Albert Einstein wisely noted, “When we all think alike, no one thinks very much.” Many of us have heard of the theory of “groupthink,” which, at its core, is the idea that groups can be too similar and can become ineffective at best and abusive and totalitarian at worst. I began to wonder where this concept came from. I had heard it used particularly in the discussion of totalitarian regimes in books such as 1984 or Animal Farm by George Orwell, both criticisms of Russia’s brand of communism. But through research, I discovered that the term “groupthink” was coined by Yale professor and psychologist Irving Janis. As I explored this theory, I noticed some alarming similarities to the culture at Cedarville University.
Groupthink lurks quietly and lures its victims subtly and if we are not vigilant we may fall prey to the cultural and practical destruction. Groupthink is an acid that slowly but surely corrodes. It is a fall of dominoes that can only be stopped with firm intentionality. It is a creeping virus whose symptoms seem minimal until you find yourself crippled and muted.
So what exactly is Groupthink? According to Irving Janis, groupthink occurs when an organization or group prioritizes cohesion over problem-solving. But the idea of problem-solving means more than using deductive reasoning to find a solution to a problem. Problem-solving also encompasses debate of different ideas and use of critical thought. It could more accurately be defined as the way organizations handle dissent or conflict. Groupthink, at its core, involves too much cohesiveness, internal focus, and closeness. Too quickly, cohesion (coming closer together) turns into “adhesion” (becoming stuck together by identical principles and homogeneity) and there is a total loss of impartiality or tolerance for dissent.
According to Janis, there are three catalysts that create groupthink. First, there is an illusion of invulnerability. This means that the group ties moral superiority to what they do and so they see themselves as indestructible. After all, good always wins out in the end, right? Second, the group develops a spirit of close-mindedness. The group will begin to shut out ideas that are contrary to the group’s agreed values or beliefs and members of the group will rationalize each other’s statements and beliefs and thereby further affirm the group’s correctness. These lead to the third catalyst, which is pressure toward uniformity.
This pressure can be spoken or unspoken pressure including threat of a job, loss of money, blackmail, school admission (wait, who added that into this article?!), or reputation. Spoken pressure can also be a form of psychological manipulation: “Well, you are allowed to believe differently but we’ll subtly call you a coward for compromising our group’s principles” or “Of course we allow other opinions, but this is how we’ve always done things and it’s always worked” or “Oh…you think…that? Okay…I mean I guess I could see where you’re coming from but I don’t think any of us really agree with you.” This manipulation is especially effective in the university setting where reputation is everything, both for the University and for faculty and staff whose academic success depend on their reputation and levels of respect remaining intact. These pressures toward uniformity result in self-censorship, which is the idea that someone withholds their dissenting opinion and stays silent for fear of judgement or negative consequences. They’re probably the only one who thinks that, anyway. After all, everyone believes everyone else is on the same page and that everyone agrees on all values and all decisions. This can result in a scenario like this: “Well, we all agree that sin should be punished, and being gay is a sin, so being gay should be punished, so I think we can all agree that anyone who engages in that activity should be punished by the University since we don’t ever want to condone sin, right?” Do you see what happened there? Deductive reasoning that originates with those “fundamental truths” (whether or not you believe them to be true…don’t yell at me until we publish our article on the LGBTQ community at Cedarville), pressures toward conformity, and the illusion that everyone agrees on what actions should be taken.
One interesting aspect of the theory of Groupthink is the “self-appointed mind guard,” who—as the name suggests—appoints themselves to a position of moral authority within the group. They strongly pressure conformity to group ideas, advocate for total consensus, and they shut down dissenting voices. This person can be an individual who sits on a board of directors or any number of people who reside in a large group where conformity has become the norm.
By now, like I did when I read about Janis’ theory, you may have already noticed for yourself some similarities between the concept of “groupthink” at its base meaning and the culture at Cedarville. What do I mean? Think about it: How many people at Cedarville think that Cedarville has moral superiority? So many students believe that Cedarville’s theological stances are the “be all, end all” of Biblical academia. There is no doubt in their minds that Cedarville’s (admittedly, mostly right) Biblical principles are critically impenetrable. No one could come onto campus and successfully argue their case for evolution, homosexuality, or political liberalism because Cedarville is simply right, and there is no more to it, not because of strong, tested argumentation against these viewpoints. There is an illusion of invulnerability within the community.
