You Don’t Like My Point of View*

groupthinkAs I post this, it’s the 63rd anniversary of the publication of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It wasn’t a best-seller when it first came out, but since then, it’s established itself as a classic piece of literature.

Lord of the Flies isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime novel (although crimes are committed in the story). But it touches on some themes and considerations that we see a lot in crime fiction. One of those is groupthink. Groupthink happens when people go along with a group in order to achieve consensus, even if they disagree privately with the group’s decision. Sometimes, consensus has some purpose. It’s hard to get things done otherwise. But groupthink can also stifle creativity; worse, it can stile the individual sense of responsibility. And that can have tragic consequences.

Agatha Christie touches on groupthink in a few of her stories. For instance, in Mrs.McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence pays a visit to Hercule Poirot. He’s concerned because James Bentley is about to be executed for the murder of his landlady, Mrs. McGinty. Although Spence collected the evidence that eventually convicted Bentley, he’s not sure the man is guilty. So he asks Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. To find out the truth, Poirot travels to the small town of Broadhinny where the murder occurred, and begins to get to know the residents. As it turns out, Mrs. McGinty was the kind of person who found out people’s secrets. And one secret wasn’t safe for her to know. What’s interesting about this village is that everyone agrees it’s a ‘nice village,’ with ‘very nice people.’ So the murderer had to have been James Bentley, at least according to this groupthink.

In Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, we are introduced to Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley, a homicide detective in a futuristic New York City. In this world, humankind has been more or less divided into two large groups. One group, Spacers, are descended from those who explored space and returned to Earth. The other, Earthmen, are descended from those who never left the planet. The groups fear and dislike each other to the point that they live in separate places, with the border between them carefully protected. Then, Baley’s boss, Julius Enderby, informs him that a well-known Spacer scientist has been murdered. Spacers suspect an Earthman, so to ensure transparency of the investigation, Enderby wants Baley to investigate. And he wants him to work with a Spacer partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. Working with a Spacer will be difficult enough, but when Baley discovers that Olivaw is a positronic robot, he feels the task may be nearly impossible. If there’s one thing Earthmen hate and fear more than scientists, it’s robots. Throughout the novel, we see all sorts of examples of groupthink about robots, the threat they may pose, and misconceptions about them. We also see groupthink about the Spacers.

Groupthink can definitely play a role in what happens during jury deliberations. If you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. Jurors want to return a verdict, especially if they’re sequestered, and especially if it looks to be a long case. And when the stakes are high, there’s a lot of motive for swaying a jury in one direction or another. That form of groupthink plays a role in John Grisham’s Runaway Jury. In that novel, a very high-profile lawsuit is brought against the tobacco industry. Specifically, Celeste Wood is bringing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Pynex (formerly called Union Tobacco), in the wake of her husband’s death from lung cancer. With so much money at stake, it’s not surprising that it soon seems someone is trying to sway the jury and use groupthink to get a verdict. Even after they’re sequestered, the jury still seems to be behaving strangely. Bit by bit, we learn what’s really going on, and who’s behind this attempt to get the jury to return the ‘right’ verdict. There are plenty of other legal mysteries, too, that involve juries and groupthink.

We see groupthink in several of Qiu Xiaolong’s novels featuring Shanghai police detective Chen Cao. In the Shanghai of the late 1990s, it’s considered very important to maintain social harmony. So independent investigations, ‘watchdog’ groups and so on are highly discouraged (or worse). That reality plays out in several of the stories, including Enigma of China. In one plot thread of that novel, a watchdog group has been using the Internet to expose corruption at high levels. One of this group’s targets is Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The government, of course, is aware of this investigation, and Zhou is arrested. He’s moved to a Shanghai hotel to await trial. One morning, his body is found in his hotel room. The government authorities want Chief Inspector Chen to ‘rubber stamp’ the theory of suicide for a few reasons. But Chen isn’t sure that’s what really happened. As he works to solve the case, he comes into contact with the group that posted the accusations against Zhao. And he finds an odd paradox. At the same time as the government is cracking down on the group (in order to encourage groupthink), they need the information the group gets to stop trouble and to keep social order and harmony. It’s an interesting look at the way groupthink can work at the macro level.

Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road shows how groupthink can work among the police. In that novel, Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen has just been transferred from Adeliade to Tiverton, in rural South Australia. He’s basically a pariah among the Adelaide police because he has a reputation as a ‘whistleblower.’ And he soon finds that his reputation has preceded him. Right from the beginning, his boss, Sergeant Kropp, and the other local police, make life as difficult as possible for Hirsch, sabotaging and humiliating him at every opportunity. But Hirsch still has a job to do. And when the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is discovered by the side of Bitter Wash Road, he investigates. One theory is that she was hitchhiking and was accidentally hit by a passing car. But there are other possibilities, and Hirsch explores them. Despite the groupthink of his peers, he finds out the truth about what really happened to the victim, and we see how groupthink impacts everyone as he does. It’s an interesting plot point in the story.

On the surface, groupthink can seem an efficient way to get a group to reach consensus. But that’s not always a good thing, and groupthink can have terrifying consequences. Right, fans of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blind Melon’s No Rain.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Garry Disher, Isaac Asimov, John Grisham, Qui Xiaolong, Shirley Jackson, William Golding

21 responses to “You Don’t Like My Point of View*

  1. Pingback: You Don’t Like My Point of View* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. I can absolutely see why this type of behaviour would be seen in a jury situation and now you’ve mentioned it, I’m somewhat surprised I haven’t come across more crime novels where this features. You’ve managed to find some great examples as always though.

  3. It’s an intriguing phenomenon, groupthink, isn’t it? I’ve come across it most in the workplace, especially in jobs dealing with the public, where it can almost turn into an “us and them” type of attitude. And once it’s established it can be hard to break. The book that spring to mind is Dwayne Alexander Smith’s Forty Acres, where a group of otherwise very respectable businessmen convince themselves and each other that it’s perfectly reasonable to do something that none of them would have dreamt of as individuals (sorry, deliberately vague to avoid spoilers). And more recently, Emma Cline’s The Girls looks at cults and how groupthink within them can easily lead people to cross moral boundaries.

    • I think groupthink’s fascinating, too, FictionFan. And I can see how it’d create the ‘us and them’ mentality. As you say, it’s hard to shake it once it sets in. I’m very glad you mentioned The Girls, too. I thought of that novel, since it really shows how groupthink can get people to do things they would never ordinarily do. But in the end I didn’t include it, so thanks for filling in that gap. And one of these times, I must do a spotlight on Forty Acres

  4. Col

    Great post again Margot. I recently read The Lottery – quite chilling. Time to find out the Disher book!

  5. tracybham

    Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road sounds good, I look forward to reading that someday. This is a very interesting post. And a scary topic.

  6. It’s an intriguing subject, and very dear to my heart, although it also frightens me. I’ve been told half-jokingly I could start a religious cult after my Ph.D. on the subject, and in elections and referendum situations you constantly see the dangers and limitations of groupthink (or should that be tribal instinct or herd instinct?).

    • Group think really is both fascinating and scary, isn’t it, Marina Sofia? I didn’t know you’d done your Ph.D. on this topic; you must have read and written about all sorts of cases of how it works. And yes, elections and referenda are good examples of the way groupthink can impact people.

  7. Margot, someday I intend to sit down and read a bunch of Isaac Asimov’s stories. I read a couple of stories by Shirley Jackson and found them very intense. I’d have hated to be one of her characters. Of course, I’m basing this on just those two stories.

    • I’d not have wanted to be in a Shirley Jackson story, either, Prashant. They are, as you say, intense. And I do hope you’ll have the chance to read some of Asimov’s stories; he wrote such a great variety of them. And so many of them are very, very well-written.

  8. I am praying the groupthink that has allowed a certain candidate to appeal goes away by November.

  9. We learned about this phenomenon in Forensic Psychology. Fascinating and frightening study, too. Unfortunately, “groupthink” often occurs when women join the force, as well. Detective friends tell me it’s beginning to change in some departments, but not fast enough. The old boys’ club is alive and well.

    I loved Runaway Jury. Perfect example!

    • I am, sadly, not surprised that the ‘old boys’ network is alive and well, Sue. And it is definitely a clear (f distressing) example of groupthink. And I agree about The Runaway Jury; it’s a well-written novel that really shows what groupthink is and can do.

  10. The idea of ‘us’ v ‘them’ gets me to thinking of the edgy days of the Cold War, which were such fodder for novelists working in the mystery and espionage genres. I can’t think of a specific work that’s a good example of the ideas in the post, so I go with an old favorite and recall Mr. Fleming and his superspy.

  11. Of course we all know that ‘we’ are immune to groupthink – we are individuals, make our own decisions. It’s other people who suffer from groupthink! It is a fascinating topic – interesting in books, a bit scarey in real life.

    • Agreed, Moira. And it is interesting how groupthink doesn’t apply to ‘us’ – it only applies to ‘them.’ And that part of it is perhaps the scariest of all…

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