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Another Obstacle: Group Definitions of Reality

Within all organizations, there is a natural generation of "favorable self-description" or "self-serving representation." This involves an image the organization fosters of itself, both inwardly and outwardly. How explicitly and openly these representations are stated varies from organization to organization, as does the degree of contradiction between presentation and fact. By their very nature groups have a vested interest in presenting the most favorable picture of themselves to those outside. Typically, therefore, a rosier picture than is actually the case is created for external consumption. Even within an organization there are usually some truths that remain unspoken and taboo. Being an "insider" does not mean you can say anything you want to other insiders.

For example, some doctors are aware of more medical malpractice than they are willing to publicly discuss. Lawyers sometimes play down the fact that some lawyers routinely bill clients for more time than they spend on their clients' cases and that judges sometimes decide a case as a result of their personal beliefs and reaction to the appearance and demeanor of the accused, rather than by the relevant facts of the case and the meaning and intent of the law. Sociologists study this phenomenon under the categories of "in-group and out-group" behavior. Social psychologists study it under the category of social self-deception.

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Group Definitions of Reality

When we experience people we do not first see the person as a set of independent characteristics and then synthesize the parts into a whole. Rather, we typically see people as "instant" wholes. We interpret the "parts" accordingly. Behind these judgments, that often occur in a fraction of a second, are often an organized set of "definitions" of how things are. Hence, a person in management will often approach a "union" man with as many preconceptions as the union man approaches him. Select some job or professional situation in which you had a role. Review it in your mind and see if you can isolate any of the implicit (biased) "definitions" that guide behavior and perceptions on the job. How were you supposed to behave? How were others supposed to behave? Can you think of any situation in which you "opposed" some definition implicit in the established view of things? Do you remember how that opposition was received?

These realities must be taken into account in seeking to establish a culture of critical thinking within any organization or institution. This does not mean that it is unrealistic to attempt to foster that culture. But it does mean that the advantages of critical thinking may not be apparent to all concerned. In the short run, critical thinking may expose short-comings in the status quo. Those who personally gain from the status quo may be threatened by such an exposure of weaknesses. Individuals may confuse critical thinking with negative thinking or mistakenly assume that critical thinking is equivalent to whatever they personally happen to think. Individuals may also feel personally threatened by discussions that may suggest potential problems associated with them and their work. One must proceed with great caution in these circumstances.

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