Thinking without thoughts

How groupthink influences trend-participation


Photo by and photo illustration by Sasha Kek

Part of groupthink is the need for “connections and bonding, and just really feeling secure,” Katie Murtaugh, school social worker, said, which she says are main components teenagers want in high school. “When you enter high school as a teenager, you want to feel connected. You want to have somebody to sit with at lunch, to have connections, whether it’s in the classroom or extracurricular activities,” Murtaugh said. “[Groupthink] could be both positive and negative. Thinking about the theory of attachment, it’s that bond with other people that is essential. Most of us grew up with a consistent parent or two, and those were our first relationships that started things off for us as human beings. If someone were to lack that connection, there could be negative consequences later.”

What do blazers, frog cakes, and TikTok dances have in common? All are the result of groupthink.

Following trends has become a norm for teenagers, as 88% of LZ students report having participated in at least one trend, according to a March Bear Facts Student Media survey of 146 students. However, when it comes to why teens participate in trends, there are different explanations, including the influence of groupthink.

“Teenagers tend to always want to be accepted and, if you’re making decisions that are far from what other people think could be accepted, teenagers don’t really want to be part of it. They want to follow trends and be a part of groupthink,” Shailen Surati, sophomore who participates in some social trends, said. “[Teenagers] want to be perceived as a part of something. They want to be accepted in high school, and maybe that means doing what other people are doing. They don’t want to be different.”

LZ students are not strangers to the influence of groupthink, as about 65% of students say they either often or sometimes experience groupthink, and 63% say they felt compelled at some point to participate in a trend by others, according to a March Bear Facts Student Media survey of 146 students.

“I think positive trends, like dance trends, are people’s way to show their character and have fun, so those kinds of trends people are doing of their free will,” Surati said, “but negative trends tend to be where groupthink comes in. People think that if they do this, maybe they’ll be accepted and more people will think they’re cool. There’s been situations where groupthink has been negative, and it tends to be if you don’t make this bad choice, then you’re not accepted. That’s at the point where you have to be like, do you really want to be accepted in this scenario, or do you want to make the change and not do this and participate in groupthink?”

One of these “negative trends” Surati refers to was the devious licks trend, in which students damaged and vandalized school property, which Katie Murtaugh, school social worker, says was an example of negative groupthink. 

“If my child was participating in negative things that would go through [the] Dean, like the devious licks challenge, I’d be concerned and wonder about the message behind the action and what is really going on. If I was a parent and I saw my teenager involved in some sort of extra curricular, I would see that as positive because they were putting their efforts out there and they were doing something to make a change with a group for the better,” Murtaugh said. “I definitely think it’s a case-by-case basis, because it’s looking at what is the behavior that’s being displayed, is it negative or positive, and having others around, whether that’s staff or peers or family members, noticing the behaviors.”

While groupthink applies to large trends and group activities, it can also influence individual actions and behaviors, Murtaugh says.

“I definitely do see some examples of groupthink, such as fashion. I notice a lot of people have the same haircut, and there are things that are just more common,” Murtaugh said. “You wonder, is it because it’s a trend? Is it because they want to fit in, they want to connect? Or, is it even because they don’t want to become a target for not having that haircut or not having that pair of shoes?”

Part of the influence of groupthink on teenagers is because “most teens tend to be very social, so mentality can often be shared,” according to Mealea Khek, senior in AP Psychology.

“I think that groupthink influences teens the most since we tend to place more value on socializing. We don’t want to stand out as a wet blanket when everyone else seems to be doing a trend. Going against it might be harder because you might be seen as boring or different from the majority,” Khek said. “It is human nature to want to belong, so groupthink can affect people in a way where they don’t want to question or consider risks of behaviors because they might be seen as someone outside the group. When everyone else seems to be agreeing and doing something, it is harder to give a dissenting opinion.” 

Part of the reason why it may be difficult for teenagers to speak out against trends is because “no one else is,” or due to influence from their friends.

“Another reason why students might partake in trends is because their friends are doing it, or someone they like or want to be friends with is doing it. Along with wanting to fit in with the group, it might also be an image thing, where it’s uncool if you don’t do the trend,” Khek said. “I think it has a negative effect because groupthink is going along with the group with little consideration of risks and consequences because it seems like no one else is concerned about it. If this is how we tend to think, then [groupthink is] a bad thing because it prevents us from speaking up about consequences.”

While groupthink is generally used in a negative context, it does not only have negative effects, according to Murtaugh.

“[Groupthink] can be beneficial. I know that most people would automatically go to the negative, but it’s important to remember that there are positives about it,” Murtaugh said. “My first memory of a challenge on social media was ALS, the ice bucket challenge. That was a really positive challenge because it was providing [for] charity and providing education and awareness to ALS. I remember participating in it, and the connections were shared throughout social media because you would post your video and you became part of a group, in a sense.”

In Surati’s experience, both trends like the devious licks and ice bucket challenge gain popularity because of “how global social media platforms are, like TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat,” which may explain why “teenagers are more susceptible to naturally following, because we don’t really want to be the outliers,” Surati said.

 “When you look at the majority of high schools, the culture around every high school is relatively the same, and not because the high schools are the same, but it’s because social media just reaches out everywhere, and it’s how we can all get a sense of place,” Surati said. “[Groupthink is] a positive thing when it’s for a good cause and you’re doing a good thing to be accepted, but it’s negative when you’re just following other people just to be accepted with no regard for what you’re actually doing or the consequences that can come with.”

Students may be familiar with the concept of following others. When parents pose the question “If your friend jumped off a cliff, would you follow?” Khek said it is a question of whether or not one would give into groupthink. 

“Whenever that’s said to me the answer is “No,” and I’m sure others say that, too, but if I think about it literally, if one person jumps off a cliff willingly, you probably won’t follow them. If a whole group started jumping off the cliff one after another, then you might start wondering if you should do the same,” Khek said. “It seems stupid, but if you think about it, if everyone was doing it, it would feel weird if you’re the only one who doesn’t. Even if you decide not to, you would still consider it a little bit and doubt your own judgment. Just like with trends, if enough people are doing it, it’s more likely for more people to join in, even if they feel it is dumb or risky. If you choose not to participate, it’s still possible for you to consider it.”