The Dim-Post

October 12, 2016

It feels like we’re thinking

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 10:43 am

Regular readers might remember how troubled I was by the flag debate and what it seemed to reveal about partisan positioning and groupthink:

My original position was that I wanted change.

After the first referendum I decided I would vote to keep the current flag, simply because I didn’t really like the Lockwood design, and sticking with the status quo would make it easier to change to something better a bit further down the line.

Would that really happen though? Realistically probably not for a long time; possibly not in my lifetime. So I was basically just voting to keep the flag. Which seemed a bit weird, because getting the Union Jack off our flag seemed like a progressive, left-wing thing to do, albeit only symbolically.

Still, I really didn’t like the Lockwood flag. Why didn’t I, though? It was the most popular of the longlist when UMR polled on it. And, in the end, slightly less than half the country (43%) voted for it. Yet basically everyone in the online progressive left hated the Lockwood. ‘It hurts my eyes!’ ‘It’s a beachtowel!’ ‘It violates design principles!’ “We need a real conversation about identity!’ It seemed unlikely to me that all of these people – myself included – came to make an impartial aesthetic judgement that by chance, happened to oppose a politician we all disliked.

This worried me a bit. Was I about to do something that was actually contrary to my values and then deluding myself about my motivation? Was I secretly motivated by a simple desire to thwart John Key? Or by the fact that the rest of the left had collectively decided on a position, and I was just going along with it? Or did I just actually not like Lockwood’s flag very much? In the end I let my daughter vote.

This still troubles me though. How much of what I think and say about politics is based on my values, and how much of it is based on reactionary judgements and in-group behavior?

I’ve been reading the Achen and Bartels book about democracy and group behavior (George Monbiot has a review here) and it argues that pretty much all of it is in-group behavior.


The book does not discuss the role of social media in contemporary political debate, in which orthodoxy – ‘virtue signalling’ – is rewarded and dissent is punished in realtime. The great danger is that it leads to outcomes like the GOP in the US, Labour in the UK and, in 2014, the left in New Zealand, in which political in-groups solidify around candidates or groups or ‘conceptual frameworks’ that are unpalatable to the rest of the electorate.


  1. That excerpt basically describes the mechanics of any successful advertising campaign.

    Comment by Gregor W — October 12, 2016 @ 11:12 am

  2. The groupthink of those in power can be a lot more dangerous than that of the opposition


    Comment by Antoine — October 12, 2016 @ 11:25 am

  3. Good post. It is challenging to overcome our own personal bias and belief systems, and our bias to believe that we have corrected for our biases. Robin Hansen at Overcoming Bias ( has spent a reasonable amount of personal energy on this issue and is worth reading. I don’t know how much can be achieved, but at least in professional life try to be humbler in my certainty of information. At best I hope to be less wrong rather than more right. Unfortunately this collides with issue of virtue signaling through statements of certainty.

    Comment by WH — October 12, 2016 @ 11:27 am

  4. We do have to keep questioning both ourselves and the received wisdom – things do move on when questions are asked. Think the slave trade, women’s suffrage, apartheid – all these huge chances came about not because they were palatable to the general public (they weren’t!) but because enough people had the integrity to ask themselves the hard questions and follow the path of justice. Climate change and what we have to do about it may be unpalatable, but we still have to keep trying. Actually, I’m not exactly sure what you refer to as ‘the left’ – what and who do you mean?

    Comment by jmcveagh — October 12, 2016 @ 11:41 am

  5. I suspect that you’re rather overthinking it, and paying far too much attention to shallow social media – which after all is full of the people who have time to indulge in it, at the detriment of other more productive things that they could be doing.

    Personally I seldom give a damn what other people think about my positions on various things. I tend to just state them and deal with counter arguments that are more than just religious slogans.

    Unfortunately mediums like twitter and facebook really aren’t that conducive for that kind of discussion. They are just the realm of those who have time for meaningless chatter.

    I’m also personally completely anti-social, arrogant, and widely read, I find that I’m not that much into group thinking even in social or work situations. Social media, for me, is a minor diversion from what I work on in real life.

