an industrial sweatshop of rationalization hamsters run by an evil medieval bishop.

While I very much admire the aesthetic sense of traditional societies, the fact is pre-moderns weren’t strangers to evil, crime, and sheer ideological nonsense. While comparisons are often made on the degree of evil and nonsense of past and present, I think a reasonable position is to say that it’s pretty much the same. And that is necessarily must be the same. People are full of shit, and leaving aside technological differences which may amplify or expand it, the underlying process is the same. And it must be the same, as cognitive science teach us that brains work like that they do, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Back to Haidt, you gotta give it to the guy that he proves in himself the truth of his book. He writes how people’s morality is based in fact-free, a priori intuitions reached by emotion and sloppy thinking, and reason is a language based coating applied after the fact to rationalize one’s decision with one’s peers. He makes the point here in this EconTalk podcast. But all this awareness of how moral intuitions work doesn’t stop him from saying out loud how he agrees with Paul Krugman’s economics even though he knows nothing of the subject! I just couldn’t believe he’s so lacking of self-awareness. Perhaps he’s just advertising his cognitive dissonance as promotion for his book. Think my thinking is fucked up? Buy my book and you’ll know why!

Anyway it seems clear that the default mode of thinking for humans is groupthink, and the content of that groupthink is computed with a complex algorithm taking into account one’s peer group, the loyalties one owes to whom, who has more status and what utterances fit better with the religion that one has been painstakingly drilled into since infancy. Jim Donald linked to an eerie example of unified TV propaganda here, although that was engineered. Uncouth Reflections links to this piece on the global warming inquisition, and this looks spontaneous. Plain horizontal transmission. Why bother thinking when you can parrot the line? Thomas Schelling of all people has enough brains to think for his own. But he won’t.

Now we could read that and lament how far down we have come, how science has been corrupted, people are more evil than they used to, independent thinking has disappeared, etc. But it wasn’t that much better in the past. Most big ideological debates in history can hardly be described as being fair and thoughtful. Groupthink and witch-hunts on spurious grounds are hardly new. You may say that mass media means that the scale of groupthink has changed; people used to parrot whatever was popular in the local parish; now they parrot the central propaganda organs of the government. But that’s been known for almost 100 years. The Rebellion of the Masses touches on the subject, and Goebbels made an art of propaganda almost 80 years ago. Nihil sub sole novum. The content might change, but the underlying mechanism hasn’t changed. It can’t change.

So what do we do about it? My previous post argued that groupthink might be universal, but the degree of what Handle eloquently termed “conversational homogeneity” is culture-specific. Groupthink is a coordination mechanism, but it’s not the only one. You can also coordinate people from above by using a long whip with spikes on it. People can also coordinate because of loyalty, carefully cultivated over years or generations, producing a sense of duty that doesn’t necessarily involve parroting the same opinions as anyone else. Both of these alternatives seemed to have a common defect; they scale badly. Whips with spikes (or machine guns) can only control so many people, and there’s the issue of quis custodiet ipsos custodies. Loyalty production is also a very slow and intimate process, which can be accelerated by technology or specific triggers (the threat external aggression mostly), but is generally very hard to sustain.

Groupthink on the other hand might be more efficient as a coordination mechanism. It seems to be part of the fundamental mechanism of the brain that deals with socialization, which is a big part of being human. One of the great triumphs of recent science has been the gradual overturn of Chomsky’s theory of language. Chomsky famously wrote that children can’t possibly learn language and its grammar from the little input they hear or eavesdrop from their surroundings. Ergo, there must be a module on the brain that specifically deals with language. He then stretched the theory, saying that if there’s a specific language module in the brain, i.e. in all human brains, that module works the same for everyone, so there’s a single universal grammar in all human brains, and all actually existing human languages are just a surface representation of that. Rivers and oceans of ink ensued in order to devise models for translating all human grammars into that mystical universal grammar we all share.

Cognitive science has been slowly proving that there is no particular language module in the human brain. Instead, language is processed in several different areas around the brain, located in mostly the same areas in most people but not necessarily. The corollary is that there is no separate language module which behaves differently from the other modules; but that brains only have one single way of functioning, learning in all different cognitive areas is all based on the same learning processes, and the structure of language just mirrors the way brains work in general. Meaning people actually think of time as if it were an object moving towards oneself (the time comes, then is past), and categories are remembered as prototypes full of detail (say, cats have 4 legs and meow, or black people are big and dangerous), from which certain specimens might differ in some characteristics without contradicting the category itself (a mute cat with the 4 legs cut off is still a cat, a mellow black midget is still a black person).

