Category Archives: Funeral Insider

Groupthink! The risk of paralysis inherent in every group.

“As members of interdisciplinary care teams, we are frequently exposed to and have to cope with what is known as groupthink, a phenomenon that may seriously compromise our efficacy as care providers, and may also compromise our duty of authenticity and autonomy. And yet, groupthink is precisely what underlies much of our training in Clinical Pastoral Education and in the so-called Board Certification programs and our professional organizations, and is pandemic in most of the institutions in which we work. Agendizing, brainwashing, programming.”

Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney B.A., [M.A.], M.Div.

We, as psychospiritual care providers, as chaplains, thanatologists, end-of-life and deathcare providers have an inherent authority in most organizations to speak freely and openly about sensitive subjects without the stigma that might apply to a colleague working in a different field. People tend to listen to us and give credibility to what we have to say; consequently, we can and should play an important and proactive role in making the organizations and leaders with whom we work aware of the groupthink phenomenon, its dangers and risks, and ways of avoiding the phenomenon in our environments. Once people are made aware of the phenomenon and ways to identify it and prevent it, we are on the path to reclaiming the efficacy and authenticity we once enjoyed but lost in the wake of the development of corporate control of our institutions and the chilling of interpersonal relations by online social media.

Groupthink.[1] It’s everywhere and it’s toxic! It’s dehumanizing. It perpetuates lies and factoids. Yet you love it! It makes things so much easier when you don’t have to use your own brain and you allow yourself to be programmed to think, speak, act, perform according to the in-group’s agenda.

Irving Janus mainstreamed the term in 1982. [2] According to Janis, groupthink

“[h]appens when in-group pressures lead to deterioration in mental efficiency, poor testing of reality, and lax moral judgment. It tends to occur in highly cohesive groups in which the group members’ desire for consensus becomes more important than evaluating problems and solutions realistically. An example would be the top executive cabinet (the president and vice presidents) of a firm, who have worked together for many years. They know each other well and think as a cohesive unit rather than as a collection of individuals.” [my italics]

We can find groupthink in our workplaces, churches, schools, social media, government, and Yes! even in our homes.

Janis identified eight symptoms of groupthink, which are noteworthy and which I will briefly describe below.[3] Persons affected by groupthink may exhibit any of these symptoms:

  1. An experience of the illusion of invulnerability. This illusion produces an unreal sense of optimism and the sense of empowerment to take risks, sometimes extreme, which the individual would not otherwise take.
  2. Acceptance of a collective rationalization. The individual ignores the red flags and warnings and refuse to reassess their biases, prejudices and assumptions regarding reality.
  3. Belief in the inherent morality of the group. The individual and members of the group are convinced of the righteousness of their beliefs and become indifferent to the ethical or moral effects and consequences of the group’s decisions and actions.
  4. Establishment and adoption of stereotypes of out-groups. Stereotypes are a facile way of dealing with the “others” and do not require thinking or decision-making. De rigueur negative presumptions and characterizations of the “enemy” render rational and effective responses to conflict unnecessary. Cookie-cutter responses are the result.
  5. The imposition of direct pressure on dissenters. Any deviation from the presumptions and dictates of the group results in sanctions. Individuals, group members are discouraged from expressing alternative views, or representing positions conflicting any of the group’s views.
  6. Requirement of self-censorship. The individual and members of the group are required to ensure that any questions, doubts and deviations from the group’s “consensus,” program, or agenda are not expressed. The individual must “watch his/her mouth” or be sanctioned.
  7. The illusion of unanimity. The views and judgments, decisions and actions of the “group” or of the group’s statutory and declared leader(s) and majority are assumed to be unanimous, justified and reliable.
  8. The presence of self-appointed ‘mindguards’. Certain members isolate and “protect” the group and its leader(s) from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions. These are the “thought police” who ensure that any information that can potentially threaten the group or its leaders is filtered out and neutralized.

In other words, the phenomenon of groupthink seems to have grown out of and fits perfectly into the framework of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “Nineteen-Eighty-Four,” with its implications of superpower invulnerability, collective processing of curated data and information, a sense of moral superiority of the group’s decisions and actions, the facile handling of non-members by the application of stereotypes, direct suppression and sanctioning of any opposing thought or expression — the individual “watches his mouth” to avoid attracting attention to himself and possible sanctioning —, all communications and indicators seem to indicate that “everyone is on the same page” and “stands united.”  Finally, the self-appointed “mindguards,” the Orwellian “thought police,” ensure that everyone toes the mark, knows his place, and follows the “party line.”

