If there was one TV series that has already defined this year, it was BBC’s The Traitors. Thrilling and addictive, the murder-mystery-type game show boasted an average audience of 6.9 million viewers for its final episode alone, double the first season (which had already made the show’s host, Claudia Winkleman, hesitant for any more, worried the show might not be able to compete with itself). ‘It felt like some sort of magical dust, and I just don’t want people’s expectations to be so high,’ Winkleman said at the season two launch party.
The second season was brutal, with contestants seemingly making close bonds and lifelong friendships by day and utterly ripping each other to shreds by night – when the time came for someone to be banished from the Scottish castle. But despite its ultimately lighthearted and fun premise, the show offers real insight into the inner workings of society and the power of the psychological phenomenon known as ‘groupthink.’
Coined in 1971 in Psychology Today by social psychologist Irving Janis, the term sums up the ways in which intelligent people can end up ignoring logic to fit in with their peers. According to Janis, groupthink often occurs in particular scenarios when a group prioritises their identity as a collective. In the case of The Traitors, we see it play out when people assume their allies must be ‘100% faithful’ (Molly, we’re looking at you). Throw in the pressure of a £120,000 prize at stake – and it often results in irrational or detrimental choices being made—in the show, we see this when minor kinks in people’s personalities are unjustly used as ammo for why they should be the next person to leave or, in some cases, even why they should stay.
'Popularity has long been associated with attribution bias, which is the tendency to explain a person’s behaviour by their character rather than based on events that have happened,' explains Daniel Walker, a psychology lecturer at the University of Bradford, who wrote in The Conversation on various social biases at play in The Traitors.
This sudden disregard for logic is a prime example of how groupthink can transform people's reasoning for the worse. Popular culture is littered with examples. Take cult comedy Mean Girls, when Rachel McAdams’ Regina George finds her top has had holes slashed around each breast - an act intended to shame her – she wears it as normal. As the most popular – or feared– girl at school, the destroyed tank isn’t only accepted, but celebrated as a new micro trend, despite its absurdity. Mean Girls is now back on screens, with a musical film based on the Broadway version finding new audiences.
Netflix’s Squid Game: The Challenge, based on the hit South Korean drama also demonstrates some of these psychological characteristics at work, as we see reckless players avoid scrutiny, while individual thinkers often get voted off for no real reason.
Groupthink doesn’t just play out on screen. With it being an election year in the UK, it’s hard not to see how a herd mentality might play out within broader society. We’re a nation more polarised than ever, and groupthink has the power to determine people’s political views – or at least what they present as their ideologies, consequently influencing who the public collectively votes for. While it may pay for an individual to embrace conformity in a singular moment, all with the desire to remain part of a certain group, the consequences of such choices may be much longer lasting.
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