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.
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