The Thought Police or Mindguards ensure that you don’t think out of the box.

As I mentioned above, groupthink is easily observed in our schools, churches, public servants, social groups, the workplace, etc.

Here’s an example that comes from my college days when I worked as an encyclopedia salesperson. We were trained to ask potential purchasers questions that they could not disagree with, such as, for example: “You do care about your children’s education, don’t you?” or “You want your children to have the best available information for school, don’t you?” Once they answered in the affirmative, they were cooked. It was sort of like asking a veteran the question, “You do love your country, don’t you?” Or a clergyperson asking a dissenter, “You do believe in God, don’t you?” Ask those sorts of questions and you get a commitment to groupthink; the rest follows once the individual is on the slippery slope to group membership, willingly or not.

It’s certainly easy enough to self-test yourself by asking yourself if any of the above symptoms could possibly apply to you…but be aware of the sneaky symptom of “self-censorship” because you might actually be unaware that you are self-censoring; you may actually believe that what you say you believe is in fact what you believe. (Please go back and reread that last part. It’s important and you didn’t understand it!)

Everyone connected to the same “brain”, the core-group’s!

Here’s a real example: I was at my fitness center and struck up a conversation with a guy who was working on a neighboring piece of equipment. The conversation started out on muscle groups and doping, use of anabolic steroids, doping scandals, and how natural fitness was desirable over and against taking performance enhancers. The conversation drifted to the inquiry, “What do you do?” The guy was intelligent, apparently well-read in the subject of performance enhancers in athletes, and was no dummy. He responded by telling me he was a “personal income tax auditor” for the state of New York. What followed was a textbook example of groupthink. He commenced by telling me how interesting his job was because he was making sure everyone stayed honest. Everyone should pay taxes. Not everyone was honest, some people were honest but ignorant. The tax department and auditors were there to protect the public. He was happy doing what he was doing, and he liked his work. He was protecting honest citizens from the crooks and the parasites. New York state took care of its people unlike those states with no personal income tax, states that provided sanctuary to people who want to keep their fortunes but not share by paying personal income taxes. Basically, you can’t argue with this guy because what he is saying is superficially true, ethical and moral. But, and there’s the clincher, his thinking from one subject to the other was schizoid! He was very individualized, independent, even liberal when discussing the social and personal impact of performance enhancers on non-professional vs. professional athletes, and the use of performance enhancers in the guy-next-door who works out to stay healthy or attractive. His lock-step “tax department” jargon and speech, almost soapbox preaching, was groupspeak, the product of groupthink. Can you identify the symptoms?

Here are two more examples I found on a professional networking site, LinkedIn, which is slowly morphing into a Facebook-type social media space. Whereas LinkedIn was originally intended to be a forum facilitating networking among professionals, the parasites slowly infiltrated and started their social justice preaching and religious proselytizing.

One characteristic of social justice and religion is that both are fertile ground for a bumper crop of groupthinkers. Example 1: Social Justice. This example is remarkable because it is so homogeneous in the majority responses and because of the sheer number of responses: 5,013 Likes, 321 comments! Synopsis: A young woman with Down’s syndrome appears in what is obviously a staged video, in which she receives a call from a fast-food chain, Chik-Fil-A, in which she is offered a job paying $11.50/h. It is her first real job and she is elated at the offer and accepts.

The groupthink: Actual comments: “Awesome!” “Wonderful!””Isn’t Chik-Fil-A a great company!””The story brought tears to my eyes!” “It made my day! We need more stories like this!” But many of the comments were condescending: They mentioned “learning disability” and how remarkable it was that this young woman had “won,” how employment “is a right,” and other misguided slogans associated with what we know as PC but was described by Janis as groupthink. The censorship/sanction/thought police action: A commenter posted some reasonable, dissenting, conflicting thoughts about the reality of the situation in terms of stereotyping highly functional Down’s syndrome  persons as having “learning disabilities,” a bucket term that stereotyped them unfairly. That she was hired on her merits and if she didn’t have what Chick-Fil-A needed and wanted, she would not have gotten the call. That Down’s syndrome persons are highly desirable in service jobs with customer contact because of their personality characteristics, as was pioneered by McDonald’s some time ago, and that these corporations are exploiting vulnerable persons with Down’s syndrome because they are perfect for these low-paying jobs, and it creates a very positive social image for the corporation, so-called “organizational health.” (See the McKinsey report below.)