    If I have time, I really prefer arguing with people who can actually argue with more depth than the quips of most social media and those who can mount stout defenses of their position without descending into the religious slogans of dumb dogmas.

    The others may be into group think on social media (or for that matter in politics or work). But it isn’t really my thing, Nor is it of the people (apart from stupid trolls) that I am willing to engage with. 🙂

    Comment by lprent — October 12, 2016 @ 11:52 am

  6. @lprent: You sound like a cool guy, can I subscribe to your newsletter?

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — October 12, 2016 @ 12:18 pm

  7. The referendum was a monumental exercise in incompetence from the prime minister, leading to a monumentally perverse result.

    1/ When Key set up the referendum he clearly had the black silver fern flag (the so-called “All Black” flag) in mind as the chief opponent for the current flag. For inexplicably flimsy reasons (who believes for a minute it was the NZRFU trademark? I don’t. Maybe focus groups found soccer mums who like Key disliked the silver fern flag?). The black silver fern flag IMHO was the only flag with a any chance of beating the existing flag with a majority of NZers.

    2/ By ruling out a discussion of constitutional arrangements Key stripped the debate of any contextualised meaning of the new flag. This reduced it to a design competition, in which there were 4.5 million opinions.

    3/ The design competition was itself a shambles, with entries mostly by amateurs – and it was judged by a bunch of amateur recycled National party hacks with the clear instructions to make sure the prime ministers second choice was chosen. Not designer was to be seen.

    4/ John Key then made the political mistake of turning it into a partisan referendum on his popularity. Given what we were voting on – a new flag – he got an astonisingly high vote in favour of change.

    5/ Key’s referendum was such a miserable muck up that I think we could easily revisit the issue. Personally, I think a cross party caucus should declare that upon the death of HRH QEII NZ will have a referendum on becoming a republic, complete with a new flag

    Comment by Sanctuary — October 12, 2016 @ 12:23 pm

  8. “…For inexplicably flimsy reasons it was almost immediately discarded…”

    Comment by Sanctuary — October 12, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

  9. I tend to just state them and deal with counter arguments that are more than just religious slogans.

    Mostly I’ve observed that you express your opinions and the sneer at / berate / label as trolls / ban people who don’t agree with you.
    Maybe things have changed since I stopped reading your blog 3-4 years ago but I suspect not.
    Then again, The Standard is your playground so you can do whatever the fuck you like really.

    Comment by Gregor W — October 12, 2016 @ 12:38 pm

  10. Those conceptual frameworks appear to be Kuhnian paradigms, so perhaps the authors seek to distance themselves from the social theorists of the eighties. Yank academic turf protection, or maybe just an aversion to the avante garde and a preference for simple terms. But their thesis is correct: democracy in the form we have inherited operates like a strait-jacket on the body politic.

    I voted for the other flag option but with zero enthusiasm due to not seeing any contenders I liked. I viewed the flag referendum as an irrelevant waste of money & was sufficiently influenced by leftist groupthink to go along with the `don’t vote’ line for many months until one day, out of the blue, an ancient memory surfaced from the mid-late fifties when, as a child, I was looking at the NZ flag design reproduced in a book & thinking “Actually, that’s so ugly that our country ought to ditch it & replace it with something better.” I then decided to vote in solidarity with that stance adopted by my younger self.

    I had no problem with the southern cross, just with the other piece of crap.

    Comment by Dennis Frank — October 12, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

  11. @ ortvin

    Just remember this site is all about satire…

    Comment by insider — October 12, 2016 @ 1:13 pm

  12. And so it should be, because satire is the best antidote to groupthink.


    Comment by Antoine — October 12, 2016 @ 1:20 pm

  13. So … a political party forms an interpretative community for its members, thus enabling the construction and maintenance of reality within the ontological domain which defines their concerns? Someone should inform Stanley Fish about this intellectual breakthrough (

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — October 12, 2016 @ 1:23 pm

  14. And in breaking news researchers spend 350 pages (and polsci students $70) on new text book that tells us people like to hang with likeminded others and can be wary of strangers.

    Tomorrow’s weather – windy in Wellington.

