Does Social Media Cause Groupthink?

In the age of technology, social media appears to be a time consuming addiction. New research has found that the average user spends 23 hours a week using social media (Mielach, 2016). Nearly 20% of the total time spent online in the U.S. across both desktop and mobile devices is on social platforms; Facebook alone makes up 14% of total time spent online. With this amount of time consumption it can be argued that social networks like Twitter and Facebook consume a large portion of our lives which begs the question: what type of impact does social media have on the way people think, specifically does it provoke groupthink?

Groupthink is a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action (Janis, 1983). In the 1970s, Irving L. Janis’s book “Victims of Groupthink” described it as “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.” Although, groupthink has historically been reserved for small groups, a society in which social networks like Twitter and Facebook consume so much time perhaps we have evolved into the current version of groupthink, or the herd mentality. An overabundance of social media connections in which information can travel cheaply, quickly, and in the moment appear to be without consequences, results in increased temptations; distorted realities; and unethical behaviors and decisions. With this said, social networks may be stifling because mass opinion sharing can encourage groupthink.

Undoubtedly, social networking websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter can build one’s online capital and reputation. It also has a dark side which can diminish ethical decision making and respect for others; it can foster narrow-mindedness if an individual is not careful. Exploration of the eight symptoms of Janis’ groupthink model, through the lens of the social media space, interestingly can demonstrate how these psychographic triggers might be affecting how people think, or minimally our networking conduct. Consider the below examples.

Illusion of invulnerability is when members of a group believe that their decisions are correct and that the outcome will work. A growing body of research links increased use of Facebook to marital discord. The latest of these studies, published in the July 2014 issue of the journal, Computers in Human Behavior, state increased use of Facebook is “positively correlated” with rising divorce rates during the same time period even when adjusting for economic and socio-demographic factors that might affect divorce rates. Researchers also cross-referenced divorce rates in 43 U.S. states from the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey with the number of Facebook accounts opened in those states. The study suggests a correlation between social media usage and divorce rates. Other studies also support the conclusion that there is a connection between social networking and marital problems. Adjusting for other variables, 32% of heavy social-media users say they have thought seriously about leaving their spouses, compared with 16% of people who do not use social networks, according to a 2011 University of Texas at Austin survey of 1,600 married 18- to 39-year-olds. One theory for these statistics: extramarital affairs, including emotional only ones, might have taken months, if not years, to develop in the past, but with social networks connecting with others is only a click away. When a marriage is under duress and people seek support, temptation is readily available as it is easy to connect online. It can start innocently, individuals can talk themselves into believing it is only online, nothing will happen, and no one will ever know; this can result in further cut off from the marriage or an escalation into an affair. Can this be interpreted as: people miserable in their marriages seek connections on social media (it is readily accessible and cheap) believing their decision to connect in this way is ok and no harm will come when in fact research suggests vulnerability to increased marital discord and divorce rates with increased social media use. Stress on a marriage can impact an individual’s self esteem and/or cause a sense of failure which can result in moral dilemmas such as a spouse seeking support from another person, and perhaps eventually what they might consider a better solution. This serves as an antecedent to groupthink which we see in the symptom of illusion of invulnerability. The symptom of pressure on dissenters is when group members actively suppress negative comments/ideas from other members. This symptom is also applicable to this example: it is not uncommon for spouses unhappy in their marriage to seek support and attention from someone else, secretly; as openly telling others of this behavior would most likely solicit negative comments. This can be a form of the self appointed mindguard symptom; by keeping it secret they are trying to protect themselves and others (such children, spouses, extended families) from negative information about their decisions.

Collective rationalization is when each group member supports other members’ ideas (PSY, 533). Cyber bullying is defined as repeated and intentional harassment, mistreatment, and/or making fun of another person online; or while using cell phones or other electronic devices. According to the Cyber Bullying Research Center 34% of the students from a 12,000 sample of middle school students across the U.S. reported experiencing cyber bullying. When asked about specific types of cyber bullying experienced in the previous 30 days, mean or hurtful comments (22.5%) and rumors spread (20.1%) online continue to be among the most commonly-cited. Cell phones and other mobile devices continue to be the most popular technology utilized by adolescents with the top four reported weekly activities involving their use. Facebook remains the most frequently cited social media platform used on a weekly basis, with Instagram and Snapchat increasing in popularity. 78% of teens now have cell phones; this makes social media readily available to middle school students. Given it is listed as one of the top activities they engage in it is easy to understand why suicide from cyber bullying is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in approximately 4,400 deaths per year, according to the CDC. Can this be interpreted as: teenagers have easy access to social media which serves as a quick and easy way to harass others, spreading in minutes to thousands of people who can quickly add to the harassment, creating a flurry of mean and deadly support of rumors and mean comments? Additionally, does communication to or about other people online as opposed to direct human contact make it is easy to engage in harassing behaviors that can quickly be rationalized by the offender as harmless? The symptom, illusion of unanimity, can be experienced by the offenders and victims of cyber bullying as they can both believe that everyone deems the rumors to be true and support the mean commentary. In fact, some of the offenders can exhibit the symptom of self censorship as they fear becoming the next victim if they do not go along with the bullying. I am thinking the parents of Ryan Halligan, Megan Meier, Jessica Logan, and Tyler Clementi (well publicized teenage cyber bullying suicide cases) would be able to make a strong case for the danger of groupthink and social media.

