Nuance is the Death of Groupthink
The word nuance stems from France where its original meaning was “to shade.” The term was used to describe the subtleties of colors in paintings. As time passed, the word’s meaning expanded to describe facial expressions, ideas, and many more less physical concepts. Now, the word nuance means seeing arguments from many vantage points, and not jumping to the harshest of conclusions. The title of this cover story not-so-subtly suggests that nuance is deceased in our modern society, but in doing so, it suggests that at one point nuance was alive and thriving. I do not doubt that nuance was at one point much easier to come across; however many of the human impulses that contribute to un-nuanced thinking are far from new.
One of the most significant psychological contributors to the lack of nuanced thinking is groupthink. Groupthink is a phenomenon which leads to decisions which are based on the urge to conform, rather than logic and reason.
The most famous case study of groupthink was conducted after the failed military coup, the Bay of Pigs. The Eisenhower administration planned the invasion to overthrow Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, and when Kennedy took office he simply accepted it with little hesitation. There were a few members of Kennedy’s staff who had concerns, but chose not to speak up because of fear of social prosecution.
Arthur Schlisinger, a historian who was a part of the decision making process, later wrote about feelings of groupthink while planning the invasion, “Our meetings were taking place in a curious atmosphere of assumed consensus, [and] not one spoke against it.” As a result, over 100 men died in what is now regarded as one of the greatest failures in American politics.
In the modern era, the urge to succumb to groupthink is terrifyingly easy. Whether it be in small social settings, or larger discussions, the act of sharing an unpopular opinion is difficult, to say the least. When I reflect on my own decision making, it’s hard to separate what is of my own volition and what I do simply to fit in with everyone else. It’s nice to pretend that I’ve chosen my “side” because of my own values, but, the reality is, my belief system is incredibly arbitrary. It’s difficult to bring myself to actually speak up and contradict those around me, especially when I know others feel strongly. I hold an underlying doubt in my own arguments due to the overwhelming agreement of my surroundings. For this reason, I cannot pretend my own contribution to the death of nuance is nonexistent.
I know I am not the only one to feel this way. As political extremes become more extreme, many feel as if speaking out is impossible; however, not speaking up subsequently entraps us in an endless cycle of conformity to increasingly polar ends.
Not speaking up entraps us in an endless cycle of conformity to increasingly polar ends.
Now, this brings us to the ultimate question: What do we do about it?
History may hold an answer. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy was faced with yet another Cold War dilemma: the Cuban Missile Crisis. With his recent failures in mind, Kennedy was vigilant to avoid groupthink when deciding how to respond to Russian aggression. He outlined new protocols to reduce groupthink in meetings which served as a way to brainstorm options, stimulate productive debate, and ultimately let the best plan prevail based only on its merits. Meetings were held in informal settings to lower the stakes for non-conventional thinking and encourage casual conversations. The group was split into smaller sub-groups which only reconvened at the end to minimize group coercion. Sometimes, meetings were even held without Kennedy to prevent participants from simply going along with the president’s ideas. By following the new protocols, Kennedy’s administration was able to successfully avoid nuclear conflict at one of the most heated moments during the Cold War.
As we face problems with groupthink online, in politics, and classrooms, we should look at the past for answers. Obviously, the solutions for modern problems won’t be exactly the same as historical ones, but it’s always a comforting reminder that conformist thinking isn’t new. Humanity has prevailed against the perils of groupthink before, and we can do it again. I refuse to believe that we are doomed, or that there is no way to fix the problems we have created. It may take effort, uncomfortable moments, and difficult conversations, but nuance isn’t dead yet.