Needless to say, the “mindguards” were quick to respond, and butchered the commentor for being “a Grinch,” for not “caring” and for his “dripping sarcasm.” Not a single comment out of more than 300 comments and replies accepted the truth of what the commenter wrote; almost all condemned him for not sharing the majority’s groupthink. (Click here to read the actual comments made by the commenter and some of the replies.)[4]

The value of hiring persons with Down syndrome is not lost on the corporations![5]

The economic benefits of hiring persons with intellectual challenges is not lost on the corporations, as is demonstrated by the McKinsey report[6], but we’re not supposed to talk about the dark side of Julia’s hiring because the group think won’t allow anyone to pop their bubble of denial or distract them from their happy, be nice, love fest by suggesting reality. That’s groupthink.

One of the most recent dum-dee-dull-dull-DUH! comments came from one Richard Martire (Southern Star Events) who touts himself as “Improving Customer Relations & Boosting Revenue through Transparent Communication. Mr Martire writes: “Pardon my confusion, but how does a video showing a woman with disability getting a job offer lead to “didactic methods of devil’s advocate” or groupthink? Are you implying that people shouldn’t echo their support to this video, or are you just pushing your article?” Apparently Mr Martire has no idea of what devil’s advocacy or dialectic inquiry, or the elenchic method might be. The concepts are just as transparent to him as his “transparent communication” is to me. Transparent is a nice word but wouldn’t it be clearer if Mr Martire read my comments and this article before  making a fool of himself with his driveling his sarcasm? Why “transparent communication” when we can have “clear communication.” Big words don’t help the communication, Dicky.

Here’s another from the same site, LinkedIn. This time it was a religious fanatic known popularly as a “Jesus-freak,” someone who posts an inflammatory statement about how Jesus is the truth and everything else is a lie. First of all, such posts are more Facebook quality and have nothing to do with professional networking, so it shouldn’t have been on LinkedIn in the first place. So the original post by one David Wood, who describes himself as the “Executive Producer Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Resurrection of Jesus Christ LLC, School Of Hard Knocks,” and his project as:

“The Resurrection Project unites the Body of Christ, to launch a global love movement, a feature length movie, and a video game, and tell the story of Jesus’ Christ resurrection and the 40 days that followed. “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ” is the greatest love story ever told.” www.theresurrectionofjesuschrist.com [Author’s note: My italics; I have not undertaken any editing of Mr. Wood’s English.]

His post was simply:

That was it. My first reaction was that Islam never claimed that Muhammad was God. Nor does Buddhism teach that Buddha was a god. The name applied to God in Arabic, and hence in Islam is Allah, which is merely an equivalent of the English, God, so that point is really moot. And the fact that Wood claims that his Jesus is the “only one God” reveals a bit of tunnel vision, even religious and theological ignorance. This is groupthink at one of its worst moments!

My point is this: Approach that post as I did, with the above reasoning, and you will obtain a clear lesson in groupthink.  The post received 51 Likes and 15 Comments but was seen be hundreds, perhaps thousands who didn’t want to “offend” by responding. (Or perhaps because religion is not as popular as Down’s syndrome? Or because the message was so bizarre? Who can say for sure?)

Those three examples should suffice to convince even the hardcore groupthinkers of their affliction.

The kinds of groups that are particularly at risk for the groupthink phenomenon are, of course, groups that we could characterize as cliques, whether consisting of 3 or 3000 persons. Cliques don’t need to be small and a whole company or department may become a clique. The group or clique should be cohesive for groupthink to develop; cohesive factors may include ethnicity, similar interest, and physical appearance. Members of a clique often isolate themselves as a group and tend to view the clique as superior to anyone outside the clique.

Cliques can form in any age group but they are most associated with groups whose members have gotten stuck in an adolescent or late childhood developmental stage, the stage when individuals normally form and become members of such groups. Accordingly, groupthink is characteristic of individuals who may have gotten stuck in a pre-adult developmental stage.

Facebook is a well known huge groupthink-tank in which groupthink can be diagnosed at various levels in the interactions from the very top, where the Facebook Standards and the thought police are active censoring deviant thinkers, that is, anyone who may not agree with Facebook or its policies, to the smaller yet equally repulsive “groups,” which may be “open,” “closed” or “secret”. The problem and real danger associated with Facebook and other social media that functions by exploiting the groupthink phenomenon is the sheer numbers of people who can be and actually are affected by the clique(s).

