Conformity and groupthink: a tool for think tanks or a danger?

4 January 2011

Here is a post from Simoleon Sense on conformity. It is a very interesting history of the study of conformity as well as a bit of an inspirational video. I could not help thinking that some of the findings of this literature are of great use for think tanks who want to increase their influence over others: human brains cannot tell the difference between an idea that is repeated 3 times by the same person in a group and one that is repeated by 3 people in the group. But it is also a warning for organisations that, caught in their context (political, policy, funding, staffing, etc.), may be tempted to conform -even when they are aware of conflicts in judgement.

In this sense, conformity may transform otherwise independent organisations into someone else’s tools (although, I’d argue that this is the essence of many politically or economically driven think tanks -and as long as this is made explicit I do not see anything fundamentally wrong with it) to reinforce a policy narrative or regime.

Of course, life is far more complex than this and it may be, as in the case of think tanks in East and Southeast Asia, that it is possible to promote a non-conformist debate within a particular narrative or regime.