Psychology & the Salem witch trials

This post is another one of my exciting recycled psychology assignments. Feel free to stop reading if the Salem witch trials aren’t your thing. The discussion question follows:

Identify one current or historical event that works as an example of the pitfalls of groupthink. 

What aspects of the situation could be changed to avoid groupthink and which aspects of the situation did the people involved have little control over? 

What would be the ideal situation to avoid groupthink in this case? Is this realistic? Explain why or why not.

I can think of many historical examples of groupthink, and many of them are listed in our textbook. I tried to think outside the box and come up with something on my own, but I wasn’t having much luck. Today in literature, we had a brief discussion on the Salem witch trials. I think that everyone involved in the trials fell victim to groupthink.

The group was highly cohesive. The Puritans believed in predestination; this meant that no matter what they did, they were destined to go to either heaven or hell. The group that was going to heaven was one that everyone wanted to be a part of. The group was also isolated. They were nonconformists, so they rejected other ideas. They fled to the colonies to have religious freedom and to “purify” the Church of England. They group was under high stress. A group of girls started acting oddly, and blamed their behavior on women they claimed to be witches. This also counts as a poor decision making procedure, because courts hung hundreds of people based off the testimony of a few teenage girls. There was no scientific evidence to back up any of the accusations. These aspects could have been changed, and the groupthink could have been avoided.

However, there were some situations that the people had little control over. One of these is the “belief in the moral correctness of the group.” They thought that by hanging the “witches”, they were pleasing God. They were raised and taught to believe these things, and there was no one there to tell them otherwise. People also had little authority against the church and the courts. Many of the people who disagreed with the rulings were accused of witchcraft and imprisoned or hung.

The ideal situation to avoid groupthink would have been for religious leaders to look at other options for the girl’s behavior, instead of just assuming that they were bewitched. They could have asked for opinions of other communities or leaders. The courts could have been less strict on people who disagreed with them. They also could have stepped back and examined their moral correctness: does the bible really tell you to murder innocent people who are suspected of a crime? It would have been nice if these things would have happened, but it’s not realistic. During that time period, you couldn’t disagree with authority. However, officials did realize that they were wrong and that a “miscarriage of justice” occurred.

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7 thoughts on “Psychology & the Salem witch trials

  1. I guess I’m politically biased toward the left, but I’m seeing a lot of groupthink among far-right wingers: Fear of “death panels” or “Obama’s a Communist” (and when asked what a communist is, can’t even define it — it’s just something scary), for instance.

  2. I think applying groupthink to “rightwingers” is a bit disingenuous. All groups fall for it. In fact placing the groupthink upon rightwingers is in itself a form of groupthink since it is essentially assuming that all people who lean to the right politically think alike.
    I am not the typical right winger as I am more anarchist but many of my friends and associates are and I can tell you that they do not fall into a groupthink category. Neither do my more left leaning friends and associates.
    Having said that, there is a tendency in our society to divide. There is much evidence that those who control resources, not rich Republicans, of the world have a deliberate agenda whereby they wish to divide us to keep all of us thinking we are each other’s enemy instead of realizing that it is those who control said resources we should be seeing as the enemy.
    Not all conspiracies are wrong. Many have actually proven to be true. What if there really is some sort of cabal attempting to control the population through media, etc? Am I crazy? Well, there was a time I thought people who thought this way were until I started looking around.

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