Education, Features

The Incentives for Groupthink

In thinking about the extraordinary capitulation of our institutions to the self-avowedly radical, ‘subversive’ and altogether pernicious forces of Marxism and intersectionality, there is a temptation to see this development as the execution of a sinister plan. As anyone who has come into human contact with real academics would surely know, this narrative flatters their competence.

In this article, I wish to caution the reader against this conspiratorial frame of mind, tempting as it might be. To think like this is to attribute a top-down command-and-control explanation for a bottom-up incremental phenomena. In Daniel Dennett’s phrase, it is to construct a ‘skyhook’,1 which is tantamount to the argument from design so famously dismantled by David Hume.2 So the skyhook argument goes: the human eye is so irreducibly complex that it could not have been a chance occurrence – it must have been deliberately designed. And yet, we know that it evolved incrementally over millennia. In The Evolution of Everything (2015), Matt Ridley demonstrates how people are generally now willing to grant Darwin’s insights into the animal world, but when it comes to accepting the more general theory of evolution – the spontaneous order and ‘invisible hand’ of Hume and Adam Smith – they quickly revert back to ‘skyhook’ explanations.3 Rather, as I shall argue, we can analyse what has happened in terms of the incentive structures within the academy, which has a tendency towards rewarding groupthink and the pushing of the status quo in a more extreme direction. I conclude by arguing that the only way to seek greater balance in the academy is to do it from the bottom-up: a real solution can only come organically from students and researchers themselves.

What is groupthink? It is the powerful mechanism through which groups reinforce. It is a well-known phenomenon that groupthink leads to increased polarisation and a tendency to pull towards extremes because views within the group are repeated routinely, and countervailing views are not heard because they have been shut out.4 James Mortimer outlines the eight symptoms of groupthink as follows:

  1. An illusion of invulnerability. This creates excessive optimism that
    encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalization. Members of the group discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
  3.  Belief in inherent morality. Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups. Negative views of ‘enemy’ make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary. Remember how those who wouldn’t go along with the bubble were dismissed as simply not getting it?
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters. Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
  6. Self-censorship. Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity. The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
  8. “Mind guards” are appointed. Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group ’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions. This is confirmatory bias writ large.5

Each of these symptoms can be observed in many different departments across universities in the UK, the USA, Canada, and Australia. As the Heterodox Academy has noted, between 1995 and 2010 viewpoint diversity practically collapsed in most of our higher educational institutions.6 According to arguably the best-designed survey of American faculty beliefs since the early 1970s, which was carried out in the mid-00s, only 3.6% of humanities faculty members and only 4.9% in the social sciences self-identified as conservatives. In this same report, ‘not a single instructor reported voting for President Bush in 2004’, with that stunning figure of zero in the humanities rising to only 20.4% across all disciplines.7

Studies on the effects of groupthink have until now been focused on areas in which its negative consequences might be most keenly felt such as foreign policy, the courts, and financial investments. In Intellectuals and Society, a book which eviscerates the habitual and embarrassing blind spots of the intelligentsia, Thomas Sowell points out that academics and journalists – unlike army generals, judges or investment portfolio managers – have faced ‘little to no consequential feedback when they are wrong, no matter how wrong or for how long.’ Indeed, they are ‘insulated from material consequences,’ and enjoy ‘immunity from even a loss of reputation from having been demonstrably wrong.’8 It is seldom pointed out that Michel Foucault and many others in the Western radical left supported the Iranian Revolution of 1979.9 I do not expect the women of Iran will be receiving apologies from those in the academy who openly championed the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978 any time soon. In fact, from the USSR to Fidel Castro’s Cuba to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, it is difficult to find a despotic regime that did not attract the widespread support of supposed ‘intellectuals’ at the time. In 2007, Edinburgh University was forced to revoke an honorary degree awarded to Comrade Mugabe in 1984, back when the true extent of his utopian ideals had not yet had the chance to be fully expressed. But did anyone at Edinburgh University who had supported this at the time suffer in reputation? As people in Venezuela pay for the consequences of economic and social policies championed by people like Owen Jones of The Guardian, Jones himself is not punished for the extent of his error, or fired, or even widely lampooned. Instead, he is rewarded by further exposure and column inches, and given the opportunity to write articles championing politicians who’d like to build their own version of Venezuela in the United Kingdom.10

He feels no embarrassment or even shame, if anything it has strengthened his resolve to say ever more incorrect things in an ever-louder voice. Unlike the people of Venezuela, he pays no price.