Another problem is what I would call the “Room 101” factor[7]:  the fact that in terms of groupthink, when Facebook decides to deactivate an account for one reason or another, whether for a period of time certain (days, weeks, etc.) or permanently, this “punishment” practice has a psychospiritual effect on the affected individual, similar to being shunned or banned froma group or a clique. It is a powerful motivator to keep people under their thumb, a control strategy, that works extremely well once Facebook has hooked a person, and the person is sufficiently invested in Facebook in terms of time spent and digital friends collected, such that the now addicted subscriber will feel the psychosocial pain of being “deactivated.,” in a sense placed in isolation by Facebook without the benefit of due process. Yes, it’s the beginning of the end of open communication, autonomy, and due process. Similar, in fact, to “vaporizing” a dissenter in Orwell’s “1984” where the dissenter is simply made to disappear, as if he never existed. [8]


The same “vaporizing” occurs when someone “unfriends” or “blocks” another subscriber who may have violated the group-leader’s or the group’s groupthink policies. Have you been Facebook vaporized recently? You wouldn’t know if you had been because Facebook keeps it a secret; only the vaporizer and Facebook knows it. Same applies when someone has a grudge against you on Facebook: they simply report you for such-and-such, and you find yourself deactivated. Groupthink à la Facebook!

The groupthink phenomenon can be avoided but only if the clique or the group is willing to acknowledge the phenomenon, to recognize it in their group, and sees the benefits of avoiding the phenomenon.

Fred Lunenburg (2012) proposes a number of possible ways to avoid groupthink in a group, including[9]:

  • Encouraging group members to state and air objections, doubts, and questions,
  • Promoting impartiality rather than stating preferences and expectations of the group at the outset,
  • The group leaders should periodically discuss the group’s policies and practices and report their transactions back to the group, inviting feedback,
  • Members should be invited to challenge the views of core members (and leaders),
  • At least one member should play the role of devil’s advocate, expressing objections or critiquing group policies and practices, and beliefs,
  • Where there is devil’s advocacy, members should spend time and effort evaluating the warning signals of developing groupthink inherent in adverse responses,
  • Alternative scenarios should be constructed by group leaders in evaluating any rivaling intentions,
  • In the case of a member who appears to consistently rival the group’s polices or practices (Red flag! Think groupthink!), the member should be asked to express as vividly as he can all his residual doubts,
  • Group leaders or core members should present the entire issue to the group to elicit feedback and insights before making any definitive choices or decisions.

Group coherence and decision making has clear benefits over individual decision making. This is especially true when a decision must be made under conditions of uncertainty.[10] Some of the benefits described by Bonito (2011) include[11]:

  • Improved decision quality
  • Higher level of creativity and creative thinking
  • Improved decision acceptance and organizational learning
  • Increased decision understanding
  • Enhanced effectiveness in establishing objectives, identifying alternatives
  • Greater decision accuracy and avoidance of errors and glitches

Admittedly, these benefits may be less related to the actual outcomes of decisions than they are to group morale and satisfaction; we can agree that groups should and probably do perform better when

  • Group members present a variety of relevant skills that differ sufficiently but do not create constraints or conflicts;
  • There is a division of labor or effort, input;
  • Individual inputs can be “averaged” in such a way as to arrive at a group “position.”

By now you might be asking yourself the question: “That having been said, and while applicable to business decisions or to Facebook and other moderated social media, how does that apply to spiritual care or to chaplaincy practice?” Well, in order to answer that question, I have to ask you to step out of the spiritual care or chaplaincy box, and think about the environment in which we practice.

Most of us will find ourselves practicing as psychospiritual care providers or thanatologists in a hospital, palliative care, hospice, or skilled nursing facility. Some of us will practice in any or all of those environments plus provide services to the deathcare sector. The most complex environment, of course, would be the modern hospital or trauma center. The most intimate would be the deathcare sector (funeral home). Each of these environments is at high risk of the groupthink phenomenon.

We frequently say that “emotions are contagious,” but we don’t frequently admit that not only emotions but the environment created by the attitudes and thinking of leaders and core members in a group are just as contagious in the form of groupthink.

Those of us with hospital experience will admit that each floor or service has its own culture, and if we are to work effectively with the staff and efficaciously serve the patients on that floor or service, we have to be aware of the groupthink phenomenon as it most certainly exists on that floor. Take for example, the service where the nursing leadership is more technically oriented than spiritually, and their attitude towards the “necessary evil” of chaplain intervention must be tolerated rather than facilitated. That attitude extends to all the staff on that service and the symptoms of groupthink are explicit. How do we deal with that situation armed with the awareness of the probable existence of groupthink?

Organizations like hospice are hotbeds for the groupthink phenomenon because they are founded on very clear principles of operation and program. The objectives and goals of hospice are clearly defined and the team is guided by specific tasks and protocols. The agenda is clearly defined. You simply don’t dissent or rock the hospice boat. Groupthink.

