Collective Conservatism

Groupthink is one of the most dangerous phenomenon that our world faces today. Families, companies, and governments can all find themselves stuck in groupthink, unable to adapt to a world that no longer fits the model and expectations that drive traditional thinking. When everyone has the same thought processes and members of the group discount the same information while adopting a uniform perspective, the world of possibilities becomes limited.


In Nudge, authors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write about a particular element that is common when groupthink takes hold, collective conservatism. While discussing groups that follow tradition the authors write,


“We can see here why many groups fall prey to what is known as collective conservatism: the tendency of groups to stick to established patterns even as new needs arise. Once a practice (like wearing ties) has become established, it is likely to be perpetuated, even if there is no particular basis for it.”


In a family household, collective conservatism might take the form of a specific way to fold towels. Perhaps towels had to be folded a certain way to fit a space in a previous house, and the tradition has continued even though towels no longer need to be folded just right for the space. Nothing is really lost by folding towels just so, but it might be time consuming to make sure they are folded in order to fit a constraint that no longer exists.


Within companies and governments, however, collective conservatism can be more consequential than the time and effort involved in folding towels. A company that cannot adjust supply chains, cannot adjust a business model in response to competition, and that cannot improve workspaces to meet new employee expectations is likely to be overtaken by a start-up that is more in tune with new social, technological, and cultural business trends. For a government, failures to adjust for technological change and employee motivations are also risks, as are changes in international relations, social needs, and more. Being stuck in a mindset that cannot see the changes and cannot be more responsive can be dangerous because peoples actual lives and needed services and supports could be in jeopardy. Collective conservatism feels safe to those who are in decision-making roles and who know what worked in the past. However, collective conservatism is a form of group think that can lead to inept operations and strategies that can be economically costly and have negative impacts in peoples’ real lives.

2 thoughts on “Collective Conservatism

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post on GroupThink–or Collective Conservatism. I love learning about social issues that I feel is becoming a popular subject amongst a lot of people. Do you think in the political arena… where social issues keep getting pushed, almost like propaganda, is sort of like collective conservatism?


    1. I think various aspects of the political system can be victims of collective conservatism and broader notions of groupthink. I think we are at a point where a lot of traditional political institutions are being challenged and shaken out of a state of collective conservatism. For the most part, I think this is a factor of demographic change coupled with increasing economic insecurity and inequalities. Millenials are now the largest group in the American workforce, and they are not content with the status quo – collective conservatism – of the Boomer generation. The thinking and institutions which served the Boomers – a far more homogenous group that was ok living with marginalized sub-groups – will not work with the realities of life for Millenials. I think that is where a lot of the tension in the political arena is coming from right now, and I think that is part of why social issues are pushed with so much energy. There is a real conflict between what narrative around social issues will win out, and for me it is clear that traditional views entrenched via collective conservatism will not be sufficient for our future.


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