Indeed, since the twin earthquakes of Brexit and Trump in 2016, which the entire expert class predicted wrongly, how many of those who made such predictions have suffered a serious loss of reputation for being so stunningly wrong? Did anyone even lose their job? The economies of Britain and America have not, to my knowledge, collapsed and we are now two years removed from 2016. In fact, unemployment is currently at forty-year-record lows in both countries.11 As someone who voted Remain in 2016, I am fully prepared to eat humble pie and admit that I was taken in by such dire warnings, but I suspect that many of my colleagues will not be prepared to show such humility even if Brexit proves a stunning success. For many, the lure of confirmation bias – to maintain pre-existing narratives despite overwhelming contrary evidence – is more attractive than suffering the costs of cognitive dissonance, which amounts to admitting that you were wrong. And so we have stumbled on the shocking revelation that – as well as being prone to groupthink, hubris, and systematically incorrect assumptions and predictions – academics are also supremely egotistical and would rather try to rip society down and start again than to accept that they were ever incorrect about anything.

So, bearing in mind the fact that the relationship between academic work and empirical reality has virtually no bearing on the reputations of the individuals who produce such work, let us think about the relative costs and benefits of going along with the crowd in the Ivory Tower, as opposed to swimming against the tide.

Action Costs Benefits
Accepting the assumptions of your instructors and supervisors as a student. May make it harder for your work to stand out. May increase your marks.

Works to confirm the bias of your markers putting them in a better frame of mind.

Lessens the risk of being ‘chastened’ for ‘wrongthink’ or otherwise corrected by your markers.

Accepting the assumptions of your peers as an academic. May make it harder for your work to stand out. May make it easier to get hired to a tenured position.

May make it easier for your work to be published in peer-reviewed journals.

May make it easier for your work to be added to university reading lists.

May increase your chances of being invited to speak at international conferences.

Rejecting the assumptions of your instructors and supervisors. May decrease your marks.

Creates cognitive dissonance in your markers putting them in a defensive frame of mind.

Increases the risk of being ‘chastened’ for ‘wrongthink’ or otherwise corrected by your markers.

May decrease your chances of being invited to speak at international conferences.

Your work will stand out.
Rejecting the assumptions of your supervisors and peers. May make it harder to get hired to a tenured position.

May make it harder for your work to be published in peer-reviewed journals.

May make it harder for your work to be added to university reading lists.

You will be a target for attack.

Your work will stand out.

In effect, the only potential benefit of opposing groupthink from a professional point of view – to help you stand out – comes with the cost of making the dissenter a target for vitriol. One such literary scholar guilty of wrongthink in recent years has been Jonathan Gottschall, who has seven authored, co-authored or edited books to his name working with scholars of international reputation such as the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, and pioneers of evolutionary approaches to literature Brian Boyd and Joseph Carroll.

Jonathan Gottschall is the author of seven books including ‘The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch’

Yet Gottschall cannot find a full-time job. Despite his publishing success, and the originality of his work, he has been forced to be a ‘public intellectual’ and to work as an adjunct for over a decade. By swimming fiercely against the tide, Gottschall admits that he ended up ruining his career before it even started.12 English Departments, it seems, are much too closed-minded to hire such a person. His crime, in this case, is a belief that evolution informs human behaviour.

The idea of a ‘safe space’ has become something of a cultural meme in recent years, but are English Departments really such safe spaces that they cannot hire someone who entertains the apparently controversial prospect that Charles Darwin was right?

In the other direction, when the fickle tides of fashion change in a discipline, always in a more ‘radical’ direction than the last one, one can spot individual swimmers paddling desperately to demonstrate their credentials in the new faddishness and to place enough distance between themselves and their old allegiances. Witness, for example, the Shakespearean scholar, Peter Erickson, in 1991. Up until that point, he had been a committed feminist in the psychoanalytical tradition, but at this juncture he openly shifted his allegiances to become more ‘new historicist’ and ‘cultural materialist’ for the ostensible reason that his old sisters and brothers had lost institutional power and influence:

My first book was written largely within the tradition of American feminist psychoanalytic criticism of Shakespeare as it existed at the end of the 1970s. The development of which this book is a record can be summarized as a shift away from psychoanalytic criticism toward an intensive engagement with new historicism and cultural materialism for the purpose of strengthening feminist criticism by expanding its bases […] It is too early to speak of a second wave of feminist criticism of Shakespeare, but the first wave, having made its contribution, has lost much of its momentum as a sharply defined entity. The original core group of feminist Shakespeare critics has to some extent dispersed; other critics who do not belong to this group and do not share its purview have decisively entered the field. The result is that disagreements within the original group no longer set and control the agenda.13

What Erickson’s account does not mention is that the first wave of feminist Shakespeare scholars were taken to task by the next generation essentially for not being Marxist enough, not being anti-Western enough, for taking a too-rosy view of women in Shakespeare’s plays, and above all else for the crime of ‘gender essentialism’, which is the belief that men and women behave differently because they are biologically different. It was no longer a case of simply being a feminist Shakespeare scholar, one had to be the right kind of feminist Shakespeare scholar; not simply a sister, but also a comrade.14 Here we can see most of the symptoms of groupthink in action, including purity spiraling and the tendency towards ever more extreme positions.