Institutional Agendas Define the Group.

Palliative care situations are probably somewhere in between the hospital/trauma center and the hospice situation. Depending on how tightly management controls operations, groupthink may be more or less obvious, but clearly the palliative care environment can be fertile ground for groupthink.

Depending on whether the funeral home is a traditional “family” operation or if it is a member of a deathcare service “group” or is a multinational corporation providing a range of deathcare products and services, groupthink may range from “tradition” to “corporate policy.”

As “tradition” the groupthink may have developed as a response to the local culture, whether it be socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, etc. In this case, it is a response to the exigencies of doing business with that demographic mix, and is almost a requirement for survival. Is this “positive” groupthink? Perhaps, but it goes without saying that unless the establishment leaves the door open to open discussion, sharing of insights, correct interpretations of warning signs and red flags, it can quickly transmute into “negative” groupthink.

As the organization leaves the traditional, local, “family” orientation or organization and moves towards the group or the corporate systems, groupthink becomes more of a high risk than a positive stabilizing factor. This is where the culture of the group or corporation overshadows the individuals that move it as well as those who consume its products and services. Rather than being an evolving, “living” organism, it is a monolith.

A number of large multinational corporations like IBM, 3M, Anheuser-Busch have recognized the threat posed by groupthink and have implemented and developed processes to prevent or at least to mitigate its deleterious and prejudicial effects within the components of the organization and on the organization as a whole. Lunenburg (2012) discusses some of the ways they have approached prevention of groupthink by way of methods like devil’s advocacy and dialectical inquiry. McDougel and Baum (1997) discuss the application of devil’s advocacy to stimulate discussion and avoid groupthink in focus groups.[12] McAvoy et al. discuss how devil’s advocacy and the principles of sensemaking can be used in a method they call the “agitation workshop” as a method of challenging the false consensus created by the groupthink phenomenon.[13]

Do frequent meetings and evaluations work to avoid groupthink? More likely than not, they may actually promote groupthink when leadership reiterate at each meeting the same expectations at the outset, setting the stage for a more limited and controlled conversation that does not allow for alternative discussion. But such meetings and evaluations and be highly productive if, at the outset, the leaders or facilitators are aware of the symptoms of groupthink and some of the methods to directly avoid it, as well as the quasi-paedagogical methods of enhancing creative thinking, even improving performance by institutionalizing dissent!

We, as psychospiritual care providers, as chaplains, have an inherent authority in most organizations to speak freely and openly about sensitive subjects without the stigma that might apply to a colleague working in a different field. People tend to listen to us and give credibility to what we have to say; consequently, we can and should play an important and proactive role in making the organizations and leaders with whom we work aware of the groupthink phenomenon, its dangers and risks, and ways of avoiding the phenomenon in our environments. Once people are made aware of the phenomenon and ways to identify it and prevent it, we are on the path to reclaiming the efficacy and authenticity we once enjoyed but lost in the wake of the development of corporate control of our institutions and the chilling of interpersonal relations by online social media.

Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney
January 2018


Notes

[1] Irving Janis originally coined the term groupthink in 1972. (Janis, Irving L.  (1972).  Victims of Groupthink.  New York: Houghton Mifflin.)

[2] Janis, I. L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascos (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin.

[3] For a more comprehensive discussion of the eight symptoms please refer to Janis’ Groupthink, Psychological Studies, above. A brief and very helpful overview of groupthink is provided in What is Groupthink? (http://www.psysr.org/about/pubs_resources/groupthink%20overview.htm, last accessed on January 8, 2018, 2018).

[4] The “Julia got a job!” obviously scripted video is synopsized on YouTube in the following words: “A heartwarming video shows the moment a teenage girl with Down syndrome receives her first job offer. A girl named Julia gets a phone call from a Chick-fil-A employee in Rancho Murieta, California. ‘I was just calling to offer you a position here,’ the woman says on speaker phone. ‘Your pay rate would be 11.50 per hour, would you like to accept?’ ‘I do,’ Julia says, her face overcome with emotion. As the woman tells her that she will start in December, Julia breaks down in tears of happiness. ‘Oh my gosh,’ she can be heard saying as she thanks the woman profusely. Julia’s family then encircles her and gives her a massive hug while chanting ‘Chick-Fil-A’. “ (AutoNews- Source:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5101331/Teen-girl-syndrome-cries-s-given-job.html?ITO=1490&ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490)

[5] According to McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm that serves private, public and social sector institutions, in a report entitled, “The value that employees with Down syndrome can add to organizations,” we read “[H]owever, some companies have chosen to tackle the far more complex challenge of hiring people with intellectual disabilities. Those that have done so have found that these people can add value to organizational health (an organization’s ability to align, execute, and renew itself faster than competitors so that it can sustain exceptional performance over time). Employees with Down syndrome are a particularly interesting topic of research, as they have a number of characteristics that both increase the challenges associated with inclusion and bring added benefits.” [my italics] (McKinsey & Company (2014) “The value that employees with Down Syndrome can add to organizations” (Vicente Assis, Marcus Frank, Guilherme Bcheche, and Bruno Kuboiama), last accessed on January 9, 2018.)

