Agreeing to lose the voice of morality
The danger of groupthink overpowering dissenting opinions and objective thinking
Who can argue with the goal of leading an “ honorable life”? Or, more pointedly, “treating all those I encounter with dignity and respect”? This is the precept of Kappa Delta Rho, the fraternity whose Penn State chapter is suspended and under investigation for a private Facebook page where members posted pictures of drug use and nude, unconscious women.
Again, the group’s mission: “I have but one aim: to lead an honorable life.”
How could this eloquent principle be perverted to such a degree?
Group loyalty can suppress individual voices, causing members to agree to decisions without critically evaluating it. Yale University psychologist Irving Janis investigated the dangers behind collective thinking in 1971. His research created the theory of “groupthink,” the pressure for conformity, which suppresses other viewpoints. Irving outlined eight symptoms of groupthink. These involve rationalizing the action and pressuring dissenting voices into conforming. People want to feel included. It is easier to agree than stand out.
This theory helped explain appeasement to Nazi Germany, the cover-up of Watergate and the other Penn State scandal. For each, a single point of view won out because critical opinions were not valued.
This type of blind conformity leads to the perversion of good intentions. In this case, the honorable words of the Kappa Delta Rho mission statement.
Following the discovery of the Facebook page, Philadelphia Magazine interviewed a member of the Penn State chapter. He stood by the group’s actions, detailing them as “humorous, albeit possibly misguided, antics of a bunch of college kids.”
“Here’s a quick reality check: everyone — from Bill Clinton to your grandfather to every Greek organization in the nation does the same old stuff, just as they have been for the entirety of human history,” he said.
Groupthink in action: It has been done before, so it is okay to do it again.
The same member said he was aware of the group’s actions but denied posting or commenting because he is a “good guy.” As a knowledgeable member, though, he fostered an atmosphere that regarded the Facebook page as “antics” just as much as those who posted pictures.
Responding to a question about the media’s coverage, the fraternity member said: “I don’t think that something like this should be reported.”
Again, this is groupthink. Critical opinions by outsiders are unnecessary, especially if they are unlikely to agree with the group consensus.
If not for the work of a fraternity member who alerted police, this story might not have been reported. While his fraternity brothers refer to him as the one who “snitched,” he should be honored for following his heart instead of group consensus. Instead of complying with the norm, he took a risk to expose the truth. What a difference one voice can make.
Despite the argument of one Penn State fraternity member, not all chapters of Kappa Delta Rho or fraternities participate in this type of behavior. That is not the generalization to make. However, the Penn State case underlines the need for a continual assessment of the morality of our actions.
Returning to higher moral standards means there needs to be more whistle-blowers like the member of Kappa Delta Rho. More individuals must have the courage to stand up in the face of misguided group thinking. Morality must pervade, especially beyond the fraction of our lives that is public.
Groupthink can be avoided by encouraging the sharing of all ideas, allowing unsaid opinions to be heard and pointing out misconduct. That can include bringing in objective, outside voices. While the immorality of our actions will hopefully never come near the level of the Penn State fraternity, we could all benefit from examining our lives from an outside perspective.