Perhaps it is time to stop and think about how we are all using social media. Aligning to groupthink is often an easier path to pursue and social media facilitates the temptation of such. Taking a step back to analyze the impact of significant social media usage can be beneficial in fighting against groupthink.

 

References

Center For Disease Control (2017). Retrieved from https://healthfinder.gov/FindServices/Organizations/Organization.aspx?code=HR0031

Cyber Bullying Research Center (2017). Retrieved from http://cyberbullying.org/2016-cyberbullying-data.

Lepp, Andrew. Victimized Adolescents increased chance of suicide. Journal of Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 74, 6-12.

Janis, I.L. (1983). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascos. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Mielach, David (2016). Americans Spend 23 hours per week online. Retrieved from http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/4718-weekly-online-social-media-time.html

PSY 533. (2017). L11 Small Groups. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/l11-small groups-defined?module_item_id=21902269

5 Comments

  1. Rachel Anne Moury April 23, 2017 at 5:59 PM #

    Hope,

    Great post! This is a relevant and sobering topic to consider, and I think you’re spot on in your assessment that the immediacy and ease of connecting through social media can be a significant contributor to groupthink and its negative consequences, like infidelity and cyber bullying. With regard to the positive correlation of social media use and divorce rates, I think the issue at hand is that deep and meaningful connection with another person is difficult, but also central to who we are as human beings. So, people want it, but they don’t want to put in the effort that it often takes to build the connection or community. And they certainly don’t want the pain of disappointment, which is inevitable the closer someone is to you (emotionally, and in proximity). A desire to escape pain or discomfort, coupled with the facade of an immediately positive connection can lead to dangerous consequences, as you have noted and the data suggests. Facebook and other social media sites provide a place where people can “connect” with someone while still holding them at a cyber-sized arm’s length. You are also right to call out cyber-bullying as a negative consequence of groupthink cultivated through social media. The often-impersonal connection engaged in through social media does seem to create an environment ripe for this kind of negative outcome.

    While social media certainly can cause groupthink and other negative consequences, I have also seen it contribute in positive ways. For example, it is a powerful tool for grassroots efforts of any kind, especially awareness and charity campaigns. Remember when the whole world debated whether the dress was blue and black or white and gold (Hannon & Mathis-Lilley, 2015)? And then the Salvation Army used #TheDress to make a powerful statement about domestic violence, by posting a picture of a woman in a white and gold dress with bruises all over her body (Gibson, 2015). The accompanying tweet said, “Why is it so hard to see black and blue? One in 6 women are victims of abuse. #StopAbuseAgainstWomen.”

    In the end, as with any technological “advances,” there may be positive and negative consequences. People need to be discerning about how they use the technology and how much time they spend in the virtual world versus their physical reality. Thanks again for your great post!

    Rachel

    References:

    Gibson, M. (2015, March 6). This domestic violence PSA makes a powerful statement with #TheDress. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/3735060/domestic-violence-the-dress/

    Hannon, E. and Mathis-Lilley, B. (2015, February 27). The official live blog: Is this dress blue and black or white and gold? Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/02/26/the_great_blue_and_black_versus_white_and_gold_dress_debate.html

