- Martina Ratto
The power of group thinking
Imagine our brains thinking all together. Two minds are greater than one, right? But we are used to imagining our thinking as something happening within our head, as individuals. We can share thoughts with others, have the same opinions on things, we bond over mutual likes and dislikes, but we still consider these thoughts just kind of move from one head to another - like we spark the thought, an idea, that jumps to the next person to develop it, or vice versa.
Neuroscience is mostly focused on investigating our individual heads, using brain scans to find the roots of all our thinking and knowledge among our neurons in one mind. But recently, neuroscience itself is opening up to philosophical and social science approaches (the psychological, sociological approaches). Coming round to the idea that human thinking often takes place across individuals, emerging from our interactions, beyond the individual mind .
“Cognition is, to a large extent, a group activity, not an individual one” - Steven A. Sloman, Professor of Cognitive Sciences at Brown University
When it comes to complex cognitive processes, like problem solving or decision making, we tend to rely on other people’s thinking in combination with our own. Take picking paint colours while decorating, we might have an idea in our heads of what we like, get some options and then what? We tend to ask for others opinions, which colours do they like, are our choices good choices?
In a sense, we ‘outsource’ our thinking, and the resulting final thought - the decision, a judgement, an action - is actually the product of group thinking. The combined work of a couple of minds, which may not be the same as that of an individual mind.
Together we’re a supercomputer
Human thinking as a whole can be seen as a supercomputer made up of our individual brains all together, where each of them gives its own contribution to a larger problem, using information and knowledge already processed by other brains.
Take a minute to consider how often you’re part of group thinking. Take a minute, because we tend to group think more often than we realise. For example:
Teamwork, something most of us do most days. The combining of different roles, expertises, responsibilities, backgrounds, thinking styles to come together which many of us do on a daily basis, at work, at home between family members, with friends to organise an outing!
Online collaboration is occurring, we no longer need to be working together in the same place, we don’t even have to know each other, we’re linked by common interests. Social media platforms, Wikipedia, for example.
Communities and cultures that we live in are a product of group thinking. Thoughts from people who lived in the past continue to reshape themselves based on all our thoughts as a current community. This includes our values and our collective knowledge, that we use to solve both community problems and personal problems, like health or environmental issues.
So, two minds must be better than one?
Group thinking certainly has its benefits because we as humans all have our individual limits. There’s only so much information each of us can hold at once, especially in a society where we are constantly doing something or know we’ve got something else to do next. Grouping together, to delegate roles and responsibilities, to seek expert knowledge to use ourselves, to find guidance or support, with others we can do more than on our own.
Sounds like group thinking is for the win, but as with anything there’s always the ‘darkside’. While group thinking can be a great tool, it’s also responsible for peer pressure, conformism (agreeing with the majority, against our own opinions), and pleasing people. This is when group thinking can become toxic, rather than empowering the group with multiple minds, toxic group thinking will see a single mind in all the members, following the thoughts that don’t connect with our own. We end up diminishing our thoughts, opinions, needs, rather than flourishing them.
The more the merrier: There is huge power behind group thinking, together we can achieve more, progress further and without diminishing our own resources completely. To get the most out of group thinking, in any area of life, individual differences need to be valued. Rather than persuading people to think alike, it's about bringing different capabilities, ideas, thoughts together to hear and understand each other. The more various minds we have, the more group thinking will be powerful.
 Cognitive Neuroscience Meets the Community of Knowledge (2021), Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience.