Groupthink in Greek life might foster poor decision making

Brionna Scebbi and Brionna Scebbi

One explanation for why nine fraternity members participated in a bias incident in the fall could be groupthink, associate psychology professor Richard Anderson said. Groupthink is a psychological term for when members of a group make decisions based on conformity rather than rationality.

Regardless of why the Pi Kappa Alpha (Pike) members decided to dress as Mexican-American gang members for Halloween and post photos on social media, the fraternity suspended them and the university placed sanctions on the fraternity as a whole to be enacted over the course of the spring semester.

These sanctions include appointing a diversity and inclusion chair, attending speakers to learn more about diversity and completing a service project that caters to the Latino community. Over the winter session, the fraternity adopted a family through a Columbus Big Brothers Big Sisters program to buy Christmas presents for and spend time with during the holidays as part of the service project.

Four Pike members, including the fraternity’s president Troy Henricksen, attended a Latino Student Union and Black Student Union meeting in November to apologize on behalf of the fraternity as talk of reputation and past problems with Pike surfaced among students. Henricksen said the values on which Pike was founded — scholarship, leadership, athleticism and gentlemanly conduct — do not align with the view many people held of the fraternity after the incident.

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“I just want you to know that’s no way that our chapter is supposed to be portrayed. Those members do not represent our pillars that most of the members of our chapter do represent every single day,” he said at the LSU/BSU meeting.

LSU President and Sigma Lambda Gamma Vice President Sadi Troche, a senior criminal justice major and psychology minor, said the values of a Greek organization are important to members.

“I know for my sorority we have five principles of academics, community service, social awareness, social interaction, morals and ethics. Everything we do is based off of those principles,” she said. “We want to make sure that the people who are hanging out with us have the same values that we do.”

Anderson said these pillars might not necessarily matter, depending on an organization’s member selection process. Problems associated with groupthink could still arise in an organization of like-minded individuals even if they are united by virtuous ideals.

“I don’t know that I would say that the pillars are what defines the type of person that joins the fraternity. I presume it has more to do with things like, you know, ‘Do you have a legacy there? Are your friends there? Do they have fun? Are they cool people, basically?’ …  I think people want to join the cool fraternity no matter what the pillars say or don’t say.”

Despite their pillars, Pike has a reputation on campus of members acting out in ways that disagree with the fraternity’s values. LSU member and senior Megan Miner said the Halloween bias incident is not the first time members of the fraternity acted disrespectfully toward the Latino community and called the organization “problematic.”

This reputation fits with what other members of Greek life at the University see as stereotypes surrounding their organizations.

Troche said movies and TV shows build an image of Greek life that many people believe. She cited partying, “paying for friends” and hazing as common things people associate with Greek life.

While Pike as a national organization is not founded on these stereotypes or negative ideologies, Anderson said any group of like-minded individuals are subject to groupthink influencing its members’ decisions.

“People are in the fraternity presumably because they want a sense of belongingness, and so that desire to belong and to be like the other group members can override any misgivings the person might have about whatever the behavior, or the decision, is,” Anderson said.

A study in the Journal of College and Character on the racial attitudes of college students in Greek organizations showed “unchallenged notions regarding race can exist and grow” in fraternities and sororities. The more isolated a group is from the more diverse population of campus as a whole, the more it can foster those notions.

Living in a fraternity house “just exaggerates the isolation (from outside groups), so it’d be different from just an interest group where people meet but then go home and have their own social lives outside of that interest group,” Anderson said.

Henricksen said Pike, like many Greek organizations, has cliques, and the members who wore the Halloween costumes that sparked the bias incident were part of one. He said that clique is broken up as many of the men in that friend group are graduating this semester or transferring.

Members of a group might decide against their morals if they see someone else modeling a certain behavior, Anderson said.

A member of the Pike clique that was involved in the bias incident was one of four new member educators for the fraternity. This is an influential role that teaches new members the history of the organization and has early interaction with the initiates, Henricksen said. This interaction opens up the potential for other students to model that new member educator’s behavior in an instance of groupthink.

“When people are deciding to behave, they’re going to use whatever examples are around them,” Anderson said. “When you’re in a group, you tend to assume that the group is responsible for making good decisions or is going to be responsible for whatever bad consequences happens [sic] rather than you as an individual. And so when you think about people being responsible, it’s not as anxiety provoking, it tends not to warrant as much time and reflection because you’re assuming someone else is going to be thinking about these things.”

Troche agreed this kind of behavior modeling is possible in any group and stems from what an individual is dealing with.

“One, you kind of want to fit in. … On the other hand is you don’t know yourself. If you can’t stand for yourself, if you don’t know your own identity, you’re not in a place to protect somebody else’s identity,” Troche said. “It’s more of like, ‘my subconscious and my self-confidence is low, so I’m going to do what I can to make myself feel better.’ And then there’s always that one alpha male, alpha female, alpha whoever, that comes into play and says, ‘This is what I think. I think this is funny. Do you?’”

Troche said the consequences are real for any member of Greek life who goes against the organization’s values. Fraternities and sororities communicate with members to make sure they are representing the organization and upholding those values.

“I’m not going to tell you how to think because that changes who you are as a person, but I’m going to what you need to do when you’re representing us. And if you’re not doing it correctly then that’s on you, and you can go ahead and find people who think like you,” Troche said.

Anderson said there might not be a definite explanation for incidents such as the Pike member Halloween posts because there is not enough available information about the situation and how those members interacted with each other.

“Groupthink may have played a role in this incident … but there are other explanations for why it happened, and one sort of explanation is that it’s just that’s the way a large part of our culture is in the United States. It may not be an aberration when you consider our culture as a whole in 2018. And if that’s the reason, then, you know, addressing the issue would need to be at more of a national level not just at the level of a particular university.”