< Home

Groupthink & Elite Culture

Groupthink & Elite Culture
Published on Mar 18, 2024.

My whole life, I’ve been something of an outsider. Growing up, I never had more than a handful of friends. I wasn’t an outcast. People didn’t make an effort to exclude me. But they didn’t make an effort to include me either. I guess you can say I was a loner.

That made me a keen observer. Like anyone else, I wanted to be part of the groups around me. I didn’t want to be left out. But I didn’t know how to go along to get along. I didn’t know how to do do the things that came naturally to everyone else. Anytime I’d be part of a group of people and they started acting in a certain way I didn’t understand, rather than join in, I’d stop and ask why. That kind of defeated the purpose.

So instead, I compensated by thinking. I spent a lot of my time thinking about why people in groups behaved the way they did. I tried to figure out how they determined their power dynamics, how they chose what was cool to them and what wasn’t, and above all, how to behave so that I could fit in.

Why do people in the same group act alike? Why do they think alike? For what reason do they do it, and what are the mechanics by which it happens?

I was obsessed with these questions. It was like a puzzle to me. The most important puzzle, that I couldn’t stop thinking about. I always felt this gaping hole inside me, of wanting to be part of something, of wanting friends and people who accepted me, and just being really lonely instead. I was lonely in elementary school. I was lonely in high school. And I was lonely at Stanford.

So I watched and I tried to figure out what schools like Stanford do, that create a common culture, a rarefied groupthink, in its students. There must be something, because the kids who come out of there are alike in a way. There’s something about them that marks them as having gone through the Stanford experience. You don’t see it all the time, but in the right setting, at the right time, they behave the same.

In groups, people exhibit the same mannerisms, the same way of talking the same reactions to things that happen. Italians speak with their hands. Germans are precise in their language. Japanese operate on hidden rules of honor & respect. These are generalizations, sure, but the reason they stick is because there’s a nugget of truth to them. People from the same group behave similarly.

This is what we mean by culture. The outward signs that let us identify people as part of a group are only the manifestations of internal patterns of though. It’s not our gestures that we pick up from the group around us – it’s the thought patterns that lead to those gestures.

But how does this happen? When we’re very young, when our brains aren’t fully formed yet, when we don’t really know how to think, we just copy the people around us. But the weird thing is that we keep doing this, even when we get to be adults. We change our behavior to fit the group whenever we change groups. When we move to a new city. When we get a new job at a different company. When we make new friends. Every time, our behavior shifts a bit, our way of talking or what we talk about changes just a little, imperceptibly even to us, until we look back and think of phases of life largely by the places we lived and places we worked – because those are stand-ins for the cultures that we adopted while we were there.

By imitating, we become.

Any group of two or more people has a culture. Couples have a culture – it’s what lets us refer to them as “they”. As in “they do this” or “that’s just how they are”. We are able to refer to groups as single things because there is a culture, a way of thinking and behaving, that is common to people in that group.

The longer someone lives with a culture, the more of their personality is shaped by it. A company you work at for a couple years will not have the same influence on your psychology as a family you were born into and never quite leave entirely.

How do we adopt this culture?

It’s a feedback loop, between individual action and group reaction. We do something, then we watch how the group reacts. There is always a part of our brain watching the group and monitoring what they like & what they don’t like. This part is like our sonar system. It operates in the background, passively taking measurements on our social standing.

The torpedoes we send out are our words and actions. The sonar tells us if we struck our target.

I saw this in practice at Stanford. In its marketing brochures and campus tours, Stanford says that it’s not about what you learn in class, but what you learn from your peers. It’s the friendships you form and the late-night discussions, and the relationships to last a lifetime. My mom said that’s a lot of money to make friends. But I don’t think she even knew the half of it.

When I arrived on campus as freshman, I observed how I was learning to become part of this new peer group. When I'd stand in a group, or sit in the classroom, my eyes were constantly flitting around. I was looking for the cues that tell what this group really cares about.

I paid attention how they talked. What things did people say that didn’t really need saying? What got people nodding in agreement? What statements go unchallenged, as if everyone knows them? What jokes did they make?

I paid attention to power dynamics in the conversations. Who has the right to interrupt others? When someone is talking, who will they yield the floor to easily, almost as if there was a rule that they had to? Who has to speak louder or faster to be heard?

And slowly I began to piece things together. There was a distinct culture at Stanford, but it wasn't just limited to Stanford.

What I was watching was the birth of elite culture. A way of talking and behaving that marks you as one of the ruling class.

On the surface, it looks a real culture, with its own skewed worldview, but that's not really what it is. It's not rooted in history or place, the organic output of hundreds, thousands, of years. What elite culture really is, is an act.

It's the training for a confidence game being played by the elites against everyone else. The game is to get you to trust us with the keys to the kingdom. To do that, we pretend to be something that we're not. We pretend to be preternaturally smart, gifted, superior even, though we'll never use that last word. And the con is that we're not really, but we're going to convince you of it anyway.

You're used to judging people as smart who sound like they know what they're talking about. They talk in big words and use patterns of analysis that sound smart. We do the same thing, but most of the time we don't really know what we're talking about. We're just imitating them, and we're counting on you not being able to tell the difference.

It's scary how often the bet pays off. It's why they let us have the fancy jobs with the fancy money. Why we get the power, and why we make the decisions. It's why you vote for us, or trust us with your money. Because we're "smart", right? Because we know what we're talking about, right? Because we're running a con on everyone, all the time, including ourselves, and the last thing we can do it admit it. Then the jig will be up.

Well, I'm admitting it. I'm going to tell you how exactly this plays out. I'm going to tell you how the seeds in my psychology, and the psychology of people like me, bloom into the world you see today. How it explains the inequalities and the disappointments, how it's behind our depressions and anxieties, and how those with a growing sense that something is wrong – very, very wrong – are absolutely right.

Part of a series on elite universities