On Conformity, Groupthink, and the Slap Heard Round the World

The important thing about groupthink is that it works not so much by censoring dissent as by making dissent seem somehow improbable. ~James Surowiecki

One morning when I was in fourth grade, my teacher wheeled in a television from the AV center. She beamed as she rolled that rickety cart to the front of the room.

She started fiddling with the dials and the always-broken remote.

And we all settled in to watch one of the most highly-anticipated events in my little elementary school life.

The Challenger launch.

At that precise moment in time, while Mrs. Thoroughgood muttered about the broken remote and explained to us kids in Room 401 that we’d be learning about space from a teacher in space!, down in Cape Canaveral a room full of scientists was debating.

The weather had not been what it should have been.

It was too cold, and they knew it.

In particular, they knew that the “O” rings – which were designed to seal up and contain the pressure of hot gases produced by burning rocket fuel – would be too cold to function properly. Overnight temperatures had been a frigid 20 degrees, and icicles had formed on the launch structure.

O rings only performed properly at 53 degrees.

It had not yet hit 40.

Meanwhile, classrooms like mine all over America tuned into what was promised to be the first of multiple broadcasts. Later in the week the very first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, would, just as Mrs. Thoroughgood promised, teach America’s kids from the shuttle.

She would be our teacher in space.

Per the mission plan, this class would happen four days into orbit.

But that posed a problem for the NASA engineers, too.

See, it was Tuesday.

So if the launch was delayed by even one day McAuliffe would give her lesson on … Saturday. But kids aren’t in school on Saturday.

That meant delay was … unacceptable.

Adding to the pressure, Ronald Regan wanted to mention the Challenger mission in his State of the Union address that night. If the launch was delayed because it was a little too cold … well, mentioning the liftoff wouldn’t happen, either.

The scientists quashed their concerns.

Surely it would be fine. NASA had never had an accident. This would be no different. Right?

Remember that these are some of the world’s smartest and most accomplished engineers and scientists. Surely it will be fine.

We all know what happened next.

The Challenger is now a textbook example of groupthink.

I know, because I studied it in college. (Quite some time ago, now.)

Groupthink, at base, is when people center the group’s cohesion – or not “upsetting the applecart” – rather than good decision making. When people “go with the flow,” even when they know they shouldn’t. It’s especially powerful in stressful situations, and under time pressure, and when there is a shared identity (like, say, NASA scientists).

The Challenger is a good example of the power of groupthink, influencing even incredibly intelligent people at the top of their game – powerful people in their industry who would never be considered gullible or malleable. (In fact, their perceptions of their own infallibility make groupthink even more likely.)

I think on Sunday night we saw another event that will be studied by the next generation of communications students.

To recap: on Sunday, while presenting at the Oscars, Chris Rock centered a joke on Jada Pinkett Smith’s autoimmune disease that causes her to lose her hair. (He said he looked forward to seeing her in “GI Jane 2,” obviously referring to her baldness.)

Jada’s husband Will Smith responded by standing up, walking onstage, and smacking Rock across the face so hard that were there not photos proving it was an open-handed slap I would have told you it was a punch.

So that’s the context. But what these two men did to one another isn’t what I was most interested in.

I was most interested in the crowd’s reaction.

I’ve always been fascinated by why people behave the way they do – particularly in groups. Whether it’s an organization or a crowded theater, people behave differently when we’re around other people.

And the Oscars are, by design, full of some of America’s (and the world’s) most famous, wealthy, beautiful, powerful people. Sitting at fancy tables, wearing gowns worth tens of thousands – and jewels worth even more. Leaders in cinema, screenwriting, acting, music, direction … you name it.

The Oscars attract the absolute giants of every part of the movie industry.

Their reaction to a live, on-camera assault? Slack-jawed, they all looked around … at one another.

In moments of crisis or stress, no matter how powerful, wealthy, intelligent or accomplished – humans do what we’ve always done.

Look to our left and our right to see how to react.

We search the scene for a leader – someone who will demonstrate what the group’s reaction should be, and what should happen next.

Was this a big deal? Does anyone else think this is a big deal?

