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Groupthink and You

Mises Daily: Thursday, August 23, 2001 by

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You see it in daycare centers, and you see it in the public schools, from kindergarten to high school. Group projects abound, shoving together individuals who have no formal bonds, yet are banded together for the purpose of collective decision-making.

Universities, both public and private, are not immune to this affliction. In fact, if you attend a business college today, you’ll think it’s the newest rage, but it’s been the rule for decades.

Most university programs may not use group projects, but undergraduate and graduate programs in business are full of them. It is our contention that group projects are criminal in themselves and should be abolished on moral grounds, in that they function as collectivist indoctrination.  Like government schools, group projects homogenize thought and neuter high achievers.

Individuality is forced out of our kids at an early age. After all, group projects are often the standard for young children in childcare situations, where the young ones are often taught that individuals don't do things or go places, groups do. By college age, the collective cast of mind has only gotten more oppressive. Groupthink is a process of gradualism that seeks to gently merge the followers into a pack with leaders, the hope being that the leaders will pull up those who typically reside on the low end of the motivation and achievement scale.

For example, a professor assigns an innocuous academic exercise, such as a term paper, communications presentation, or marketing proposal. It is turned into a group project by fiat—the professor segments the class into groups. More often than not, these groups are not even voluntary. When the students turn in their papers, the professor usually assigns the same grade to everyone in the group.

Another common stratagem in this setting is to have group members grade one another and develop useful constructive criticism for fellow teammates. However, this commonly dovetails into grades by mutual agreement. If one member doesn't go along with this forced "agreement" by granting the agreed-upon concessions, he is usually excoriated by his fellow groupthinkers for doing so. This is a pact where honest evaluations take a back seat to easy A's and phony feel-goodism.

Shirking is the most immediate danger within group projects. Usually, the group members with some semblance of a work ethic labor hard and often to take up the slack from the free riders. There are other dangers as well.  In a case experienced by one of us, for example, a group member simply cut and pasted text from the Web instead of writing up his share of the research. Thus, the final version of the paper given to the professor was 20 percent pure plagiarism, unbeknownst to the rest of the group until it was too late. The slacker got a grade of 98 for the project, as did the people who actually worked.

In other cases, the shirking of duties simply cannot be overcome. High achievers are forced to relax their standards and accept being reduced to the lowest common denominator in the group. This can have a dreadful effect on work ethic and attitudes through the following insidious lessons instilled by group projects:

Lesson 1:  You will learn cooperation, not competition.

Lesson 2:  The achiever will be taxed: The reward of his efforts will go to others, so the low achiever who exerts little effort and contributes almost nothing will be taken care of by the professor (serving as the government).

Lesson 3:  Individualism will not be allowed. The individual with the best ideas will do what the group decides. If you have an original or daring thought, forget it. The group will write up a bland sack of platitudes that represents the thinking of its lowest common denominator.

Lesson 4:  Conservatism and caution are the name of the game. Whereas high achievers constantly strive to better themselves and have the room to operate in a more daring realm, the low achievers want things quickly and easily as they conform to less strict standards for excellence. The result is likely to be one of mediocrity.

Lesson 5:  Get used to the emotional feel of a collectivist, totalitarian state. If you are an individualist with a work ethic and a drive to excel, you will be pounded down until you adopt the debilitating, depressing learned helplessness that socialism produces. If you are a slacker, however, a free rider with no qualms about living on the purloined toil of honest people, you can feel relieved, satisfied, secure; if you are a thoroughgoing scumbag, you can even feel pride in any good grade given you on the backs of your teammates.

Business programs, in forcing group settings upon (previously) ambitious students, are responding to the demands of the business community. This can be dangerous.

First, the business community isn’t always the only entity to ask for the secrets of success. Successful businessmen such as Ted Turner and Warren Buffett have proven they don’t understand well what makes success possible. They know how to make money in ignorance of the economic principles that make it possible. This is due in part to the fact that most tycoons have navigated an ocean of government regulations in making their fortunes, and they mistakenly conclude that the government therefore had something to do with their success.

Second, and more ominous, business schools are usually the only programs on campus employing any right-wing (if mildly so) professors. Having the only campus department that makes extensive, mandatory use of group projects, business programs subject and desensitize their hapless students to the most realistically socialist experience available at most universities. Administrators are probably comfortable in the knowledge that the group project experience more than compensates for professors who occasionally dare to admit publicly that market solutions are better than government dictates. And students aren’t the only ones ruined: after enough years of being commissars, professors may slowly convert to the leftist mentality as well.

In truth, groupthink has become a chronic problem in universities; it is a consensus-seeking process that does not allow for the preservation of individuality. It stifles creativity for the purpose of compromise and agreement. The university—through its group-project mentality—has become a test lab for socialization skills. The fostering of such rigid cooperation and coerced integration can be had only at the expense of lesser accomplishment.

Ayn Rand had it right when she said that any collectivist system is necessarily self-defeating no matter what its specific policies or leaders. After all, if Johnny is in your group and he can't read or write very well, you'll be getting Johnny's grades.

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Karen De Coster, who lives in Michigan, is a business professional, freelance writer, and graduate student in economics. Send her MAIL and See her Daily Article Achive.