However, as one can see, this situation has not come about through some clandestine thirty-year plan. It is the direct result of a set of incentive structures which systematically reward groupthink and just as systematically punish those who would oppose it even if they were last year’s flavour of the month. Given such a climate, can anyone blame young scholars for making the decisions they do? Just as in any other walk of life, they must navigate the system to maximise their own potential earnings. Given how difficult it can be to get a job (and how difficult it can be to lose one once tenured), it is scarcely surprising to find that eight in ten university lecturers in the UK are ‘left-wing’.15 In 2016, the numbers that voted for Remain from within the academy would make Vladimir Putin blush, because even the most autocratic regimes struggle to post majorities of 90%.16 Some have advocated for direct action to overturn this sorry state of affairs, for example, by introducing affirmative action for conservative professors.17 This is a stunningly awful idea for the same reason that affirmative action in general is a bad idea, because it has not worked for any reason, at any time, and in any place it has been tried from India to Malaysia to Sri Lanka to Nigeria to the USA.18 Positive discrimination of conservative professors would have the precise opposite of its intended effect: it would lead to conservative colleagues being resented on suspicion of being hired to fulfill the needs of a quota. Not to mention the semantic difficulties of such a formulation – is Jonathan Gottschall a ‘conservative scholar’ for his advocacy of evolution? Am I a ‘conservative’ scholar because I reject radical Marxist ideas that have been proven to fail whenever they have been tried in the real world? I don’t think so. The problem is not one of ‘left-wing versus right-wing’, it is one of institutional capture by groupthink.

Instead of a top-down solution, I would propose that change must come from the bottom-up – from students and current PhD researchers and young academics – to have the courage to challenge your own pre-existing beliefs. You must be smart and strategic and pick your battles —wisely. Know which hills are and which are not worth dying on. It is the only way for the academy once again to become the home of free inquiry, a place in which ideas can be freely contested without the threat of persecution or ideological ghettoization.


Neema Parvini is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Surrey. He is the author of five books including Shakespeare and New Historicism Theory (2017) and Shakespeare’s Moral Compass (forthcoming 2018). He also presents a popular podcast series called Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory.


1 Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York and London: Penguin, 1995), p. 74.
2 See David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), IX, pp. 76-8.
3 Matt Ridley, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (New York: Harper Collins, Publishers, 2015).
4 Elanour C. Main and Thomas G. Walker, ‘Choice Shifts and Extreme Behavior: Judicial Review in the Federal Courts’, Journal of Social Psychology, 91:2 (December 1973), 215-221. See also, Irving L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink; a Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascos (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1972).
5 James Mortimer, The Little Book of Behavioral Investing: How Not to Be Your Own Worst Enemy (Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons, 2010), pp. 175-6.
6 See:
7 David Glenn, ‘Few Conservatives But Many Centrists Teach in Academe‘ Chronicle of Higher Education (October 8, 2007):
8 Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, rev ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2011), pp. 78, 11.
9 See Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson (eds.), Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender And The Seductions Of Islamism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005).
10 Owen Jones, ‘Owen Jones: Socialism’s critics look at Venezuela and say, “We told you so”. But they are wrong’, The Independent (February 26, 2014).
11 See Will Martin, ‘The Gap has Narrowed: UK Unemployment is Close to a Record low – and wage growth is finally picking up’, Business Insider (December 13, 2017) and Danielle Kurtzleben, ‘FACT CHECK: Trump Touts Low Unemployment Rates For African-Americans, Hispanics’, NPR (January 8, 2010).
12 David Wescott, ‘Survival of the Fittest in the English Department’, The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 1, 2015).
13 Peter Erickson, Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991), p. 10.
14 For my own account of this episode see Neema Parvini, Shakespeare and New Historicist Theory (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2017), pp. 97-114.
15 Camilla Turner, ‘Eight in Ten University Lecturers are “Left-Wing”, Survey Finds’, The Telegraph (March 2, 2017).
16EU referendum: nine out of 10 university staff back Remain’, Times Higher Education (June 16, 2016).
17 Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn, Sr., ‘Do Universities need Affirmative Action for Conservative Professors?’, LA Times (March 18, 2016).
18 See Thomas Sowell, Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study (New Haven, MA: Yale University Press, 2004).