If nobody steps forward to lead (say, by jumping up and objecting, standing between the men, calling for security, ending the scene, cutting to commercial) the group has collectively answered its own question.

And groupthink – that desire to conform and not upset the applecart – takes over.

Had a leader stood up immediately and demanded some sort of accountability the scene would have unfolded differently. But no security guard walked forward, thinking “I just witnessed a physical assault and that’s what I was hired to protect against. I should do something.” No audience member or fellow awardee stood up, either.

I’ll note, too, that reaction to Will Smith’s assault isn’t the only thing that deserves critique. The audience could have – should have – boo’d Chris Rock for a joke that centered a woman’s autoimmune disease. They didn’t.

Why not?

Again, conformity.

That was a terrible joke. Is this a big deal? I’m not sure. Let me look around. Oh, I see. He’s laughing. She’s laughing. This is a bad joke, but it must not be that big of a deal.

The movie industry understands an audience’s tendency to conform better than any other, frankly, because laugh tracks are used for a reason: you are much more likely to laugh if you hear someone else laughing.

Hundreds of years ago, the Paris Opera ensured successful performances by employing “the claque,” or claqueurs, who would be dispersed throughout the audience to cry, or applaud, or scream “encore!” on demand. Claqueurs had their own conductor, and were as scripted and organized as the actors themselves.

And it worked. Entertainers have used that industry knowledge for their own purposes ever since.

Heck – you’ve experienced groupthink in your own decision making, even when you’re making life and death decisions. Just think of the last time you were the only masked person in a room. I’ll bet that you at least questioned your decision (“Hmm. Nobody else is wearing a mask. Do I really need to wear one?”). It’s such an uncomfortable situation that you likely avoid going places where it might happen. Right?

Okay, now let’s do politics.

Republicans have been engaged in years-long groupthink on a massive scale. Some of them – most notably Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney – have broken away from the group.

But many have remained, glued to that group cohesion, even while insurrectionists swarm the capitol with pre-built gallows and pledges to hang Mike Pence.

Couple the impact of a strongman party leader who does not tolerate dissension and misinformation served up nightly by FOX News (lack of divergent perspectives feeds groupthink), and we have a recipe for the continued disaster that is the Republican Party.

Their cohesion and conformity are so strong that some have called them a cult.

I think that goes (slightly) too far. Because they don’t need to be a cult.

Groupthink is that powerful, all on its own.

Hopefully all of this gives you some perspective, and something to remember as we work in our own communities.

If NASA scientists, titans of the entertainment industry, and party leaders can be so disoriented and contorted by groupthink …

Is it any wonder our neighbors can be, too?

Okay, friend. Let’s get to work.

Actions for the Week of March 29, 2022:

Quick one for WI – Postcards to Voters (Do Tuesday or Wednesday at latest!)

Judge Lori Kornblum was appointed last year by Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor to one of the Court of Appeals.  You can read why we’re writing for her here: [click to read]  Her candidacy has been endorsed by Democrats and ally organizations including Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, Wisconsin AFL-CIO, IBEW Local 494, Women Lead, AFT Local 212, Wisconsin Jewish Democrats, and hundreds of judges, attorneys, district attorneys, sheriffs, local elected officials and community leaders.

But, when voters get to this particular Court of Appeals contest on their ballot, there will not be a “D” next to her name.  There will not be an “R” next to her opponent’s name.  You would be right in guessing that the majority of voters will be uninformed about this contest and will skip it.  Not marking anything will mean the seat on this bench will be decided by a scant few voters.

When you write fun, friendly election reminders to voters, you’re doing them a favor by helping them know they should vote to keep Judge Lori Kornblum.

Postcards to Voters has been writing to Wisconsin Democratic voters for weeks and we have a couple more days.  They have finished the priority list given to them by the campaign.  Now, they’re trying to reach as many additional Democrats as possible in this 12-county Court of Appeals District. 

We have until today, Tuesday, to write and mail to Wisconsin for this April 5 election.  Can you please write 10 postcards?  (If you live in WI, MN, IL, IA, and MI, you have an extra day to mail by this Wednesday.)

