Group Think and Cybernats
“Groups affected by group think ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.”
The cause of Independence for Scotland is very much threatened, and it is threatened (amongst other things) by the very people who are the most vehement supporters. Many Independence activists function in a bubble where by they talk almost exclusively, at least about Independence, to other supporters. The bubble is also an echo chamber which means the same views are reflected back by others. This makes for a distorted view of how popular the Independence and Unionist positions are and also how strong the case against Independence might be. Further the echo chamber and bubble stifle debate and understanding in any depth. The very things we need, real hard information and understanding, are denied to us by the operation of the group. Group think is an oxymoron; people think, groups do not.
Before we consider group think we need to consider where we are now.
The polls have been stuck around the 45 percent mark in favour of indy ever since IndyRef1, and even the much heralded recent rise in one poll to 49% is probably illusory since the 49/51 yes/no excluded don’t knows, so it is probably not really a jump at all in actual numbers of pro-indy supporters, all that has happened is a possible rise in don’t knows. Yet rumours abound of an IndyRef2 being announced soon and there are cries of “bring it on” and “we’re ready”. I think the optimism may be over-ambitious.
The situation is compounded by ignorance of basic facts about where we start from, and it is staggering. It was reported in the National of 16th January 2016 that “The speaker of the day was Dr Craig Dalzell…he was the guy who drew gasps from the hall as he went through his graphs revealing the details of voting patterns and turnout among the different demographics on September 18 2014”. It seemed to surprise many what the voting patterns were. However much of what he said was already known, at least in outline, if anyone wanted to look. Why is it not more widely known?
Over the last few months I have seen a lot of assumptions made about who voted which way and why. One of the big assumptions is that “English” voters cost the referendum. The actual figures are subtler than that. There is a link to an excellent breakdown by Craig Dalzell of the figures at https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/10141/new-report-demographics-independence
“Ben Wray, head of policy at Common Weal, said of the report:
“In the current context, there’s understandably a lot of feverish discussion about a second independence referendum and how to move support towards Yes. That discussion will be much better informed if it is based on a rigorous, data-based analysis of demographic support for independence. This report should be required reading for Yes activists plotting campaign strategies.”
Amen to that, yet I STILL see people insisting no “true” Yesser would ever change their minds, and they are really unionists who suggest they might. It took a matter of seconds to find an example which was about “Yes voters who are now thinking on voting No, cos of the EU membership issue …”
One response was “ I actually don’t believe it actually many people are now moving from no to yes and also if you were a true yes voter then they will still vote yes” Thus we have a denial, which went unchallenged, and a consensus on that thread that the EU is good, end of.
This is a case of the “No true Scotsman” thinking which is the curse of on-line discussions of Independence. One party gets to define the terms by insisting on their definition. This is usually then passed off as being objectively true. The argument takes it name from an example used in understanding logic. The dialogue quoted is “No Scotsman puts anything but salt on porridge”-Reply- “My Uncle Angus puts sugar on his”,response – “but he is not a true Scotsman”.Uncle Angus may have spent his life in the Highlands, quote Burns and vote SNP twice every time, but he is not true Scot, because porridge eating defines True Scottishness. It denies evidence to support the contrary, it is a circular argument. Likewise raising an objection to EU membership, now SNP policy, makes you a traitor to Independence and perhaps to Scotland. No true Indy supporter argues with the SNP?
The true is some have moved from Yes to No, and that includes SNP voters. The EU referendum vote was nowhere near unanimous in Scotland; remain got 41.6% of the voters. Yes that was much more than leave, but not an absolute majority of the electorate. Non-voters were 32%. The EU is a divisive issue, we need to think it through and reach out to people who are sceptics about the EU. Yes if it were a referendum in Scotland alone remain would probably have won, but that is another discussion. The big issue for now is that there needs more work, more listening on why people would vote against Indy, and not denounce them as traitors and shut them down if they dare point out inconvenient truths on the boards. Yet that is all too often what happens. The truth is we need to do a lot of reaching out and understanding if IndyRef 2 is to be won.
If some people on Twitter and Facebook speak truth then the logic is Common Weal is a clever Fifth Columnist operation spreading divisive comments to undermine the Yes movement by pointing out people switch allegiances. I have not heard that said explicitly,yet about Common Weal , but pointing out that Yes voters have switched to No has led to me being shouted down and abused for “divisive” thinking.
We all need to stop shooting the messenger and engage with real issues. We need factual data and real answers to real questions which will arise. So far the tendency is to assume that a re-run of what was done last time will somehow be OK. Wishful thinking will not get positive result.
A lot of people worked very hard last time, the yes vote went up, but there were mistakes. The mess over the currency was one such error and should have been answered earlier and better. I still have not seen any real answers how it might be done, although Common Weal have made a start.
It worries me that various self-appointed leaders and groups seem to be making up policy on the hoof. To do this is to make Independence about being republican, or socialist or whatever. It needs consensus not a clamour for various pet likes post-independence. I am a firm proponent of basic income but that is a separate issue from Independence. To link Indyref2 to Europe, or basic income , or abolishing the monarchy muddies the waters. To say so does not make me a Tory, nor a monarchist, much less a closet “Yoon”. It means I am challenging assumptions.
Something that needs thinking about is whether the 45% yes vote is as far as current thinking can take us. Many issues can be tackled post-Independence in a changed climate. There is no mandate even for EU membership. The EU ref was in the context of a UK vote. It does not mean it is a given, in the change circumstances that would apply post Indy, that Scotland must be a member of the EU. The EU is currently in a state of major flux.
Can I put in a plea for a degree of humility all round?
It is not good to demand we all fall into line with anyone’s views of what independence is about ; to win needs a coalition. It is not to be an SNP model, or a Green party model> It is about the people of Scotland deciding what they want. I have to say personally I would love to be rid of the Tories, but I also recognise Independence is not about that. It is about being free of Westminster and the dominance of the South East of England. Personally I think the same idea of Westminster working against local interests could be said of Cornwall, Yorkshire and Cumbria but Scotland has the additional claim of still being a nation, albeit not a nation-state.
There is a good right wing case to be made for Independence perhaps it is time to think about making it? It is not a general election, not one party or another, it is a matter of who is the electorate of Scotland, and we need all the support we can get.
Independence activists need to challenge the group think that is happening. I want to examine that.
WHAT IS GROUP THINK?
“Group think, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”.
Groups take on a certain set of values and this can get rigid. Decisions go unquestioned. Consider friendships as a model. We pick our friends through a sort of winnowing process. You meet someone, or these days maybe make contact online. Then there is a stage where you get to know each other; you get chatting and discover that there is a rapport (or that there is not). This is followed by the emergence of a friendship in some cases; other people are quietly dropped.
A series of mutual interests and enough of a common system of values make friendships work. Groups of friends are based on communal values, and a group member who does not share those values tends not to last long.
So far so good. BUT there is a problem. Any group falls prey to a situation where there is a group norm, where all the members think the same and dare not express a different opinion. Ideas get fossilised and regimented. Critical thinking is stopped The conviction grows within the group that they are right and everyone else is wrong. If this is a problem when it is a group of friends, it is far worse within companies and movements. Decision making in business and political life needs to be done on the basis of truth not assumptions. If decisions are not based on evidence but according to group norms the organisation is a victim of group think. There are implications for us cybernats. Actually cybernats and the Independence movement are likely to be very much affected since we are a self-selected group.
The academic work on group thinking is useful in considering ways of getting out of the trap of narrowed thinking. Irving Janis is credited with coming up with the concept of group think in the 1970s.
(There is a summary on-line at
I do not propose to discuss or rehash that article. However let me apply that to online nationalism. The paragraphs refer to the aspects he identified of group-think. I will try to summarise the ideas and apply them.
Victims of group-think tend believe that they will win and that their case is unanswerable. After all the group has worked out the case and it becomes self-evident that the belief is right. Therefore they must win, and it is only idiots who would think otherwise.
The group is not always right as is clearly shown in politics.
Certainty of being right did not work in Vietnam for the US government. They were unable to win a guerrilla war. It did not work for Cameron over the EU referendum. Yet they convinced themselves they were right and each decision maker was surrounded by those who supported the decision, which actually made it all the worse. The workings of Social Security under the Tories may be another example. The narrative of all claimants being scroungers who need punishing leads to inhuman suffering being inflicted, no one is likely to be putting the case for claimants because that is not what the group in charge believes.
Even if all our assumptions are valid – the good of Independence is NOT self-evident. If it were IndyRef1 would have been won.
As it is there is a lot of work to do and many questions need answers. I am working to produce a list of some issues I have yet to see answers for. The point is that the case for Independence is NOT invulnerable. Denial of that basic notion means acting as if the result of any IndyRef is a foregone conclusion, and stops engaging with counter-arguments. Wishful thinking will not lead to victory.
2 Collective Rationalisation
Questions which are awkward or challenge the group’s view of itself are ignored or explained away. Excuses are made for any failings. Pensions were a failure point in IndyRef1 and serve as an example. I m told that the pensions issue was all sorted but the mainstream media were to blame. Stories abound of various people telling the elderly that they would lose all their pensions post-Indy. Lying to grannies is blamed. It was all because there was an answer but not reported properly. The defeat is rationalised. The next time we promise to talk to grannies. Pity they all believe the BBC but what can you do? I know evidence has emerged suggesting BBC bias is a fact, but it needs countering, a lot of Scots watch BBC news, and likewise read non-nationalist papers. It needs dealing with, it is a fact many trust mainstream media. Think about how it may be challenged and worked round rather than moaning about it.
Losing first time has been blamed various groups-on the older generation and on immigration. Damn English are blamed too. I have seen groups on-line insisting that MI5 were doing dirty ops. It is a conspiracy theory worthy of Dan Brown at his most fanciful, yet they would do anything but face the idea the referendum was lost in a free vote.
Let us get real. This is merely denial of facts. The case for Independence and its presentation was flawed, on the issue of pensions specifically, but in other areas too; it was flawed both in content and presentation. (As a personal aside ; please, next time, I hope they spend some effort on decent editing and layout in any publications.)
When the pensions issue became a big topic rigorous and robust answers were not forthcoming. The same inertia was demonstrated by the awful way the currency issue was handled. These re just examples, many other issues were mishandled.
Yet several times I have been in various meetings and discussions when people who were canvassing have told me repeatedly that the campaign was great, it is only necessary to do the same again from a higher starting point and we will win. That strikes me as risky at best.
Rationalisation makes it both easy and common for assumptions to go unchallenged, with selective bits of evidence to be trotted out in support of the group position.
A lot of this is as bad as the teenager claiming that “Everyone else’s parents let them..” or “a bloke in the pub said…” or “It’s just common sense”..
Any gaps in the argument are skated over. Critical thinking on issues is needed. We need Devil’s advocates, people who will point out the counter augments.
2 a Refusal to deal with Facts
This is a subset of rationalising a position. There is a tendency for groups to ignore awkward facts. I have seen this from seven- day creationists, from climate change deniers , the Labour Party and, sadly, Scottish Independence activists. E.g. Every time I have raised an issue of anti-English feeling, and how this plays out to voters I have been sidelined. I am told it is just a few nut-jobs. What almost no-one from the Indy side is prepared to do is address matters. The fact is that whilst any level of ant-English sentiment is allowed to go unchallenged it frightens people into the NO camp directly and it also gives a lie to the great idea of an inclusive civic nationalism. The great public outside the Independence activist bubble do not edit out the idea of anti-Englishness, and tell each other stories about it.
Likewise we need to address the issue of oil tax revenue falling, not just waft it aside as a mere diversion.
Again, the economy and public finances are going to be a battle ground in any IndyRef2, we need facts not mere belief that GERS is a UK propaganda tool. We must produce evidence and make it stick. Meanwhile there is an argument that since the Scottish Government has input to it, GERS is a Scottish Government publication and thus the Scottish Government’s own figures show Scotland is not able to support itself. I do not take that position, but it is not easy to defeat and there is very little evidence around to support. We need facts, not opinions.
3 Belief in Inherent Morality
It is worth recalling that homophobes would claim that being gay is a vile abomination and that zealous terrorists are probably convinced that ridding the world of infidels is a noble cause. Just because you believe something to be moral does not mean it is a universally accepted moral good.
Of course, if we did not believe Scotland ought to be independent we would not be involved. In fact many of my connections on Twitter talk of very little else. Because it is right opponents are painted as mere reactionaries or oppressors or stupid. Indeed they are wrong because they fail to see the rightness of independence and its inherent moral worth. This negates the idea they might have a point. There is a moral dimension to dividing a country. People are left with family across borders, there will be negative outcomes for some if Scotland becomes independent.
The problem is that counter arguments about any morality or rightness will be ignored, any personal cost is waved aside. It does not endear Yes campaigners to those affected and again it undermines any idea of a caring just Scotland. This needs addressing.
On a personal note (as an example) I get a teachers’ pension paid by the UK government. I do not have any clear current indication how that would fare in the event of Independence. Is it moral to demand I just ignore it? A simple undertaking is needed. Failure to do those things makes people with needs vulnerable to the No side. I would not lose personally if the status quo continues, so there could be a temptation for me to vote no. I will not but others would. Yes needs every vote it can get. We cannot assume everyone is convinced by our moral case.
4 Negative stereotyping
The people outside the group are caricatured. This dismissal of outsiders is endemic. “Yoons”seems more than shorthand;it carries a set of assumptions. They are misguided at best. They are traitors or self-seeking. Accordingly they are routinely blocked on Twitter. Arguments made are dismissed. I have been called a unionist troll before for linking to articles from a unionist position. (You need to understand where people are coming from, every successful campaign social or military needs all the intelligence information it can get, which is why I follow various Unionist pages etc.) Even to quote a unionist case is to risk being excluded from debates. It is not a good idea to dismiss every one on the other side (or people whoo try to understand the other side) as a zoomer. They are not just the enemy , they are the battlefield too. Yes needs votes across the spectrum. That includes socially and even economically conservative people.
Heaven help you if you venture any criticism at all of the SNP. It is dismissed as merely “SNP bad” presumably on the basis that zoomer Yoons attack the SNP so the SNP must be defended uncritically. You will be unfollowed or de-friended if you criticise. It has happened. I find the constant SNP is good line eerily reminiscent of “ Four legs good, two legs bad” in Animal Farm. It is simplistic and ill-thought through. The SNP do not speak for everyone who supports Indy. Some are signed up Greens; or Socialists etc and others are of no political party affiliation. The SNP has no mandate to be the sole voice for Independence and needs to be challenged on some issues. (It is a trivial example but who decided Network Rail would continue even in Scotland post-indy? Such was the plan in the White paper for IndyRef1)
I am not saying the Mail or the Express are good sources of unbiased news. However they have a readership. Their arguments are sometimes valid. In fact it was the musings of a unionist blogger (who has now blocked me paradoxically) that made me think about nationality. She is generally derided. However she has a point sometimes. If you see the UK as a your nation, your country, then Scottish nationalism is a breaking of the nation. It would be traitorous. The counter argument is that England is a nation as is Scotland. UK is political union, analogous to the EU not a country. If you merely vilify the opposition you can never argue back. If you never argue back rationally and calmly you will never persuade others. When both sides fail to engage you get no movement.
Stereotyping means that engaging with opponents is seen as a waste of time. Just sitting in a comfortable group of agreeable people is not also a waste it seems. There must be real engagement. It needs to start now.
“Project Fear” was stereotyping. There was a consistent use of fear of the unknown, but it is not enough to dismiss it s merely hectoring bullying. . The No camp played on weaknesses ; The counter arguments were put badly. Where were the advertisements in rebuttal on issues like pensions? Where was the robust response to the Vow?
Lack of engagement means not persuading others and it still continues.
5 Direct Pressure on Dissenters
This is a real threat. As I said I have been called a troll;when I called out a very elaborate conspiracy theory about MI5 substitution of ballot boxes in the referendum as tin hatted. I got unpleasant messages to the point of my deleting my post. That group was busy rationalising defeat as having been the result of fraud. I looked thoughtfully at that idea. It fails to convince. It makes Nationalists look stupid when it is promoted. The trouble is that was a public pro-Independence group.
The same sort of pressure is put if one argues EU membership is not the way forward.
Usually pressure is subtler but be wary of stifling debate. In this context it is interesting that some prefer to direct message me to express concerns rather than a public post. There was one example when I explained I was in contact with a yes turned no voter. The very idea of such people existing is shouted down by many. However they exist. Why does no one want to know why?
6 Self – Censorship
Given that all the aspects of group think reinforce each other in a sort of feedback loop, it is no wonder people are unlikely to challenge group norms. It is a real issue. They will therefore self-censor to avoid the consequences of being a deviant from the norm. I do it sometimes. I do not say things that will cause upset. I remain silent or deflect issues in discussion.
Assumptions are left unchallenged. I will refrain from comment to avoid conflict. It happens with many people. Again, I mention diatribes about how wonderful the last referendum campaign was and how it just needs more of the same. I have faced anger when I said simply that it was not a successful campaign. “It was lost” is not something anyone wants to hear. Even now I hesitate to say that the yes campaign failed. However it needs saying. Unless assumptions are challenged things will not change. There has been very little in the way of discussions on why it failed. It needs doing. More than two years down the line it is still not happening greatly.
I say that any campaign to bring Independence needs to address the concerns of most of society. It needs a broad coalition. It means dealing with tolerating the monarchy for instance.(usually not a subject we can talk about in Indy circles). I know there is a big republican tendency in nationalism. However the posts about the Royals being a benefit scrounging family and rants about the costs of repairs to Buckingham Palace i do not endear Independence to those who rather like the Royal family. Likewise there are Tory voters who are not anti-Independence as such.
It becomes vital IndyRef2 is not a vote for the SNP. Yet to challenge the idea of SNP leadership or ownership of the campaign is to risk alienation. I am well aware that the SNP is very popular with nationalists. It is much less so with swing voters or previously no voters. To say so is unpopular and therefore often not said.
7 The factors all lead on to an illusory unanimity.
There evolves a feedback loop which means the same patterns of thought are repeated and reinforced, whilst going unchallenged. This is very bad for any movement. It is worse online if anything. There is the echo chamber effect. Everyone saying much the same thing. Block the Yoon.-Deride the Unionist -Don’t even read Unionist rags. So if you do have a critical thought you feel like a deviant.
8 The mind Guards
should be less important in a broad movement than a small team. However even on-line I see shutting down dissent. Heaven forbid that a troubling thought should disturb the faithful. On-line groups have leaders (self-appointed) who act very quickly to quell dissent by ridicule or other means. This is true of some other causes I have been involved in too, but in Independence action it is critical, since means that no potential unionist convert to the cause is going to be welcomed, and may feel intimidated. Further it stifles any debate or questioning, at the place and time it may be most needed.
The impact of all this is set out in general terms in the article I referenced. I could go on but one aspect is critical.
We need to be aware of confirmation bias. That is using evidence selectively and seeing the pattern you want. The angle or stories you like are passed on, other stories are ignored. The person handling Brexit for the EU parliament has come out strongly in support of Scotland having an easy time carrying on in the EU. This is cheering news to some. However what is being ignored is that the man is not speaking on behalf of all the EU. No one does. No one knows for certain how an EU application would be treated.
What is to be done?
My belief is that to win there needs to be some seriously critical thinking. There are a host of issues which need addressing, one of which is as basic as a convincing vision of why an independent Scotland is worthwhile.
We need to demonstrate a convincing economic case, again the one last time seemed flawed. We need to show a worthwhile model of public finances. There needs some serious work still on the currency. I could go on, and indeed I am working on just such a list of issues.
The cause of Independence is not a self-evident good to a majority in Scotland or it would have been a yes vote 2 years ago. We are deluded and risk losing again if we think it is a done deal. Yes let us encourage each other, but let us engage properly with issues. No fight was won by wishing of day dreaming. My own belief is that the majority is not “Unionist As A Good Things Come What May”. but the concerns of the “soft” Noes need addressing and need addressing sympathetically.