Groupthink arises when the members of a group seek to minimise conflict by failing to critically test, analyse, and evaluate the ideas that are put to them as a group. As a result, the decisions reached by the group are hasty and irrational, and more unsound than if they had been taken by either member of the group alone. Even married couples can fall into groupthink, for example, when they decide to take their holidays in places that neither spouse wanted, but thought that the other wanted.

Groupthink principally arises from the fear of being criticised, the fear of upsetting the group, and the hubristic sense of invulnerability that comes from being in a group. The 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked that ‘it is a good thing that I did not let myself be influenced’. In a similar vein, the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon wrote that ‘…solitude is the school of genius … and the uniformity of a work denotes the hand of a single artist’.

In contrast to Wittgenstein or Gibbon, modern society constantly reinforces the notions that man is a social animal, that he needs the companionship and affection of other human beings from cradle to grave, and that the chief source of his happiness should come mostly if not exclusively from intimate relationships with other similarly gregarious human beings. In the realm of the nine to five or eight to eight, large corporations glorify and reinforce conformism, decisions are taken by committees dominated by groupthink, people are evaluated according to their ‘team playing skills’, and any measly time out is seen as an opportunity for ‘team building’, ‘group bonding’, ‘networking’, or, at best, ‘family time’.

Yet solitude also has an important role to play in any human life, and the capacity and ability for solitude are a pre-requisite for individuation and self-realisation. In his book of 1988, Solitude – A Return to the Self, the psychiatrist Anthony Storr convincingly argues that ‘the happiest lives are probably those in which neither interpersonal relationships nor impersonal interests are idealised as the only way to salvation. The desire and pursuit of the whole must comprehend both aspects of human nature.’

[See also my post on the manic defence]

I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,
As she dances about the sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.

I slept in late last Wednesday, and awoke naturally from a rather interesting dream. A great problem with modern living is the waking up to an alarm clock, which interrupts sleep before our dreams are completed. This denies us the opportunity to test and explore our thoughts and feelings and, in so doing, to gain the sort of insight and understanding that might enable us to progress beyond waking up to an alarm clock. This is just another aspect of being ‘trapped by the 9 to 5′.

The dream

In this dream, then, I was about 17 years old, and not much different from my current, adult self. I was perhaps in my final year at secondary school, in the rural hills overlooking Lake Geneva. On a clear day, it might have been possible to see the snow-capped Alps beyond the lake, but now the sky was clouded over, and the seed that had been sown into the bare but loamy fields had only just begun to germinate. I had a general feeling of being overwhelmed and out of control, assailed by timetables, assignments, deadlines, social pressures, and various incoherences and futilities, and so I arranged to see the school counsellor. I sat on a chair in her room and began talking about my situation. She however was not interested. She was lying on a couch covered by a quilt, and every so often she lifted the quilt to reveal her bare breasts. After some time, a friend or colleague of hers arrived; she stepped out to greet him and through the window I could see them bantering. I felt quite angry at the counsellor and, to pass the time, I began to explore her room and in particular her bookcase. Therein I picked up a large leather-bound volume, ‘The World as Will’ by Arthur Schopenhauer. Holding the book in my hands, I was struck with such wonder and amazement that I broke into tears. Without waiting for the counsellor to return, I stepped out of the room and onto High Holborn (London), at which point I woke up.

My interpretation

In this dream I was young and of an age to learn. The sky was clouded over reflecting my then feelings. The seed in the rich, fertile soil had begun to germinate, auguring my own growth and rebirth. I sought help from the person best qualified to help me, but, like many people, she turned out to be immature, self-motivated, and of no help at all. She was lying on the couch while I was sitting in a chair, suggesting that she needed therapy more than I did, or that I understood or was to understand more than she did. The book represented my salvation, which was not to come passively through the counsellor and by extension through society, but actively through the thoughts of the greatest minds and by extension through philosophy. The title of the book, ‘The World as Will’, was particularly significant because it connoted freedom of the will, which is the cure for helplessness and the particular gift of philosophy. The breaking down into tears represented a cathartic release brought about by sudden insight, which is an important goal of classical psychoanalytic psychotherapy. When I stepped out of the room, I was no longer trapped on school premises but liberated into the wider world. The name ‘Holborn’ (‘whole-born’) itself is also likely to be of significance.

NB: The school counsellor is not based on any real person, and is a pure figment of my imagination.