They make it easy to request addresses:

Call Your Senators: Cosponsor Care for Long COVID

Long COVID is impacting one in every seven working-age Americans.

Yes, one in seven.

You can see estimates of the number of Long COVID (aka PASC) cases in your state here: https://pascdashboard.aapmr.org/ In Missouri it’s an estimated 384,853 people. That’s one in every 16 people in Missouri.

Friends, COVID is a mass-disabling event in real time, and there has been almost no policy attention paid to that aspect of the pandemic.

So I was pleased to see Senator Tim Kaine introduce legislation (CARE for Long COVID Act) that will:

  • Accelerate research by centralizing data regarding long COVID patient experiences; 
  • Increase understanding of treatment efficacy and disparities by expanding research to provide recommendations to improve the health care system’s responses to long COVID;
  • Educate long COVID patients and medical providers by working with the CDC to develop and provide the public with information on common symptoms, treatment, and other related illnesses;
  • Facilitate interagency coordination to educate employers and schools on the impact of long COVID and employment, disability, and education rights for people with long COVID; and
  • Develop partnerships between community-based organizations, social service providers, and legal assistance providers to help people with long COVID access needed services.

It was introduced by Tim Kaine; cosponsors are Tammy Duckworth, Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal. (See Congress.gov bill text <a href="http://&lt;!– wp:embed {"url":"https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/3726?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22care+for+long+covid%22%2C%22care%22%2C%22for%22%2C%22long%22%2C%22covid%22%5D%7D\u0026amp;s=1\u0026amp;r=1","type":"rich","providerNameSlug":"embed"} –> <figure class="wp-block-embed is-type-rich is-provider-embed wp-block-embed-embed"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/3726?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22care+for+long+covid%22%2C%22care%22%2C%22for%22%2C%22long%22%2C%22covid%22%5D%7D&s=1&r=1 </div></figure> HERE.)

There is literally no reason this bill should not be cosponsored by every single Senator.

So it’s up to us to call each of our Senators and ask them if they are supporting it, and if not, why not?

Script: Hello, my name is ____ and I’m a constituent at ____. I’m calling to ask if the Senator will be cosponsoring the CARE for Long COVID Act. It has been estimated that [insert number from https://pascdashboard.aapmr.org/ for your state] are suffering from Long COVID, and I can’t imagine that the Senator doesn’t want to accelerate and expand research, centralize data, and help people with Long COVID get resources. What is the Senator’s position on Long COVID?


Well, we all knew it would happen – though that hasn’t made it any easier to watch. A fantastic, phenomenal jurist is being maligned because she’s (1) black (2) a woman and (3) nominated by a Democrat.


So this week, please call your Senators and ask them to support her nomination. If you are in a red state, don’t skip this one. YES it matters.

Script: Hi, my name is ___ and I’m a constituent at [zip code]. I’m asking the Senator to support Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court. She’s phenomenal, exceptionally qualified, and deserving of a seat on the Court. Thanks.

Work in the States: Red2Blue Opportunities

Red2Blue focuses on some of the state legislative races that may fly under the radar but that are critical to a functioning democracy. They have so many different ways to pitch in – from text banks to phone banks, postcards to door knocks. And if you have experience with web design, graphics, social media management or communications they can also use your help in assisting some of these down-ballot Democrats with essential campaign work! Check them out here:


Note that they will be working hard on the ground in PA this year, especially with a long-time grassroots partner to expand local teams of volunteers and supporters for the 2022 midterms. Go to their Texting channel on Slack to take the training review and get added to the active texting channel at Turn PA Blue. (If you’re not already on their Slack, sign up here.)


P.S.: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.

If you’d like to sign up to get this pep talk and action list in your in-box each week, you can do that here. Welcome, friend!

P.P.S.: If you want to help support this work you can do so via Patreon at
https://www.patreon.com/smalldeedsdone or via paypal at https://www.paypal.me/smalldeeds
My deepest gratitude in advance.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. I read and respond to every email! We’re in this together. Don’t you forget it.

Have a thought? A small deed to suggest? Share it here!

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