Think about how many self-appointed mind guards reside on the Cedarville campus. How many students are willing to correct others on their nonconformity? Students are quick to judge girls who break dress code, people struggling with mental health issues, or anyone struggling with sin they deem “more egregious” than their own.
Furthermore, Cedarville is notoriously close-minded. As referenced in our article on censorship (which, by the way, is the natural descendant of groupthink), Cedarville consistently and systematically shuts down opposing voices. This goes beyond the policies of the administration, however, into the community Cedarville has created. The concept of “intentional community” could more accurately be described as “pressured community,” where students are peer-pressured by other students to constantly be social and engage in campus activities. These activities tout the correctness of the University’s stances on everything, never on new ideas or differing opinions. Every event on campus is a celebration of unity and cohesion, never of diversity and critical thought that may dare to stray outside the bounds of Cedarville’s markedly Southern Baptist ideology.
Of course, events that build community, teamwork, and togetherness are very important, especially in a Biblical education environment. But when these types of events are the only events Cedarville hosts and they try to shut down organizations like Turning Point USA or the College Democrats (R.I.P.), it builds a culture of adhesion, homogeneity, and intolerance towards other ideas. According to SGA President Jake Johnson, in reference to the availability of SGA election results, “No, historically those haven’t been released for the purpose of protecting the candidates and encouraging student unity following an election.” This is not Jake’s fault: this is the policy SGA has always had and, like all policies, promotes cohesion (or, more accurately, adhesion) even at the cost of transparency and openness. Ironically, as evidenced across non-Cedarville-affiliated student-run social media accounts, it creates a culture of division among students and doubt about election results.
In The Lego Movie, the antagonist Lord Business’ goal is to use Kragle to solidify the perceived perfection of Bricksburg. Nothing can break, nothing can be changed, and everyone and everything is frozen in time. Cedarville’s intentional community encourages this type of adhesion: it never allows students to fail or encounter challenging ideas, it never offers alternatives to the self-appointed truth it propagates, and it resists any sort of change or forward-thinking perceived as “progressive Christianity.” Students are frozen in time: permanent residents of the Cedarville bubble whose behaviors are all but predetermined by the fear of judgement instilled by this community. Groupthink is winning the day at Cedarville.
At Cedarville, you are expected to fit the mold. You must always be growing in your faith. You must be involved in as many ministries as you can handle. You must incorporate Biblical principles into every assignment even if it has nothing to do with the assignment (yep, I’m calling you out, Humanities). People who dare to break that mold are viewed as “struggling with their faith,” being in pursuit of “liberal ideology,” or “not adhering to the Cedarville covenant half of the campus definitely didn’t sign when they were minors.”
Think of the amount of judgement you would face on campus if you had an unexpected pregnancy, had an emotional breakdown in the middle of Stingers, or accidentally exposed your leggings (yeah, that’s a thing. Read about it HERE). Think of how many people judge alongside others who use Christianese to support their legalism. Think of the backlash The Interpreter received after merely requesting an interview with SGA candidates. Think about the fact that the request for an interview resulted in many people with no prior engagement with our content reaching out calling us cowards, internet trolls, traitors, and even ungodly people because two individuals in authority said an anonymous interview did not support their values of transparency (a decision they had every right to make which we fully respect). Rufus and Kasey did not create that monster: Cedarville’s culture of groupthink did. Surely, if two godly individuals decided against an interview with an organization, they must therefore be ungodly, anti-Cedarville, and nonconformists. We always look to approach issues from a godly perspective, we are not “Anti-Cedarville”, but darn right we’re non-conformists, because this type of close-mindedness, this pressure to conform, and this reaffirmation from other students merely demonstrate that Cedarville’s culture is sick with the disease of groupthink and adhesion. So stop and ask yourself: how quick am I to judge others based on my friends’ opinions? How often do I express moral superiority over others in sin while I ignore my own? How often am I that self-appointed mind guard who dictates morality without considering the consequences it could have on that person or based on my interpretations of Scripture rather than its contextual meaning? “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus said to a group of religious leaders who wanted to enact “justice” on an adulterous woman. They all walked away with the realization that there is none without sin. We are all imperfect: our ideas, our perceptions, our morality, our behaviors, our attitudes are all broken by the curse of sin.
