Dissidents Need Not Apply: Is Campus Groupthink Coming to Hollywood?
An interview with heterodox academic Daniel B. Klein
“If you break any of these rules, you can’t sit with us at lunch.” Groupthink, “Mean Girls”-style
A promising young academic is on the cusp of her first tenure-track position, but at the last minute a few people in the history department torpedo her job offer. It’s a story about groupthink in academia—and entertainment.
Meg Smaker was a promising young filmmaker on the cusp of a massive distribution deal, but at the last minute a few people at Sundance torpedoed her film.
Vocal minorities in academia and the film industry hold the power to sink job candidates and films. Their impact remains mostly unknown to outsiders, but such actions do plenty to enforce a monoculture.
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Daniel B. Klein is an expert in groupthink. In his work on academia, the George Mason University economist points to the power of vocal minorities as well as other symptoms of groupthink such as:
Tribal validation replacing individual critical thinking
The freezing out of projects that explore unapproved topics
Those points don’t just describe groupthink in academia, they describe groupthink in my field of film. The more I learn about the work of Klein and his collaborator Stockholm University Professor of Sociology Charlotta Stern, the more I see troubling parallels between their world and mine.
In a survey conducted in 2003, Klein and Stern documented Democrat-Republican ratios ranging from 3 to 1 in economics to 22 to 1 in anthropology and sociology. Today the ratios are even more tilted (see here and here).
Disciplines that have long leaned left have collapsed into near uniformity. I suspect a similar pattern holds for the entertainment industry.
But like free speech, viewpoint diversity is something we humans seem to care more about when our side is getting hosed. One of the many gratifying developments about the rise of Substack is seeing writers from many different points of view supporting a culture of free expression, and resisting the pull of the herd.
After all, there’s more at stake than simply having our say. When other people challenge our ideas, we get smarter. When we stamp out dissidents, we get dumber.
In this interview with Daniel B. Klein, I ask the academic dissident about his work on groupthink, the dismal state of viewpoint diversity on campus, and why groups that think alike rarely learn from their mistakes.
BALAKER: Why is groupthink a bad thing?
KLEIN: Like the words bias, error, and defect, the word groupthink has “bad” built in to it. It is pejorative. Irving Janis developed the concept in his Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascos (2nd ed. 1982). He explicitly built “bad” into the word.
Janis used fiascos such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and escalation in Vietnam—exploits that we retrospectively discuss as having been foolish. He theorizes how the thinking of concentrated, insular groups, notably executive government agencies, go wrong. Just as the word “failure” has “bad” built into it, groupthink has “bad” built into it.
More recently, Covid policies have exemplified groupthink, I’d say.
Think of a compact executive government agency or body, dealing with a particular problem. Leadership in or above the body steers them in a certain bad direction, say mask mandates. [A rigorous research review conducted by the UK’s Cochrane Library found that masks make “little or no difference” on COVID-19 rates. ]
The chiefs here validate each other’s belief in the goodness of the bad policy. It is possible that some of the influencers actually know that the policy is bad, but a lot of the colleagues and subordinates are in denial and propagate goodness narratives under self-deceit and self-delusion. Stoogification abounds.
Paul 't Hart, who developed the Janis tradition in Groupthink in Government: A Study of Small Groups and Policy Failure (1990), calls groupthink "excessive concurrence-seeking," a behavior that explains "flaws in the operation of small, high-level groups at the helm of major projects or policies that become fiascoes."
BALAKER: If you look at groups where everybody thinks alike, how good are they at fixing their mistakes?
KLEIN: The human hope is that when humans go wrong, there will be feedback, learning, and correction. So why don’t these wrongheaded groups correct?
An essential part of the answer is coercion. When individuals participate individually, and voluntarily, they naturally think twice and abstain from the dubious. That’s the feedback of voluntary processes. But government is the special player in a polity that overtly initiates coercion—taxation and intervention.
Government officials, especially chiefs, hate admitting their mistakes. They fall deeply into denial and self-deceit. They double-down and descend into big falsehoods.
BALAKER: Sometimes people talk of “silos,” “echo chambers,” “bubbles,” or even “cults” and “religions.” And then there is the talk of “political tribes” and “polarization.” Are all of these the same as groupthink?
KLEIN: The concept of groupthink has a scholarly pedigree, and a good one. It originally was about small elite administrative groups, focused on a particular task, and going wrong on that task. For a particular task, sometimes the results are telling, and afterward even the wayward might admit having gone wrong—establishing the badness of the beliefs that had prevailed. A concrete failure is placed on the examination table.
The analysis of such compact organizational groups can then be adapted to larger networks, such as academia or what we mean by Hollywood. But the presupposition of badness is upsetting. Since academia is leftist, the diagnosing of academia as a groupthink problem doesn’t fly in academia, of course.
BALAKER: How has groupthink operated in academia?
KLEIN: Charlotta Stern and I wrote a piece “Groupthink in Academia: Majoritarian Departmental Politics and the Professional Pyramid.” It is about academia in the United States.
A key ingredient is sacred belief: With the decline of religion, the need for the sacred has shifted to political worldview; it is central to the selfhood and meaning of the individual academic. That shapes one’s idea of “good research,” especially in the social sciences and humanities.
Next, the individual department at a university has traditionally done personnel decisions by majoritarian voting within the department. Once the leftists got past the tipping point of about 50 percent, their majoritarianism drove the department toward uniformity.
Now, you might think that the fall of one department to uniformity doesn’t spell hegemony across academia. But here is where the professional pyramid is so important. The academic discipline, such as History, is one of the most rigid, hierarchical caste systems on the planet. Academia lives by a strict pecking order of status and prestige.
It is a labor market, but a very strange labor market, in which historians produce, promote, and hire historians, and with other people’s money. (I explain in this video.)
The apex has schools like Harvard, which produce the most PhDs and place them best throughout the pyramid. The whole pyramid is self-validating—journals, publications, citations, letters of recommendation, grants and scholarships—everything. Once the apex goes left, that sweeps leftists into position up-and-down the entire pyramid.
Thus, at the micro level of the department, majoritarianism drives to uniformity, and at the macro level of the disciplinary pyramid, leftism is ensconced and galvanized, combining to give the left a lock on academia, once it passed critical thresholds.
That was the story that Stern and I told in 2009. It is still true, but now the situation is even worse. Two decades ago, university administrators tended to take a passive role, rubber stamping the personnel decisions of the department. Today, they are much more activist, hardening the monoculture and stamping out dissent.
Ted Balaker is a filmmaker, and former network newser and think tanker. His recent work includes “Little Pink House”starring Catherine Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn,” “Can We Take a Joke?” featuring Gilbert Gottfried and Penn Jillette, and a forthcoming feature documentary based on the bestselling book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.
I had no idea someone made a film about Kelo. It's in my queue right now!
And yes, Hollywood has become conformist...and quite boring. I just read that the new Perry Mason series, dark in visuals and dark in theme, will be about racist police practices against two "Latinx" men. This has become a cliche.
Interesting point about how the majoritarianism drove even greater uniformity once the 50% threshold had been reached in certain departments. I found the same dynamic when, in conformity with the rule that everyone should get an equal turn, conservatives, like me, would shut down, because voicing our opinion in a room full of leftists would just lead to 10 people in a row explaining how that opinion was driven by racism. There needs to be non-majoritarian rules in place in situations where viewpoints are lopsidedly in one direction.