    Comment by insider — October 12, 2016 @ 1:25 pm

  15. Really antione? I thought it was anti social arrogance accompanied by some really wide reading (peppered with some hard core coding).

    Comment by insider — October 12, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

  16. @insider Spare me your dumb dogma


    Comment by Antoine — October 12, 2016 @ 1:36 pm

  17. Tomorrow’s weather – windy in Wellington.

    Not now Justin Lester is mayor. Blue skies and sunshine for the next three years.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — October 12, 2016 @ 1:41 pm

  18. If I was writing a thesis it would be titled The Evolved Mind, Technology and the instability of Liberal Democracy

    On the upside Trump will lose badly and the Republican Party is in turmoil.

    Its tempting to think the Internet amplifies group folie. I think it’s created some poisonous communities that wouldn’t have other wise existed but what effect they have is hard to say.

    Comment by NeilM — October 12, 2016 @ 1:49 pm

  19. I supported a change of flag and have wondered what my position would be should AL try to pull the same stunt as Key. If the same process was used then I’d have no choice but to support the change. However I don’t like AL and if the flag was less than awesome I’m pretty sure I’d blame/resent him but probably still vote for a change as I really don’t like the current flag. Even if I wanted to hurt AL politically I’d still vote the change as I can’t see a AL led Labour govt being popular anyway.

    Comment by artcroft — October 12, 2016 @ 3:23 pm

  20. Don’t listen to politicians, it only encourages them.

    Comment by unaha-closp — October 12, 2016 @ 3:41 pm

  21. It must be a bit of a shock to NZ Labour supporters to find out that they resemble American Trump supporters.

    Comment by @simongarlick — October 12, 2016 @ 4:14 pm

  22. ” contemporary political debate, in which orthodoxy – ‘virtue signalling’ – is rewarded”

    Surely credibly signalling virtue is rewarded in all contexts? Weren’t the Pharisees praised for their piety when they publicly prayed (before Jesus called them out as merely trying to signal virtue rather than actually be virtuous)? Haven’t businesses been donating to charities to make themselves look good since before you were born?

    Comment by Colonel Hacker — October 12, 2016 @ 4:46 pm

  23. John Key’s decision to initiate a change of flag was based upon a conversation I had with him at the Fortune of War pub on Circular Quay in Sydney way back in 2001. I suggested that regardless of whether we became a republic or not it was asinine that an independent (and presumably mature democratic society) still had on its flag a symbol of it’s colonial past and that regardless of your political partisanship, it should be removed,. He was not aware that I was taking the piss..that I was playing him, as I knew then what has been subsequently demonstrated by the failure of the referendum; that a new flag would not be adopted unless it represents a new system, a new sense of identity. Which is to say symbols matter when it comes to identity. If you are going to adopt a new symbol representing your identity then it has to speak to something more important than what the current symbol represents.. In short to have folks find meaning in a new flag and to then stand proudly before it, it will need to represent something more important than the current flag, than the old symbol of identity. A new NZ flag can therefore only be a republican one, as anything else is just new lipstick on the same old pig. It’s just gilding the lily. Regardless of how pretty it is, it will not inspire a sufficient number of us. When I laid my trap for John I had proving this point in mind. Dany you are still a young(ish) man so please stop with this bollocks that there will not be another opportunity to choose a new flag within your lifetime. I play a long game, it took 14 years before the seed I planted proved my contention…but I have no doubt that I will see a new flag and a republic in my lifetime. The seeds planted (yes there are others…) are growing very well and it will happen far sooner than you seem to think! By the way, when I suggested the cycle trails I was not taking the piss and I’m glad that Johnno has made that happen. I’ll buy him a beer for that one…

    Comment by Mr Tank — October 12, 2016 @ 5:17 pm

  24. Personally I seldom give a damn what other people think about my positions on various things. I tend to just state them and deal with counter arguments that are more than just religious slogans.

    I agree. I couldn’t care what others thought about the flag. It was a lazy design that any school kid could have come up with. Replacing the union jack with a silver fern surely didn’t take much thought.

    Not sure about the relevance of the book excerpt because plenty of National voters didn’t support the Lockwood design. Why didn’t they? Maybe they, too, didn’t like the design.