Coordination mechanisms must also work the same way. Pain avoidance makes you obey the guy with the whip; friend-foe identification makes you gang up with your tribe. And basic learning processes produce the “beemind”. Everybody’s conservative about what they know best, but what about everything else? Then you just use general, off-the-shelf learning processes, i.e. drilling. Drilling needn’t be always forcible; hear the same thing a thousand times, and you’ll assimilate it without even paying attention. The general consensus has a way of making itself known. Japanese people call it kuuki, i.e. air. You’re supposed to “read” the air, and avoid saying or doing anything which doesn’t fit the groupthink of the moment. A related, if wider concept is the zeitgeist, which is just a description of the general patterns of groupthink of a society.

Asking people to use rational inquiry to make up their own values is not only implausible given the cognitive ability of most people; it’s plain impossible because human brains just don’t work like that. People’s opinions aren’t “found” through the use of reason, and they aren’t purely a function of hereditary disposition either. Values are picked up from society, and different societies allow a bigger or smaller Overton window, and within it more or less heterogeneity of opinion, depending on their particular mix of coordination mechanisms. Then again the preferred coordination mechanisms might be genetically determined, but I’m skeptical. The Chinese used to be quite a tolerant bunch. Then Mao happened.

Common sense would lead to an Aristotelian arrangement, where a society uses a balanced mix of all coordination mechanisms, whips, loyalty and groupthink, so no single one predominates. This mirrors traditional Chinese statecraft, which was a varied mix of Confucianism and Legalism. Confucianism argues for rule by example; the rulers must be virtuous, promote loyalty and obedience and kindness of all that. Of course that doesn’t work, and that’s where Legalism comes in, where actual whips with spikes, and many other torture mechanisms were used to control the people. Legalism also had a groupthink aspect in that non approved books were to be burned and their authors be killed along their families. That that only happened twice in all their history is a testament to the strength of Chinese statecraft, that it seldom felt the need to enforce groupthink.

But I’m rambling already. Thoughts?

Leave a comment ?


  1. >Asking people to use rational inquiry to make up their own values is not only implausible given the cognitive ability of most people; it’s plain impossible because human brains just don’t work like that.

    So where do YOUR values come from?

    The problem with your argument is that, while it is based on an obvious truth (TLDR: it is crazy to expect people to form their values by sitting in a cave and thinking from first principles or compiling the great works of man and analyzing them objectively, thus we must get our basic values from SOMEWHERE and make personal adjustments,) it goes to a self-defeating extreme. If everyone’s values are just a mechanical reflection of groupthink and Goodthink (the former from Brave New World’s desire to be likeable, the latter from 1984’s fear of the rat cage,) then there is no point in talking or even thinking.

    In reality, there are multiple competing value systems, and everyone picks and chooses from them, then does some sort of deconfliction/tailoring to suit their preferences and circumstances. I personally think that the value systems’ evolution can best be thought of in terms of the Tao Te Ching: the limitless creates a unity, the unity creates a dualism, the dualism creates some sort of trinity, from which the multitude springs.

    • I’m very bad at groupthink, always been. Which hasn’t helped me in school or work, but what can you do. I guess my heritage is more adapted to whip avoidance.

      I think most people don’t pick and choose because they’re busy with other stuff. If you’re busy writing books on game theory you don’t pick or choose a theory on global warming, you just adopt the prevalent groupthink and call it a day.

      • Nonetheless, where did you get your values?

        • I’m not saying groupthink is omnipotent and everybody toes the line. Some peoples are more uniform than others, and even in BNW and 1984 there’s someone who wanted out. I think it’s interesting to see if there’s any pattern to the prevalence of groupthink.

          The reigning assumption in cognitive science right now seems to be that “values” are simply gut feelings, combined with a overt theoretical veneer that you pick up (after more or less searching depending on how smart or inquisitive you are) to justify your feelings to others.

          Which begs the question of where do those gut feelings come from.

          • Well, that is a stupid assumption. Of course values are not just gut feelings with post factum justification. Perhaps for MOST people they are, but they start somewhere. If you ask me, they come from the same place that the laws of physics come from-how is it that a person is able to formulate those laws, and others can understand and apply them? We have to come to the conclusion that they are a) real, b) exist in some kind of Platonic realm, c) are perceivable by us through some sort of facilities which we do not understand.