[6] Ibid.

[7] I’m referring to the notorious Room 101 described in Orwell’s novel “Nineteen-Eighty-Four,” the room in the Ministry of Truth (MiniTru in Newspeak), where dissenters were taken for “processing,” most never to be heard from again. “You asked me once,” said O’Brien, “what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.”  (“1984” Part 3, Ch. 5)  In “1984” the Inner Party persecutes individualism and independent thinking known as “thoughtcrimes” and is enforced by the “Thought Police.” The Ministry of Love (Miniluv), the ministry in charge of torturing dissidents.  The protagonist Smith is subjected to many forms of torture and is forced into the horror chamber known only as Room 101.

[8] Mind Control – George Orwell BBC 101 Documentary last accessed on January 9, 2018.

[9] Lunenburg, F. (2012).” Devil’s Advocacy and Dialectical Inquiry: Antidote to Groupthink”. International Journal of

Scholarly and Academic Intellectual Diversity, Vol 14, No. 1, pp 1-9.

[10] Nikolaidis (2012) defines uncertainty as “the condition under which an individual [or group] does not have the necessary information to assign probabilities to the outcomes of alternative solutions. (Nikolaidis, E. (2012).  Design decisions under uncertainty with limited information. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.)

[11] Bonito, J. (2011). Interaction and influence in small group decision making. New York, NY: Routledge.

[12] McDougal, C., F. Baum, (1997) “The Devil’s Advocate: A Strategy to Avoid Groupthink and Stimulate Discussion in Focus Groups,” Qualitative Health Research, Volume 7, Number 4, pp 532-541.

[13] John McAvoy, Tadhg Nagle and David Sammon, (2013) “A novel approach to challenging consensus in evaluations: The Agitation Workshop,” The Electronic Journal Information Systems Evaluation, Volume 16 Issue 1,  pp 45-55.

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Internet Pundits and Their Mixed Messages Cause Psychospiritual Stress

The Internet is literally crawling with people who have reinvented themselves from pitiful loners to supreme gurus of life, death and everything in and around those two great mysteries. On the one hand you have to admire them for their capacity to make real their fantasies and virtual lifestyles but on the other hand you have to take two steps back to get the whole pitiful picture. These maladjusted spirits are out there posing as leaders and innovators — fabricators would be a more accurate description — and many readers are so naïve as to accept the rubbish they publish as Gospel truth.

It's not about revenues or stats, it's about bereavement and grief!

It’s not about revenues or stats, it’s about bereavement and grief!


Their readers are unable to separate truth from fiction, originality from plagiarism, or fact from flatulence.

What’s worse, those readers actually fuel the smoldering information-dump fire these pseudo-pundits have ignited, actually giving them unearned credibility. Most of this is due to their attractive web presences with sophisticated websites all shiny and colorful but even more is due to the inability of readers to separate truth from fiction, originality from plagiarism, and fact from flatulence.

We have such entities as the Funeral Commander (Death with a military macho twist complete with camouflage fatigues and cigar! A real comedy flair.), Death and the Maiden (bringing sexism, feminism to death; we doubt that the author is anything close to a “maiden”), Natural Death Center (provides funeral advice from of all places the UK!), Funeralwise (a fairly worthwhile site, general information), Funeral Insider (touts itself as “the nation’s No. 1 newsletter for funeral service professionals”), Final Passages (“the first organization in the United States with the mission to inform and educate the public about their rights to care for their own dead.” How to bury your own dead? as if bereavement weren’t confusing enough), Everplans (a complete archive of everything your loved ones will need should something happen to you, that is, if you should die), and the list could go on ad nauseum. While some of these entities are there just to indoctrinate and to infect the reader with misinformation or information that is self-serving or simply to titillate the reading public’s fascination with the great denial, death, others do, in a good moment, provide some reliable information. But those moments are few and far between. You have to have some basis for assessing the information as reliable; that’s the hitch. It’s not reliable just because it’s on a colorful Internet website or blog.

