On GroupThink

A recent SSC raised the question: How accurate is this interpretation?

Students who characterized their relationships with other students as “competitive, uninvolved…alienated” were more likely to show gains in critical thinking than were students who portrayed their peer relations as “friendly, supportive, or a sense of belonging” The data in this study do not permit confident explanation of this relation, but one might speculate that a sense of participation in a friendly, supportive peer environment may require a partial suspension of one’s critical thinking skills.

I see two compelling extremal options:

  1. The analysis in the quote is correct
  2. Getting along in a diverse world means you have to compartmentalize your object-level beliefs, in favor of niceness. This may look like “Suspending critical judgment” on paper.

There’s less charitable interpretations, like “Dumb people are friendlier because they need the support” (kind of the reverse side of the proposed etiology in this paper), but I’ll ignore them because considering perturbative environmental effects is more informative for personal decision making than selection effects.

While I agree that socialization doesn’t require suspension, as an implementation detail I think this is exactly what humans do for efficiency. Consider that every time you think “no. wrong.” in conversation, it generates irritation and uses mental resources deciding whether to let the transgression slide, for the sake of civility. At least, this is how it feels to me, and I can’t think of any way to shortcut this computation without downtuning the module elevating incongruences to conscious attention (A necessary component of critical thinking).

It’s possible to compartmentalize this effect, so that you can swap out critical thinking modules depending on context, but humans are very sensitive to conditioning1 so there will always be some bleed-through without (expensive) conscious intervention.

Generally, questions of the form “Is this annoying social thing worth ignoring for the benefit of collaboration” are hard to evaluate. So the default is to increase or decrease your conditioned sensitivity with each experience, not evaluate on a case-by-case basis.

Even more generally, when communicating

There’s an enormous cost to

  1. internalizing their ontology
  2. translating it to your own
  3. reflecting to system 1
  4. fast thinking
  5. reifying back to system 2
  6. re-translating back to their ontology

Compare this to

  1. fast thinking

which is possible only if you share ontologies.

I like to think of this as being “homoiconic” with respect to the other person: you can interpret their words directly as thoughts and vice versa.

So there is a huge incentive to be homoiconic with your society, to the extent that we make sacrifices elsewhere. Critical thinking is a process of continually refining your ontology, but this threatens to desync ours from the collective, so the incremental gains are outweighed by the large constant factor of being synchronized.

The “Level Up” behaviour seems to be fragmenting off a “core” ontology through aggressive personal unapologeticness, while selectively switching into special purpose social modes. Mastery is gained through the two Siddhis of Reflecting and Reifying Ontologies (internally, Amalgams), progressively improving the compartmentalization of thinking modes described at the start.


  1. If you find the evolutionary psychology argument is unsavory, consider that you can’t possibly store a separate thinking mode for every person, at some point you have to collapse the probability mass for nearby categories. 

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