Friday, August 22, 2014

CBS Big Brother and the Groupthink Phenomenon

Zach Rance, the phenomenally popular 23-year-old recent college grad from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, is the latest cast member ousted from the Big Brother house, a victim not of his own doing, as he told Julie Chen in his charmingly honest post-eviction interview, but a victim, like many of those who went before him, of groupthink.

Merriam-Webster defines groupthink as "a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics."  The term was coined by William H. Whyte, Jr. in a 1952 Forbes article on the social phenomenon which occurs where mere conformity becomes something else - a kind of mutual brainwashing of a small group to all agree on what is right and wrong.  The "you're either with us or against us" mentality.  Social psychologist Irving Janis expanded on the research into groupthink in a 1971 Psychology Today article.  There he wrote:
I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell used in his dismaying world of 1984. In that context, groupthink takes on an invidious connotation. Exactly such a connotation is intended, since the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures
It is not at all surprising that Janis considered groupthink in the same breath as the novel from which the very concept of "Big Brother" arose.  It is by the very nature of the show that isolating a group of individuals and pitting them against one another results in just this type of phenomenon.  There is in any society a hierarchy, those at the top and those at the bottom.  There is the in group and the outcasts.  That is why CBS's summer reality show is not merely entertainment (and less so now that the dominant group is all that's left with no challengers) but a social experiment.  We see in real time how cliques are formed, how good and evil are defined, how fear and paranoia warp your perception and how even the kindest of us fall victim to the bullying mentality we all disdain.

What Janis discovered doing his research into groupthink in the realm of foreign policy decisions, is what we have seen every year on Big Brother the TV show.  According to Janis, there are eight symptoms* of groupthink:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
  3. Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
  6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions. 

(*These come from:

If you look at that list, you may get the answers to the questions you've had about the house guests the past two months.  Why does no one listen to Donny Thompson's warnings about Derrick Levasseur?  Check item #2.  Why does everyone gang up on the most recently evicted house guest?  Look at 4.  Why in week 2 was Devin Sheperd so upset with Zach for suggesting they keep Brittany Martinez?  See #5.  Item by item, you can click off why the house guests have done some of the head-scratching things they have done.

Tweeted by @BB16ZachRance

Caleb Reynolds knows he heard a fan shouting something negative about him and Frankie Grande when they were in the backyard with Zach.  Cody knows he heard a different fan shouting negative things about Frankie and Derrick yesterday.  Why don't they ever question their allegiance; why are they never suspicious?  Item #6 - ignore facts that don't conform to the group consensus.  Of the eight items, perhaps the most powerful is the last, the one used to great effect by Derrick.  A former undercover cop (who knows how to infiltrate groups) and current police sergeant, Derrick has repeatedly made sure that his minions stay away from outside influences.  Whether it is telling someone that Nicole Franzel should never talk to anyone alone, or making sure that Zach was accompanied wherever he went last week, Derrick has made sure to keep outside influences from his group's ears.

Because of groupthink, six different people (Caleb, Christine Brecht, Cody Calafiore, Derrick, Frankie, and Victoria Rafaeli) believe they each are in a great position in the game with final two deals that will guarantee them a spot in the finale.  Unfortunately for all but Derrick, he is the only common denominator in each secret final two pact.  Because they each believe they are in a great position in their alliance, none will do anything to upset the apple cart.  The simple mechanics of their situation eludes them.  Despite realizing that where there is a group of six players remaining, there is by its nature a hierarchy, a totem pole, each believes they are at the top and each believes someone else to be at the bottom.  While it's easy to chalk this up to poor gameplay, stupidity, or naïveté, the more obvious explanation is that this is how the game is structured.  It takes a very strong, or very crazy, person to veer away from the safety of groupthink and think for themselves.

They have had virtually no outside contact for two months.  They have little in the way of stimulation or distraction.  They are in a stressful situation without their usual outlets for coping.  Don't think you wouldn't act the same in their shoes.

Look what happened to the few players who deviated from the script, who argued against groupthink.  What happened to Joey Van Pelt?  She had the temerity to suggest forming a girl's alliance.  What nerve!  Outta here.  Hayden Voss tried to form a new alliance, plotting against Derrick/Cody. Adios.  Zach merely questioned what the powers-that-be suggested (early in the game not wanting to vote out Brittany, later in the game voicing that maybe he didn't want to throw the competition to oust Donny or maybe he can't trust people in his alliance who tried to evict him a week ago) and he was given his walking papers.  Opposing groupthink in the Big Brother house gets you a few minutes with Julie Chen and not a lot more.  And so we will continue to see scared little mice cowering in the corner hoping they're the last one the cat eats.

Big Brother promotes bullying, cliquish behavior and fear of straying from the group, and until enough players fight back, it'll be one boring season after another.  C'mon Big Brother, give us more unpredictable troublemakers like Zach Rance and fewer sheep like Cody and Victoria.  Watching Derrick the conformity cop serve up and the rest of the house drink his KoolAid for three months isn't riveting television.  It's actually, pretty sad. 

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