The Gordian Knot of Grief

The Gordian Knot of Grief

Then there are the (psycho)spiritual guides, the ones who know all you need to know and more about the mystery of death and dying. They’ve discovered the Rosetta stone for unraveling the Gordian knot of the great crossing over. What most of these people are doing is broadcasting their own doubts, fears, speculations in the vain hope of having them validated by a following, which is what happens. So you have small communities forming around these very human and very vulnerable seekers. Very frequently I have to ask myself when surveying these sites, “Have they ever reached in to themselves? Is the problem that they have always been looking outside of themselves for the answers and, not finding them in their immediate space, now they are looking in cyberspace. How sad that they are reaching out ever farther from the real answer within themselves!

One of the most visible, not necessarily the biggest nor the most widely read violators of Internet trust is ConnectingDirectors, an online publication that touts itself as being God’s unique gift to the the funeral industry, and the one source for all the information a funeral director needs in order to crush the competition. Well, it’s like the story of the coconut-eating rats:

coconut-eating-rats

“Once upon a time there was an island on which the islanders depended for their very existence their coconuts. Then, somewhere out at sea, a ship was wrecked and its wreckage floated onto the island’s shores with a very special manifest of passengers: rats. Well the rats loved the island and loved its coconuts even more, and soon their population grew and grew and grew, until it threatened the very survival of the islanders. One very wise elder came forward with an idea: Let’s capture a number of these creatures, place them in a pit with some coconuts, when they devour the coconuts and become hungry again, they’ll start devouring each other. And so it happened. Once the rats had consumed the coconuts in the pit, they started devouring each other. Once the captive rats were released on the island, the islanders no longer had a problem with coconut-eating rats…because now they had rat-eating rats. The rat population soon disappeared once the last rat-eating rat starved to death for lack of rats.”

There’s little or no originality to these myriad sites sharing their instabilities and vulnerability cloaked in illusory intelligence; they are beta-testing their own speculations or are literally re-publishing information, frequently not vetted, from other sources, acting like a sort of unauthorized information clearing house with no authentic credentials.

oracleTrue sages never give a clear answer. The great Oracles always left the seeker wondering what the answer meant. Any parable worth the telling never provided true peace of mind. What they all do was make the recipient of the message think. Think!
Whether the sage’s metaphors were vague or the Oracle’s message cryptic or the parable disruptive of one’s world view, the one thing they all do is make one think, reflect, contemplate. You see, the problem today is that we no longer know how to think, to reflect, to contemplate. We have lost touch with the depth and all of its healing power and its risks, its paradox of opportunity and risk.

Thogmartin is using a shotgun technique

So, then, taking the Internet entrepreneur ConnectingDirectors as an example of what confronts us, what amounts to outright attempts to disabuse us of our natural answer-finding capabilities, one operator in the cyberuniverse of virtual consultants, let’s take a closer look at what ConnectingDirectors is actually providing. Sometimes, when reading CD, we get the impression Thogmartin is using a shotgun technique to hit everything on the target: out of the one side of his mouth he’s touting how to pay “thousands less for a funeral” while out of the other side of his mouth he’s telling funeral service professionals how to sell top-of-the-line products and maximize their revenues. While addressing the interests of the small to medium funeral home or funeral home group, he’s glorifying the factory-funeral providers and all their clever machinations to gobble up the small to medium funeral home operators to provide “personalized” cookie-cutter funeral products! We have to ask which team Thogmartin is playing on because his messages are very, very mixed.

What Mr Thogmartin and the funeral corporations seem to have missed is that it’s not about merchandising, or selling services, or about statistics or revenues; it’s about a respected and honorable profession compassionately caring for human beings in death and their survivors in coping with death. That’s why it’s called deathCARE. It’s about providing competent care to human beings faced with loss and existential crisis, human beings who desperately need companioning and real warmth, support, and a guide for the arduous trek towards healing and transformation. Something ConnectingDirectors, the funeral corporations and social media do not and cannot provide; they, in fact, have the potential to do more damage than good.

Quiz: What does this man need? Compassion or a cheap funeral?

Quiz: What does this man need? Compassion or a cheap funeral?