    Comment by Ross — October 12, 2016 @ 5:51 pm

  25. The seeds planted (yes there are others…) are growing very well…

    Reminds me of the budgie named Onan, because he ‘spilled his seed upon the ground”.

    Comment by Joe W — October 12, 2016 @ 6:12 pm

  26. I didn’t vote in the flag referendum. It wasn’t out of some deep principle, but more that I couldn’t care less about the issue. I do think that the less rational a choice can be (and choosing something like a flag is hardly going to be the result of any kind of serious analysis) the more strongly people will express their opinion on it. Like which sports team is better, or which celebrity is hotter or more of a dick, it’s a debate in which groupthink is pretty much all that can happen.

    Party politics is certainly going this way. There are obviously many more practical ramifications to the outcome, but the less rational a person’s reasons for believing a candidate is superior, the more strongly they will often hold on to those reasons. They can even be strengthened by counter evidence.

    But I don’t see that any particular parties are more prone to it than others. That is to say, I don’t see any evidence of that. They all form their narrative of the world, and live in those, and if it happens to synchronize with the popular groupthink, they perform better than when they are out of synch.

    I guess this kind of social science that can explain everything and predict/advise nothing is interesting at times. Groupthink is a pretty old theory. Like so many vague characteristics, the traits involved in groupthink are often seen as strengths, judged entirely on the performance of the group in question. Cohesion is teamwork, self-censoring is discipline, rationalizing is defending, stereotyping is being decisive.

    Similarly, people who are deliberately resistant to groupthink are very often cranks, nutters, and dickheads. So avoiding groupthink isn’t really that much of a sign of a superior organization.

    We could be very smugly deriding the stupidity that has led to the GOP situation in the states, but Trump and the Republicans are both still in with a shot, and all of the wisdom could invert on a random scandal. I’m certainly not calling it at this point, much less doing post-mortems on their psychological failings to explain all that. Their psychological failings are deplorable in their own rights, regardless of whether the groupthink leads to a win or a loss.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — October 12, 2016 @ 7:26 pm

  27. All my adult life I have really, *really*, wanted to rid our flag of the emblem of colonisation, global exploitation, and assimilation i.e. the Union Jack. But John Key’s Gerrymandered bullshit brigade delivered a logo, not a symbolic statement of our cultural identity.

    I didn’t make my decision based on group-thinkedness, I made it based on aesthetic principles, chiefly that the flag should actually look cool, not like a fucking logo.

    I think the “group behavior” theory may not apply to the flag plebiscite.

    In other news, National have finally concluded that importing WAY more people in Auckland than you have house for may cause a “housing crisis”. Geniuses.

    Comment by Mikaere Curtis — October 12, 2016 @ 9:56 pm

  28. In other news, National have finally concluded that importing WAY more people in Auckland…

    Labour, NZF and the Greens have succeeded in making immigration an central election issue. Well done. We’ll now have a bidding war to see which party can clamp down on immigration the most.

    I presume Labour, NZF snd the Greens will advocate preventing NZers returning from Oz as that’s the biggest “importing” being done at the moment.

    Sounds like classic group think to me.

    Comment by NeilM — October 12, 2016 @ 10:22 pm

  29. ” John Key’s Gerrymandered bullshit brigade delivered a logo, not a symbolic statement of our cultural identity”

    What’s the difference? Aren’t flags just logos for countries?

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — October 13, 2016 @ 5:33 am

  30. I had a brilliant idea on the flag debate, don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.

    The problem was that NZ’s flag was too similar to Australia’s, right? But we didn’t want to go to the trouble and expense of changing the flag.
    Well then, change the Australian flag instead!
    In short, we should have had a binding referendum on the new Australian flag. I envisage a wombat playing a big part, or a kangaroo or something.


    Comment by Antoine — October 13, 2016 @ 6:32 am

  31. i think a great way to ascertain the extent to which groupthink has overridden critical thinking is to criticise one of its ideas and then measure the vehemence with which the said critique is perceived as criticism and is subsequently ridiculed/denigrated or generally considered an offence to rational thinking.

