Is thinking in groups really thinking at all?

Is this just the way we operate now? The idea with the most repetitions must be the best one. The most reliable one.

What utter bollocks!

Hearing something many times just means you are hearing it many times. It doesn’t make it right. Odd as it may seem, it also doesn’t make it more relevant.

Let me see if I can explain this.

If I have a copy of a Harry Potter book and read it to you, that might get a wry smile (and not just at the idea of me reading you a bedtime story). If I hand the book to 9 other people who also read you the book, you will have had a book read to you 10 times.

If the 9 other people decide to read you other books like the Hobbit, or Wuthering Heights or Ulysses or even the Famous Five, you’ll also have had 10 books read to you.

What many people seem not to recognise is that these two situations are very different. In the first it is the same source of information. The very same book, in fact. In the second, the information presented is from 10 distinctly different sources.

Harry Potter is not now made more relevant or better than any other novel simply because you have been exposed to it more times. A great book, I’ll grant you, but not better or worse simply because of the repetition in its experience.

Replace the Harry Potter book idea with a news story. Does this suddenly cause you to wonder at the news you hear? Whether there is any more relevance in a news story just because you saw it on two different news programs? Most news comes from the same source, Reuters, and so what you are often hearing are different descriptions of a single source of the story.

Move one step further in thinking to the workplace. You are told by a colleague that a process to be followed is the best thing ever! Sliced bread can’t even compare! Now you hear that from a manager, and again from a company newsletter. Does this make it true?

The answer, obviously, must be “not necessarily”. Hearing something many times is not a vote of confidence or some sort of ringing endorsement. It just means that the story has been repeated.

The counter to this used to be the old adage “A lie can run around the world before the truth has had time to get its boots on”. We used to question things we hear. We used to apply critical thinking. Now we seem to use a form of popularity as an analogue for correct.

Question, critique, seek out experts for a variety of perspectives. Groupthink is alive and well and being fed and watered by a society quick to see follower numbers or likes as something representing expertise.

This is not to say that all popular views are wrong. Far from it. It is the assumption that the crowd must always be correct that is worthy of questioning. It is especially the case if the crowd has little actual expertise in the subject at hand, or if the sole sound of dissent comes from the new guy who really has done that many times before.

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Nathan Jones