          • I figured you’d say something like that.

            I see the appeal of a platonic realm of absolute moral rules which only a selected few can perceive, but the evidence is thin.

          • No, everyone can perceive this stuff, but with varying degrees of clarity and originality. Just like everyone can understand the basics of Euclidean geometry, to some degree, but it took Euclid to formulate them.

          • You got a list of those platonic ideals? Just curious.

          • Not an exhaustive one. But, for instance, when we say something is good or bad, everyone knows what we’re talking about, though there may be disagreements about whether a particular thing embodies those concepts.

          • I guess you could do worse than the kabbalistic divine attributes-but I am not a huge fan of that framework.

          • Why “yawn”? Isn’t it weird that we all have concepts of “good,” “fair,” “cruel,” “kind,” etc.? We’ve never seen pure justice or cruelty, but we all recognize their reflections in what is going on around us. So, what is it we’re recognizing? With what? How is it that I can say, Bob is cruel, you can say, no he’s not, but yet there is no doubt whatsoever in either of us about the quality which we assign to Bob?

            I read the 10KY explosion a few years back. Valuable overall, quite a bit of reductionism (the bit on the Ashkenazim struck me as pretty funny-it’s like reading rabbinical discussions of whether the Ethiopian Jews are actually Jews, or whether a basilisk is kosher, where the subject is actually irrelevant except insofar as you can hang your theory on it.) Missing any discussion of epigenetics.

          • Epigenetics! Oh well.

            To the extent that we have common vocabulary to describe people’s character, well it’s only natural that humans qua humans to the extent they share the same neurological circuitry, have a common range of personalities to which common descriptions apply.

            Then again it wouldn’t surprise me if, say, Aztecs didn’t have a word for “cruel”, or didn’t think of it as much of a big deal.

          • Yes, epigenetics. It’s emerged that a lot of phenotypical changes are not genetic but epigenetic, allowing a faster responsiveness to environmental changes.

            I’m not talking about human character. I’m talking about things like good or evil.

            I would be surprised if the Aztecs didn’t have the concept of cruelty, but they probably thought of it as a good quality.

  2. “Reading through Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind should be a good replacement for years and years of degrees on ethics and moral philosophy, which I now visualize as an industrial sweatshop of rationalization hamsters run by an evil medieval bishop.”

    I’m borrowing this.

  3. This is a great article because it suggests that us sperglords are the least animal-like and most truly moral.

    • No. Human vs animal is the wrong frame. Plenty of animals are solitary, groupthink is quite human.
      Groupthink can be a good thing when it defends useful traditions against harmful heretics.

    • “us sperglords are the least animal-like and most truly moral.”

      No. You have almost no empathy and no sense of duty beyond whatever is fixating you right now, your interface with others is data driven or whatever allows a level of remote detachment and based on whatever appeals to you at the moment. For morality to mean anything it undergoes a test in life, it isn’t from books.

      The Whip Driven Brutes are far more moral, in fact almost any nigger who you [miraculously] didn’t offend would have more kindness if finding a stranger in need. Of course he probably wouldn’t have your SAT score.

      If morality in rule and governance is a consideration at all, we must to the whip driven brutes and not our “elites”.

    • Ha!

      “This article is good because it says things that are good about my tribe – namely that we care about truth and not what reflects positively on my tribe”


  4. Due to coordination problems, rational ignorance, the processing paucity of the consciousness mind, beliefs (as opposed to aliefs)* are basically decorative.

    This said, is it groupthink? Everyone is conservative about what they know best means, among other things, that their beliefs there are not decorative. But only because they get corrected due to harsh collisions with reality. Their other beliefs are entirely free to be decorative. Having the wrong belief-decorations can get you killed. Why corrupt a good thing with evidence or thought? If you’re not planning on taking a belief seriously, then the strategic move is to pick the one that will make you the most popular. Almost all subconsciously handled, of course.

    I don’t even see this as a problem. It used to be known that the peasants are idiots. Indeed, it still is; a politician without voters to bilk is just a hobo. It’s just that actors and academics have a professional incentive to keep anyone from talking about it, as overconfident peasants are dead easy to lie to.

    As for values, there isn’t really any such thing as an irrational value, only inconsistent values. The same sort of game theory applies, plus a little Darwinian selection.