  2. Hope Anne Dellastua April 23, 2017 at 2:25 PM #

    Hi Doug – Thank you for reading my post and sharing experiences/information about your soldiers. For whatever reason social media and its impact fascinates me. It would be interesting to observe human interactions and behaviors a hundred years from now. You provided additional perspectives on social media and its impact in regards to what you are seeing with soldiers, when they deploy, when they come and how many wives engage in affairs via social media. In particular your comments and observations about not hearing about people meeting in bars, games, church, etc. (face to face) but online has me thinking about what are people really seeking, do they even know? I have heard of several stories from people I know in which their spouse were having an online affair but believe it never became a physical one. This always leaves me thinking about what is going on with people? Is it as simple as giving in to temptation and online platforms have easy accessibility with low visibility? Or is there more going on? Not necessarily from an individual level but from a global perspective with humans. As connected as we now are with social media, computers, internet, cell phones, and the ability to travel almost anywhere around the world I can’t help but wonder if we are actually increasingly isolated. I do not have a Facebook page and do not have a desire for one. Almost everyone I know has a Facebook page and they are often preoccupied with how many friends they have on Facebook yet many of them they do not know well, or at all, and they also complain about not having anyone to do things with. Instead of getting up and out of their homes to do social things they sit on their device of choice looking at Facebook, etc. I simply cannot comprehend this. It is as if many people believe the illusion of Facebook friends and the many other connections they have yet they have no one. They also appear to be losing the skill set to engage with people. I do not see this trend improving anytime soon. Thanks again for sharing.

  3. Hope Anne Dellastua April 23, 2017 at 2:00 PM #

    Hi Jason – Thanks for reading my post and sharing some additional thoughts. As a mom, social media and children have been a topic of great discussion in our house. My 14 year old is actually not a fan of Facebook, perhaps this is because we do not allow her to have one. However, snapchat and texting are the two she loves to be on. We have a lot of conversations talking about the danger they pose: mentally, physically, and from a reputation stand point. Additionally, the school district we are in, starting in the 6th grade all the way through the 12th grade, require all students to participate in a course called Cyber Citizenship. There are also a lot of sessions offered to parents which has been very eye opening. I have learned about the increase in suicide rates for teens, human trafficking of teens in suburbia-America which many parents love to deny could ever happen to their own kids, and some great guest speakers have presented on the change of the human brain (chemically and in physical structure) from the use of social media. As much as technology provides great conveniences it is in my opinion that we should ask ourselves at what cost……being aware and finding a healthy balance should be a must. Unfortunately, I see parents being just as addicted to social platforms. Scary.

  4. Jason Dunbar April 21, 2017 at 1:48 PM #

    Hope:

    I think this was an excellent choice for a blog post on our current unit. You did a great job connecting the dots between social media and group think. It is amazing how a book written over 30 years ago has such relevance regarding how we use modern technology. My children are still too young for cell phones or social media accounts (and I am very thankful – but I know my day is coming) but their world has never been anything other than instant access and wifi. Groupthink, pack mentality, the relative anonymity of social media, and other modern phenomena all seem to work together like a team of hookworms. Since groupthink isn’t anything new, it leads me to believe that we as humans are always seeking outlets for such behaviors and compulsions. When the first packet network made the world’s first internet connection in California in 1969, I don’t think the intent was for this to be a vehicle for spouses to cheat or for kids to bully other kids but give mankind enough time and poof, here we are. Great post!

    Jason

  5. Douglas Lindsey April 21, 2017 at 12:25 PM #

    Hope,

    Awesome blog post, very informative and lots of studies to back up the ideas. The most telling aspect was when you mentioned that divorce rates are far higher with heavy social media users due to easy access to other people that was also low visibility. While I do not have statistics to back up my experiences I can say that this is very true. While my unit was deployed for only six months (the shortest possible deployment and best case scenario if you want to be close to your family) many marriages that had been rocky to begin with fell apart after only a month or two. In almost all the instances it was due to the wife who was left behind cheating on the soldier who was overseas. In also almost all of those cases it was someone she met on Tinder, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. I have yet to hear of a case where it was someone they met in church, in sports, or even bars anymore. It seems, especially with younger people, that they meet or at least connect with most people online and physical interactions are falling to the wayside. With soldiers I have also noticed that is almost predominantly with young couples who are not experienced with dealing with any sort of relationship stress, and are forced to bear one of the most difficult situations possible while the marriage is still young. When a young wife is left behind and is terribly lonely and has only social media to keep her interacted with the world, it seems almost inevitable that a divorce will occur. You quoted 32% of heavy social media users who have thought about seriously leaving their spouses. In my experience from deployment among the 18-22 year old married soldiers the actual divorce rate from a standard deployment will be about a third, with maybe another quarter falling apart after the soldier returns from combat and he is unable to effectively communicate with his spouse about anything. Thank you for this post. I will advise my soldiers that before we leave for an overseas assignment to have their spouses social media accounts deactivated, jokingly of course.

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