    It’s a hobby ….

    ps Dim Post subscribers do (in my opinion) very, very, very well in this respect which is why it is the only political blog I can stomach visiting on a regular basis. Sure there is the odd lunatic stalking these hallowed halls, (guilty) but by and large, they have been adopted, rather like bachelor uncles with questionable pasts.

    ps I let my daughter vote on the flag simply because I thought she was going to have to live with it longer than I would, but was astounded by the ‘groupthink’ that appeared to characterise the process. Having said that I also felt that Key turned an opportunity to galvanise public opinion and debate and involve the future generations in a decision about their own national identity into a petty, squalid little handbag-fight.

    I would have had a challenge put out to every school in the nation to contribute ideas, then whittle it down by popular votes (by children) then had the finalists presented to the grown ups.

    Comment by leeharmanclark — October 13, 2016 @ 7:14 am

  32. “i think a great way to ascertain the extent to which groupthink has overridden critical thinking is to criticise one of its ideas and then measure the vehemence with which the said critique is perceived as criticism and is subsequently ridiculed/denigrated or generally considered an offence to rational thinking.

    It’s a hobby ….” Not a bad hobby at all, provided you can cop the criticism. More power to you I say…we need gadfly’s.

    Comment by Mr Tank — October 13, 2016 @ 9:17 am

  33. “The groupthink of those in power can be a lot more dangerous than that of the opposition”

    Yes, but those in power are also subject to more contestability in relation to their utterances and policies and more incentive to listen to them.

    There are a couple of wonderful examples in this thread of exactly what Danyl is talking about. I’m thinking of Mr Standard and our Iberian Friend.

    Comment by Tinakori — October 13, 2016 @ 9:49 am

  34. There are a couple of wonderful examples in this thread of exactly what Danyl is talking about.

    And now Tinakori will provide a shining counter example by posting an excoriating critique of Judith Collins’ views on child poverty and how the real issue is poor parenting. Because she/he isn’t subject to the same party and group loyalties. No siree, Bob!

    Comment by Flashing Light — October 13, 2016 @ 10:14 am

  35. I understood that in the future, every time I would look at the Lockwood flag I would see John Key smiling back at me (plus I really didn’t like the design). I opposed the change primarily for the same reason that I didn’t watch a single All Blacks game in the last RWC; I felt like it was just another feather in JK’s PR cap.

    Comment by Eltalstro — October 13, 2016 @ 11:58 am

  36. @35 and in doing so, you struck a savage blow against John Key’s nefarious PR plans. If it wasn’t for your meddling, we would all be wearing blue and dancing round Uncle John’s BBQ. But no, you stuck to your guns and refused to watch the RWC. The resulting panic in National’s HQ was indescribable.

    Comment by sam — October 13, 2016 @ 1:03 pm

  37. @35 – Helen Clark would still be PM if it wasn’t for Wayne Barnes’ inability to see blatant forward passes (not bitter).

    Comment by unaha-closp — October 13, 2016 @ 3:31 pm

  38. sam if I was wearing my hat I would tip it – that was a superb use of the word ‘indescribable’.

    Comment by leeharmanclark — October 14, 2016 @ 6:35 am

  39. Hahaha, Sam! That’s gold. I must admit my hatred for JK has diminished somewhat recently.

    Comment by Eltalstro — October 14, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

  40. The flag change did seem to be a vanity project for the Prime Minister. The “groupthink” of the left, that opposed it, is partly that laws and other state action should be driven by expert opinion and facts and studies for the betterment of the nation, and certainly not for the personally opinionated glorification of whoever is in charge of government at the time.

    Most people on the left probably haven’t really thought through that, but I would posit it is actually a very important point. That the left in parliament opposed the “switch the united cross to a fern and brighten it up a bit” flag because it followed a bad process, the same as many actually bad things of late have followed, and the people of the left supported that stance because the left in parliament has really made their lives better by being an evidence-based policy group.

    The new flag wasn’t a bad thing, changing it was a bit dodgy by continuing to not recognise Māori, but the process was fucking terrible. Refusing to support random government bullshit with no evidence behind it is a solid policy stance, even if the left only vote for that for tribal reasons.

    Comment by tussock — October 16, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

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