Groupthink Notion in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

It is commonly assumed that many heads are better than one. However, the sad fact is that in a large number of cases groups fail to correct individual mistakes; on the contrary, they usually even exacerbate these mistakes or support opinions which are clearly harmful (Sunstein and Hastie 2). A famous social psychologist Irving Janis introduced the term “groupthink” to describe such behavior. He documented eight major symptoms that allow to identify whether groupthink is taking place in a group (“What is Groupthink?” par. 1-2).

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In this paper, this list of symptoms will be applied in order to analyze the situation depicted in Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery. It is arguable that the characters of this story demonstrate many of these symptoms, but it will be explained how they show three of them: the illusion of unanimity, the belief in inherent morality, and the illusion of invulnerability (“What is Groupthink?” par. 2).

It can easily be seen that The Lottery provides a bright example of groupthink. The illusion of unanimity is one of the many symptoms of groupthink that the villagers show. According to the definition of the symptom, it exists when the convictions of the majority “are assumed to be unanimous” (“What is Groupthink?” par. 2); though it follows from this definition that they might not be such. This assumption of the unity of thought is easy to notice. The villagers (everyone but Mr. Adams) do not express their doubts out loud in any way; neither do they speak up when Mr. Adams says that there are villages considering giving up “the lottery,” and that there even exist places where “the lottery” is no longer practiced (Jackson 4).

But the participants of “the lottery” are silent because each of them thinks that everyone else will strongly disapprove if they speak. However, it is clear (to an external observer) that many of them are not fond of “the lottery”; the uncertainty of some villagers, especially when they had to throw stones, gives evidence for the absence of the unity of thought on the issue. Mrs. Dunbar, for instance, is reluctant to take part; she takes small stones, sends her son away on a plausible pretext, and says that she “can’t run at all,” possibly to delay her participation (Jackson 7). Because everyone fears to speak, fears to face the disapproval and indignation of the others, the illusion of unanimity persists.

The illusion of invulnerability is present in the story as well. Even though many people start feeling somewhat nervous when they begin to take the slips of paper, it seems that most of them were not really worried before “the lottery” began. Old Man Warner provides the strongest example, appearing to be entirely convinced that he will not become the one to be stoned to death.

Another symptom present in the story is the belief in inherent morality. It is also best expressed by Old Man Warner who says that those who have given up “the lottery” are a “pack of crazy fools,” for “there’s always been a lottery” (Jackson 4). His mind appears to be entirely immune to the thought that bringing a slow, agonizing end to a completely innocent person might perhaps be a slightly dubious act from the moral (or any other) point of view. Old Man Warner stops any (uncertain) attempts to express perceptions inconsistent with the collective views outright, not leaving any chance for further questioning and preserving the belief.

Especially interesting is the fact that even Tessie Hutchinson, the person who is to be beaten to death, shows her conviction in the inherent morality of “the lottery” rather clearly, even though in her own way. She yields to the “collective views”, simply crying that “it isn’t fair” because her husband supposedly wasn’t given enough time to choose (Jackson 7, 6). She does not attempt to doubt the tradition in any way, the morality of it, or the consequences of it.

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She has no objections based on principles; she only says (and, rather likely, is convinced) that there were some procedural flaws which led to her becoming the one to be killed. It is probable that she would have been sorry if anyone else had been beaten to death; but she would definitely have even fewer objections to the rules of the “game” if it had not been her “turn” to be stoned to death.

The story also shows some of the consequences of groupthink listed in “What is Groupthink?”, for instance, “failure to examine risks of preferred choice”, and “failure to reappraise initially rejected alternatives (“What is Groupthink?” par. 6). The villagers simply adhere to beliefs of the illusionary “majority,” and do not consider the consequences of their mindless choice. They reject the alternative (giving up the lottery) outright, and, clearly, do not assess it. The “low probability of successful outcome”, or, more precisely, the absence of such probability, is also present (“What is Groupthink?” par. 6), for whoever is chosen in “the lottery” will die.

As it is can be seen, the characters of Jackson’s The Lottery show many of the symptoms of groupthink given by Irving Janis. The short story provides a bright example of the absurdity of the situation to an external observer and the dire consequences that groupthink may lead to. Taking into account the aftermath, it is worth considering the notion of groupthink carefully and taking steps to avoid it in the real life where possible.

Works Cited

Jackson, Shirley 1948, The Lottery. Web.

Sunstein, Cass R., and Reid Hastie. Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter, Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2014. Print.

What is Groupthink? n.d. Web.

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