Avoiding the Dangers of Spiritual Groupthink
A couple of months ago, I wrote a column about the German-born social psychologist, Kurt Lewin (1890-1947). Although most people have never heard of him, Lewin was utterly unique — an innovative pioneer in many areas of psychology and sociology at a time when both of those fields were still very much in their infancy. His extensive research and rigorous studies continue to affect every one of us in ways that we are not even aware of.
Lewin coined the term “group dynamics,” and extensively researched how groups of people behave when they are together — both internally within the group, and as a group towards others. The central idea that underpins “group dynamics” is that the behavior of an individual will change when they are part of a group.
Nowadays, Lewin’s research is often used in management schools to teach the mechanics of team building, using a model proposed in 1965 by the eminent psychologist, Professor Bruce Tuckman (1938-2016). This approach is called “forming-storming-norming-performing,” and charts the development of a successful team through four separate stages.
During the initial “forming,” “storming” and “norming” stages of the process, individual members of the group may be unclear as to the collective objectives of the team. The success or failure of the team as a whole will hinge on each person’s ability to set aside any individualisms that may detract from the ultimate success of the team as a whole.
The important point is that group dynamics are an extremely powerful force, and when exercised efficiently, they can produce incredible results. But there is also a dark side to group dynamics: The power of the group can overwhelm a person’s individual desire to do the right thing, leading to situations in which good people do bad things as a result of the overwhelming impact of group pressures.
In extreme cases, this phenomenon can be manipulated by corrupt or evil people — with dreadful results. This is a partial explanation as to why seemingly normal people join destructive cults, or fall under the spell of evil ideologies, such as Nazism or radical Islamism.
Group dynamics should not be used as an excuse for individuals who perpetrate evil as a result of group dynamics. On the contrary, it is precisely the dangers of this phenomenon that must be at the forefront of our mind if we find ourselves slipping into undesirable behaviors. We need to be thinking: “Is this happening because I am part of a group?”
Most importantly, we need to be aware that no one is immune to the effects of group dynamics, nor is anyone its slave — as is evident from the quite remarkable episode of the twelve “spies” sent by Moses to check out the Land of Canaan in this week’s Torah portion of Shelach.
The text reveals that each of the 12 men sent by Moses on the mission was distinguished and upstanding (Num. 13:3): “all of them men [of standing], they were leaders of the Children of Israel.”
How was it possible for this team of extraordinary individuals to betray God’s plan, and to return from Canaan with negative information? Not only were they from the generation that stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard God’s voice — but they were its leaders. How does their treachery make any sense?
As if this is not puzzling enough, there were two men who did not abandon the mission in favor of a divergent scheme: Joshua and Caleb. What was it that enabled them to stay loyal while the other 10 went rogue?
The commentaries offer a range of answers to explain the mysterious transformation of 10 honorable men into agents of disaster. The text itself offers us very few clues, although there is at least one clue that reveals the mechanics. Although the 10 spies were initially named individually, once the mission began they were only referred to as a group, or referred to themselves as a group: “they stated,” “they spoke,”“we saw,” “we were,” etc.
It is unlikely that they all delivered the report at the same time in unison. Rather it must have been one or two of them who acted as spokesperson for the whole group. And yet, no individual from the group is named as the spokesperson. However illustrious each of them may have been at the outset, as a group they had brought out the worst in each other.
Meanwhile, Joshua and Caleb are mentioned by name as having spoken out in favor of the land. In Joshua’s case, Moses had changed his name before he left to include a reference to God, fortifying him from any negative influences, while Caleb took time out during the 40 day expedition to visit the tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Hebron, which we are informed was to protect himself from the insidious influence of his colleagues.
The powerful lesson from these two great men is that the only protection against falling prey to negative group dynamics is vigilance. Even if you are entirely honorable, when you are part of a group, you must be constantly aware and conscious of the core values that you cherished and championed before you joined the group. Otherwise, you will inevitably become faceless and nameless — part of a mob that can descend to the lowest common denominator.
Particularly in our times, when masses of people subscribe to ideologies and beliefs that contravene our fundamental Jewish values, we must be attentive and mindful that we don’t fall prey to the malignant influence of group dynamics, but instead stand up for what is right, like Joshua and Caleb, who — as a result of their conviction and courage — were allowed to enter the Promised Land.