How do you explain this? Marin County, California, is a “hot spot” of the latest epidemic of whooping cough. In this day and age, when a vaccine has been available and highly effective for decades?

Well, you must have heard about the “theory” that vaccination is responsible for the autism “epidemic”. I put theory in quotes because a legitimate scientific theory requires a hefty body of evidence, like the theory of relativity, or the theory of evolution (sorry, creationists and intelligent designers—in biology, it is essentially a fait accompli). But I digress, back to vaccines. Not only isn’t there a shred of credible evidence for this assertion, but NIH had to waste many millions of $$$ (Tea Party, where are you when we really need you?) to run large-scale studies (16 epidemiological studies) to test and disprove the claims. So why Marin, one of the most affluent and highly literate counties in the U.S.?

It turns out that Marin moms are also highly connected—various group meetings such as PTA, reading groups, spiritual self-discovery, Hatha Yoga, internet interest groups, etc, etc. And that’s where the New Age fads are being incubated, hatched, and promoted—no evidence, no scientific basis, just opinions masquerading science.

Amy Wallace, a Los Angeles writer, wrote an article about the fallacy of the vaccine/autism connection. The ferocity of the reaction is troubling, but far from surprising: “Who do you think you are to tell me?” “Who does the government think it is to tell us what is best for public health?” or “You can’t know my child like I know my child.”


The rise of groupthink

Analyze that. These reactions reveal the most corrosive attributes of groupthink: shallow, uncritical thinking, certitude about one’s convictions, and paranoia about “outside” evil forces. “What’s happening is a general crisis or challenge to authority and you see it in mainstream media, in politics, in law, in medicine,” says Andrew Keen, a cultural critic and author of The Cult of the Amateur. “More and more people challenge the traditional meritocracy both in philosophical terms—is the meritocracy just?—and also by doubting what its real benefits are.

This is not a new phenomenon in our history. Lincoln had to deal with the xenophobic “know-nothing” party which, ironically, was made up of mostly German immigrants and which took pride in rejecting any and all “egghead” theories, be it biological (evolution) or social (black emancipation, equality of all races). They even took pride in their party’s name…

As Andrew Keen puts it,

“The rise of computer literacy, high-speed internet connections, blogging and social networks has emboldened the common man to tell his own story and, sometimes, to disdain trapping like a university degree, professional training or corporate affiliation. The citizen activists often frame themselves as truth tellers fighting against an establishment that is hopelessly venal, no matter that the corruption, routinely claimed, is seldom supported by more than innuendo.”


What is groupthink?

Sociologist Robert Merton dubbed the tendency to base what we think on what other people are doing, the “self-fulfilling prophecy” in 1949. Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), 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.


The influence of groupthink

Scientists have tried to measure how powerful it actually is. Here are some delicious experiments.

Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, describes the classical Asch conformity experiments from the 1950’s. The basic Asch paradigm is pretty straightforward: A subject is seated around a table with nine confederates who are actually “working” for the psychologist. The group is shown a series of cards containing lines of different lengths.

Each group member was then asked a variety of question about the lines and told to indicate out loud which lines were longer than the others and which were the same length. The Confederates, who gave their answers first, were told to give the wrong answer to several questions. For instance, they might insist as a group that the shortest line was actually the longest. This was the groupthink condition.

When no group pressure was present, subjects almost always gave the right answer; it’s not particularly difficult to determine which line is the longest. However, when the subjects were first exposed to a wrong answer endorsed by the group, they provided incorrect responses on more than 35% of the questions. Seventy-five percent of the participants gave an incorrect answer to at least one question.

Another experiment, described by Clive Thompson in Wired magazine, was done by Duncan Watts, a network-theory pioneer and scientist at Yahoo and Columbia University, and by his collaborator, Matthew Salganik, currently at Princeton University. They created a music-downloading website. They uploaded 48 songs by unknown bands and got people to log in to the site, listen to the songs, then rate and download them. Users could see one another’s rankings, and they were influenced in roughly the same way self-fulfilling prophecies are supposed to work. That meant some tunes could become hits—and others duds—partly because of social pressure. They took the song ratings of one group and inverted them so bottom-ranked music was now at the top. Then they gave these rankings to a fresh set of listeners. In essence, they lied to the new group: They told them that the songs weren’t popular with previous listeners when they actually were.

The new listeners dutifully took their social cues from the bogus popularity rankings—they ranked the fake-high ones high, even downloading them, while snubbing the fake-low ones. Apparently, flat-out lying works.

But only sometimes. Eventually, some of the previously top-ranked songs began to creep back up, and previously bottom-ranked ones slid down. And people in the upside-down world downloaded fewer songs overall.


The takeaway

Amazing! Still fresh from the shouting and inanity of the recent election season, one couldn’t escape the conclusion that you can fool some of the people most of the time and most of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all the time. And eventually, they simply tune out, or better yet, they come to their senses and throw the bums de jour out.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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