First of all, CD is the invention of one Ryan Thogmartin, who describes his two cyberprogeny, Connecting Directors and Disrupt Media, both LLCs, as “the premier progressive online publication for funeral professionals…is a thriving global publication with a reader base of over 15,000 of the most elite and forward-thinking professionals in the industry,” fairly read that’s a pretty hyperbolic claim and one Mr Thogmartin might have trouble substantiating, if called upon to do so. And there’s Thogmartin’s social media marketing solutions firm, Disrupt MG, which according to Mr T., “focuses on proficiently assisting small businesses in creating engaging social media marketing strategies,” but according to what standards of performance is our question. What Thogmartin is doing, actually, is inventing an online persona to sell his skills as a virtual person and his attempt to infect a vulnerable minority of funeral service professionals with the suicidal idea that social media is the only way to survive. What Thogmartin seems to have lost is his humanity and his sensitivity to the real essential element of funeralization: compassion and ritual.

Ever feel like you've been baited, trapped and ... ?

Ever feel like you’ve been
baited, trapped and … ?

What Thogmartin is in effect preaching — for his own interests, ego and profit — is that funeral professionals should (1) become rat-eating rats, and (2) distance themselves even further from the real needs of the bereaved. It’s a perversion offered by the factory funeral industries, a $15 billion industry like Service Corporation International a huge corporation providing burial and cremation services, which reported more than $533 million in revenues in one quarter alone! Then there’s the Dignity funeral network of more than 2000 funeral homes, or even the factory-funeral provider Newcomer Funeral Homes where you can get the latest in cookie-cutter, nickle-and-dime-me funerals. Those are just a couple of examples.

For an interesting survey of the 10 corporations that control the funeral service sector, see the Wall Street Journal article, “The Ten Companies That Control The Death Industry”  and think to yourself: How much is it worth to you to sell your peace of mind, your humanity to save a couple of dollars, the cost of a flat-screen TV that will be obsolete as soon as you cart it out of the store. Your peace of mind, your humanity has to last you a lifetime; so does your guilt if you don’t do things right the first time, because you can’t redo the funeral or fix the unfuneral. Question: Are you going to become, like the funeral service industry is trending, one of the rat-eating rats?

In 2014, Forbes published an article “Death Of The Death Care Industry And Eternal Life Online.” It’s another eye-opener if you have a moment to read it.  While the article is a bit dated in its information, and poorly written — but if you’ve visited any of the sites above, you’ll find poor writing the new standard —, and although the information in the Forbes article is not 100% reliable — we hope that the author’s references to Jessica Mitford’s American Way of Death are tongue in cheek—, it will provide you, the reader, with some different perspectives to consider. After all, you do need an awareness base in order to evaluate what you find.

technology-has-exceeded-humanity

Few of our readers are old enough to remember when people were not walking around talking to themselves, or if you do remember you also remember that people doing that usually ended up in a padded cell. Or old enough to remember when people actually conversed over a meal rather than fondling something on their laps, or if you do remember when someone was fondling something on their laps during a meal, they got a slap across the back of the head. Or old enough to remember when we read out of a thick object filled with word-filled pieces of paper that you had to use your fingers to turn, some can remember the fragrance of the paper and the ink, some will remember how the object made your hands and sometimes your heart warm, it was heavy and you knew you had something substantial in your hand; it was called a book. Now you hold a piece of back-lighted or LED illuminated plastic in your hand and can use a head or eye movement to change screens. How human do you feel now? You may feel fascinated, asking yourself, “How does it know that?” But deep inside you must feel threatened? Just like the mouse who’s fascinated by the tasty morsel in the trap, and can’t help itself, until SNAP! Can’t undo that bad decision! It’s no wonder that people are frantically searching for meaning but they’re searching in all the wrong places.

Thogmartin and Co-conspirators at work.

The Great Search for Meaning:
Thogmartin (center, of course)  and his Minions.

Their purpose is apparently to advance dehumanization in the most human of professions …

We’re not picking on Ryan Thogmartin and his ilk. Thogmartin and his creations are just a product of a culture of control, a symptom of an epidemic cultural illness, and the people that follow him are like lemmings; they follow into oblivion. The Thogmartins of the world are narcissistic opportunists who need an audience with as little substance and humanity as the Internet medium they use to spread their messages; their purpose is apparently to advance dehumanization in the most human of professions, not the physician’s realm of healthcare — that’s already irretrievably gone down the tubes —, but the funeral director and competent deathcare. The funeral, the ritual, the human element of compassion and companioning that we get only through community, is the only way we can navigate the stormy dips and swells of the work of grief, and come out of it psychologically and spiritually healed. We mustn’t lose sight of that truth or we’re doomed to become what we apparently are so awed by and so love, those dehumanized, soulless, virtual social media creatures called avatars. Remember, an avatar has no mind or spirit of its own; it’s an icon controlled by something outside of itself, a controller.

Take back your humanity!

Recover Your Humanity! The Editor

Recover Your Humanity!
The Editor