The risk of unanimity and groupthink

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The risk of unanimity and groupthink

The author is the head of the Innovation Lab of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Unanimity means that everyone has the same opinion. The traditional decision-making method in international organizations had been unanimity. It was a method favorable to small countries. As they were not restricted by disadvantageous decisions, the sovereignty of all member states was respected. It seems ideal at first glance, but it was also an obstacle to the operation of international organizations.

The League of Nations was founded in 1920 to prevent a war after World War I, but it could not prevent World War II. Because of the requirement of unanimity, no agreement could be made if one member opposed, and it did not have a military means for a joint action. Each country had to survive on its own.

The United Nations was founded after World War II. With the lessons from the League of Nations, the decision based on unanimity was abolished. The UN secured practical influence by adopting the vote of the majority, various sub organizations and veto power of permanent members.

In most states in the United States, a unanimous verdict by a jury is the principle for criminal trials. If any one of the jurors find the defendant innocent, a guilty verdict cannot be made. This is to guarantee the right to a verdict from the fair jury.

But it takes courage to claim innocence alone when everyone else says “guilty.” Social psychologist Solomon Asch’s famous “conformity experiments” show the tendency of following the wrong judgment of the majority. After a question with a clear answer is presented, respondents conspired to give the same incorrect answer. Four out of 10 participants in an experiment ended up agreeing to the wrong answer.

Unanimity has a high risk of flowing into groupthink. By overly pursuing agreement, people may not realistically evaluate other options. Pressure on the opponents to agree and increasing self-censorship could lead to an irrational judgment. According to “The Amazing Power of Opposition,” (Chungrim Publishing, 2020), people actually reject and punish a minority who disagree. There is also a study that seven out of 10 office workers do not point out problems even if they find them. People are afraid to make a report when all others remain silent, out of fear that they may be ridiculed and rejected by the colleagues.

At the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on Oct. 22, a revision to the party Constitution was passed unanimously, allowing Xi Jinping’s third consecutive term and a path to lifetime dictatorship. It was a surreal moment with no minimum safety mechanism to control groupthink.
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