In Group Think, Malcolm Gladwell compares “Saturday Night Live,” the founders of psychoanalysis, and mid-eighteenth century scientists and observes that ‘We are inclined to think that genuine innovators are loners, that they do not need the social reinforcement the rest of us crave. But that’s not how it works…in all of known history only three major thinkers who appeared on the scene by themselves.‘ By way of explaination he quotes Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather), who
‘called it “philosophical laughing,” which was his way of saying that those who depart from cultural or intellectual consensus need people to walk beside them and laugh with them to give them confidence. But there’s more to it than that. One of the peculiar features of group dynamics is that clusters of people will come to decisions that are far more extreme than any individual member would have come to on his own. People compete with each other and egg each other on, showboat and grandstand; and along the way they often lose sight of what they truly believed when the meeting began. Typically, this is considered a bad thing, because it means that groups formed explicitly to find middle ground often end up someplace far away. But at times this quality turns out to be tremendously productive, because, after all, losing sight of what you truly believed when the meeting began is one way of defining innovation.’
Another quotable bit:
Uglow’s book reveals how simplistic our view of groups really is. We divide them into cults and clubs, and dismiss the former for their insularity and the latter for their banality. The cult is the place where, cut off from your peers, you become crazy. The club is the place where, surrounded by your peers, you become boring. Yet if you can combine the best of those two states‹the right kind of insularity with the right kind of homogeneity‹you create an environment both safe enough and stimulating enough to make great thoughts possible.
Thanks to Charles for the heads up.