Ultimately, our sin is what makes conformity so dangerous. When we conform to the religious ideas, rules, regulations, or pressures of people (key word: of people, not God) broken by the curse of sin, we simply mask our sin under the guise of Biblical truth. The sin of judging others flies in the face of God’s ultimate justice and judgement. We are saying that we have the right to make judgements rather than or in addition to God. Matthew 7:1-5 says, ““Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
Do you think Jesus is saying you’re only judged if you judge others? Absolutely not. Jesus is saying that our judgement is sin: disgusting, ugly, dark sin. When Jesus came to earth, most of his interactions involved undermining the religious leaders of the day who had taken God’s word to be used for their own wellbeing, personal advancement, and domination of God’s people. They were considered the “end-all, be-all” of Biblical academia. But when the Pharisee prayed about all the ministries he participated in and all the community he had engaged in, Jesus was all, “Wow! Step on in to the Kingdom of God!” Wait no—Jesus sided with the money launderer who cried out to God for forgiveness of his sins. Yeesh—that doesn’t bode well for groupthink.
Leadership & Closing Thoughts
Former Vice President Carl Ruby “resigned” at the conception of the White administration along with dozens of other professors because of their differing opinions. The “Purge” is the widely documented event that occured before and alongside the appointment of Dr. White into the role of Cedarville’s presidency. Cedarville forcefully eliminated any and all dissenting voices at the University, building a theological and social echo-chamber. In our articles on mental health, censorship, and womanhood, we have outlined a pattern of silencing differing opinions, beliefs, or anything that may damage the University’s “impenetrable” reputation.
Cedarville’s administration must not continue in this pattern of groupthink and homgeneity. To do this, Irving Janis proposes a few ways to overcome groupthink. 1) Leaders must open their ears to outside voices and avoid isolation. For Cedarville, this means inviting speakers with differing opinions and allowing dissenting opinions on campus. I’m going to suggest that physically confiscating an independent newspaper was not a step in the right direction. Free expression must be allowed on the campus of Cedarville, regardless of their place out of the bounds of Constitutional law as a private institution. Furthermore, we ought to be actively engaged in our community, not an isolated Christian bubble in Ohio. 2) Eliminating groupthink requires the appointment of responsible, impartial leadership who allow, encourage, and respectfully resolve conflict. I won’t make any specific comments on that step to eliminating groupthink. I’ll leave that to your interpretation of how that could apply to Cedarville University. 3) Instead of self-appointed mind guards, individuals must be willing to encourage skepticism. This involves being loyal to the organization or group but also offering up different viewpoints. The truth can only be argued at its best when it has been tested by criticism and skepticism. 4) Janis proposes dividing groups to present different perspectives. This isn’t really practical at Cedarville, but I would recommend a greater degree of autonomy between the administration and student organizations. For example, Cedarville could let discipleship groups pick their own study material (within reason). Or perhaps reduce regulations on how campus orgs can operate to allow for the free flow and exchange of ideas without being tied to the University’s specific flavor of Christianity, politics, etc. Maybe leave in the comments some ways you think Cedarville can overcome groupthink and become a more open, vigorous academic environment.
As I conclude, let me as you this: Do you feel like a misfit? Do you feel like you’re alone in your thoughts and ideas? If you do, don’t be fooled by the strong grip of groupthink on Cedarville’s student body. The fact that this newspaper even exists and continues to grow evidences that there are more students than any of us thought in search of something different: of new ideas, of critical thought. There are more students around you than you’d think who have unique, different perspectives who are not judgemental, who are seeking to grow in genuine faith, and who would gladly stand against damaging policies at Cedarville if they were given an opportunity. But self-censorship born of the pressure to conform have silenced our voices. Do not let the University silence your voice. Continue to share your stories, your experiences, your thoughts, and your feelings. Your voice matters. Your differences are important. Your thoughts mean something.
You are not alone.