Enantiodromia is a concept developed by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and the word is derived from the Greek words ‘enantios,’ meaning ‘opposite,’ and ‘dromos,’ meaning ‘running.’ Jung’s theory of enantiodromia refers to the tendency of things to change into their opposites over time. Jung believed that the unconscious mind seeks balance and equilibrium. When an attitude, behaviour, or aspect of the psyche becomes too dominant, it triggers a natural process of compensation, leading to the emergence of its opposite.
For example, if a person strongly identifies with certain conscious attitudes or values, the unconscious may generate opposing elements to restore balance. This process is seen as a natural mechanism for psychological growth and self-regulation. Jung also applied the concept to the collective level, suggesting that societal trends and cultural movements could exhibit enantiodromia, which involves the integration of opposing elements within the psyche to achieve a more balanced and harmonious state. In essence, it reflects the cyclical nature of psychological development, where extremes give rise to their opposites in an ongoing process of dynamic equilibrium.
So what has all this to do with societal change? Well, the concept of enantiodromia can, I believe, be applied to understanding societal dynamics and cultural trends, including the idea that extreme attitudes or behaviours may lead to their opposites over time, might be a helpful way of explaining a society that has become ‘unthinking.’ Back in the day, we could disagree and see it as a positive thing, actually having to defend our views, be challenged on them actually builds psychological ‘muscle tone,’ it’s good for us. To not hear the opposite view actually harms our psychological development according to Jung, so what happens when folks not only don‘t want to hear opposing views but actually decry them as dangerous, the view that best not to disagree and indeed those who disagree with our world view are not only wrong, but bad people; interesting isn’t it?
If we experience a trend in society where certain values, ideologies, or modes of thinking become dominant to the point of exclusion or rigidity, enantiodromia could suggest that a natural compensatory process may occur. This compensatory process might manifest as a movement or emergence of opposing ideas or attitudes that seek to restore balance.
For example, if a society becomes excessively conformist or dogmatic in its thinking, there might be a natural tendency for individuals or groups to rebel against this conformity, leading to the emergence of more unconventional or nonconformist perspectives. This process could be seen as a kind of psychological or cultural pendulum swing. But what if society becomes ‘unthinking,’ accepting of the dominant view, this especially so if individuals don’t actually believe the pervasive worldview but go along with it anyway, afraid to swing the pendulum for fear of being an outcast and isolated or ‘cancelled.’
Then we get, as we saw in George Orwell’s 1948 novel ‘1984,’ (he just changed two of the numbers around) ‘doublethink,’ later defined by psychologist Irving Janis as ‘groupthink.’ Our friends at the decision lab described this phenomenon well, scarily so I would say: “Imagine you’re part of a team managing the launch of a new space shuttle. You work on the project for years and bond with your team, heavily publicising the projected launch. When engineers are brought to examine the shuttle only a few months before the planned take-off date, they point out some faulty parts. Hoping to avoid any negative press, your team decides to push ahead with the launch - after all, you know best and if everyone in the group agrees, then it must be the correct decision. This is exactly what happened in the 1986 NASA Challenger explosion, a famous example of groupthink.”
‘Groupthink’ negates critical thinking, sure, consensus is reached, harmony maintained, but at what cost? Where, Jung would I guess ask, in his theory of enantiodromia, the counter arguments, the rigour, the shattering of poorly held beliefs or conforming for the sake of not causing offence or worse still becoming a non-person? As Albert Einstein, as ever, succinctly put it: “When we all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
Groupthink, as defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is “a mode of thinking in which individual members of small cohesive groups tend to accept a viewpoint or conclusion that represents a perceived group consensus, whether or not the group members believe it to be valid, correct, or optimal. Groupthink reduces the efficiency of collective problem solving within such groups.”
Irving Janis’ excellent work, ‘Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascos,’ focused on the psychological mechanism behind foreign policy decisions such as the Pearl Harbour bombing, the Vietnam War, and the Bay of Pigs invasion. Janis tried to interpret why groups comprised of highly intelligent individuals often made bad decisions, his answer, ‘Groupthink,’ indeed this theory was used to help explain the interpretation of intelligence information regarding weapons of mass destruction leading to the Iraq War.
Decision-making is adversely affected by ‘groupthink’ in that it fails to consider possible alternatives and focuses on a narrow number of goals, ignores the risks involved in a particular decision. It also fails to seek and reflect on alternative information and is biased in its consideration of all the other information and counterarguments that are available. And, once rejected, any alternatives that did get considered are quickly forgotten, and there are no contingency plans in place in case the preferred solution fails, that could never be considered. I see this happening in organisations and in life, and observing and experiencing ‘groupthink’ just makes me wonder what will come out the other side, what will it do to teams, individuals, society, what will be the consequences? I asked ChatGPT to argue against me and it was harmonious, of course, not wanting to disagree so it just cautioned me: “While the concept of enantiodromia can offer an interesting perspective on societal change, it should be considered as part of a broader understanding of cultural dynamics.” So was that ‘agree’ or ‘disagree?’