  5. Yes but smart people apparently assortively mate into psychopathic predator classes, regardless of how dumb the brutes are below.* And the problem with psychopaths is they self-destruct and take everyone with them, we’re watching the end game now.

    *Tragically they’re not that dumb, tragically for the psychopaths that is, what is happening now is in fact a distortion caused by the introduction of the untrustworthy, in fact congenitally psychotically untrustworthy into the American and Anglo-sphere peak high trust society. Now we’ll survive. However I wonder if we’ll ever reach the heights again without the high levels of cultural trust. In any case they’re not dumb or brutes, just too trusting. That is being cured and one hell of a cure it will be.

    If only the Smart hadn’t been venal and entirely too Christian at the same time. Sigh.

  6. A thousand birds flying in the sky, as if on cue, they turn in unison. How did they transmit this signal? We humans uses a more sophisticated mode of transmission, but certainly, most of the time, ideas are not chewed over by all individuals and decision made about which one is logical. More over, how receptive we are to these ideas are influenced by our evolution. You get status if you had skills as a good hunter, or generous to your group, or to help the weaker members of your group. Up until very recently, these are traits that actually help humanity. Because if the group wins, it takes over the resources of the other groups and there are actually grave consequences for the group that loses. They go extinct.
    Today, this is no longer the case. no one goes extinct. But we still follow the evolutionary instincts in our blood. While we try to be objective (if we were scientists), we are still colored by these instincts. This explains Stephen Jay Gould, and a host of other scientists. social status are still granted for the same traits that, until very recently, has worked for us.

    The whole problem with HBD is that, it goes against the grains of these values. Would this change in the future? maybe, but things are just too comfy right now. Even as the train is driving off the cliff in a couple of hundred years, most people don’t want to hear it and will shut down any discussion that violates these group dynamics. Galileo may have discovered that the earth was round and revolved around the sun, but that idea was against the church and he paid a huge price for it. The stakes are much higher this time around, but I feel that the window of opportunity has already closed.

  7. If your looking to make humans rational creatures, give up now. We will never be fully rational. There’s just too much going on to logically deduce truth biological systems.

    Oh and Legalism is like socialism, if you ever apply it 100% of the way to destroys the entire nation very quickly.

  8. In that EconLog podcast, I think Haidt is indeed doing what you suggest. He’s both admitting his cognitive bias in his favorable reaction towards Krugman, and displaying his (he’s a self-described liberal) inability to understand the conservative temperament. While the former example seems intentional, I think the latter is actually Haidt’s lizard brain taking over.

    The latter example is thus much more interesting. The setup is that they’re talking about austerity programs and Krugman’s opposition towards them. In Righteous Mind, Haidt finds the liberal worldview strongly emphasizing two of the five moralities: care and harm, and that’s what he himself falls back on when he tries to understand the conservative (favorable) viewpoint towards austerity. He sees the whole thing through a primarily harm-tinted lens which paints the austerity proponents as advocating what they do because they see it as a deserved punishment after an indulgent binge at best, and an expression of “suffering is good” mentality at worst. Krugman’s view is framed as ‘focusing on the poor’, which tickles Haidt’s care/harm sensibilities and leads him to agree with Krugman based on his own moral intuitions:

    I happen to think that Krugman is right on this. I happen to think that austerity is a foolish policy in the wake of a–but I’m not an economist; what do I know? All I’m saying is that everybody–Left, Right, libertarian–when they approach an ambiguous field of controversial findings, they start with their own moral intuitions. Those guide them to prefer certain conclusions.

    The transcript is at the 50:38 mark for those who are interested.

    • Yes, and that’s the point exactly. One would think that having done all that research he should count to 10 before reaching to conclusions and letting his elephant talk nonsense. But nah, self-described liberal has to do self-described liberal. Can’t actually learn from his own research, or they won’t call him for all those TED talks again.

  9. What happened to your twitter?

  10. Greying Wanderer

    I think this is generally true and makes perfect sense from a group survival point of view. Once a groupthink that **works** is established then people *should* be inclined to just stick to it because it seems to work – until it doesn’t, at which point you need to have people trying to change the groupthink to one that works better. If they succeed and it does work better then that becomes the new groupthink for a while.

    On top of that there is the question of “works” for who. The established groupthink might work for one section of the group but not another. This might imply that left to their own devices nations would gradually homogenise over time so a single groupthink “works” for everyone.

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