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​​​Absolutism and Groupthink

The propensity towards corruption of undisputed authority and the tendency to dysfunctional decisions of very cohesive groups are facts recognized by sociologists and psychologists. Both phenomena have been carefully studied by academia. The problems of any society worsen when the two trends are combined in one single scenario.

Let us talk first about absolutism. Since no ruler would accept that his or her behavior were analyzed by scientists, social psychologists Joris Lammers and Adam Galinsky, among others, have recurred to studies with volunteers who have been previously primed as powerful (power prime​d) and brought to act in artificial situations where they may exercise categorical authority.

Priming techniques include, among many, the self-affirming repetition of phrases such as 'I am the one in command', or the reliving of past circumstances in which participants had full control of events. During Insight II, a motivational workshop which this columnist attended years ago, the facilitators played ‘Gonna Fly Now’, the Rocky film’s musical hit, when they wanted to grow the participants' sense of authority. When we, participants, heard 'Gonna Fly Now´ we felt, I must confess, really empowered to immediately perform with much energy the assigned tasks. We were indeed primed for power.

In one of the simulations led by Drs. Lammers and Galinsky, participants had to rate both their own behavior and that of third parties, based on an ethical scale from one (totally immoral) to nine (totally acceptable) in a large number of entries. The test results showed not only negative influence of power in ethical conduct but also that the owners of authority tend to judge others with a moral stick stricter than that with which they measure themselves. The weak -the unprimed- in contrast, applied similar metrics both to judge themselves as to measure the powerful. According to Dr. Galinsky, power inclines  those who have it toward either the breaking of the rules or toward their free interpretation  so that they may manipulate evidence to suit their purposes.

​​​​The seco​​nd problem around excessive leadership comes from the so-called groupthink, a social anomaly, though its denomination entails a positive connotation. Groupthink is an abnormal way of acting in which the members of a group, seeking to maintain unanimous agreement, tend to close their eyes to indisputable realities and ignore reasonable courses of action. The cohesive groups that always appear around the powerful -the devoted to the cause, the faithful servants of the leader, the beneficiaries of the autocratic system- are particularly prone to this behavior.

Back in the seventies, American psychologist Irving Janis documented in detail the causes and symptoms of groupthink . Causes include the homogeneity of the group (political, social, religious ...), the spontaneous or directed isolation from external sources of information and the authoritarian leadership of the ruler in control -the subject of this note.  Symptoms are, among others, the blind belief in the morality of the group, the indiscriminate disqualification of those who do not belong to it, the pressure to 'straighten' the disloyal, and the censorship of ideas deviating from consensus.

​The scientific study of the harms of groupthink is limited by the implicit difficulty to quantify subjective factors. Despite this limitation, the detrimental impact of groupthink is clear and examples abound. Two outstanding contemporary fiascos originated in groupthink environments are the American invasion to Iraq without conclusive evidence to justify it and the concentration of modern physics research over the past three decades in the so-called string theory, a field with questionable scientific future.

It is thus evident that strong leaders with unconditional followers cause major damage to any society or group. Those in power who skillfully manipulate their players to win their loyalty would result most damaging in any circumstance. Nothing can be as socially harmful as a corrupted control with majority support.

For this reason the reelection of authoritarian rulers with high electoral capital, whether legitimate or negotiated, is as inconvenient as risky. Such reelections -some of peoples, other of dynasties- so fashionable in the 21st century Latin America, are already showing their unfortunate consequences in this region.

Gustavo Estrada

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