Groupthink in the Cave: A New Perspective on The Matrix
Stephen F. Austin State University
Nacogdoches TX USA
Anne Collins Smith
Stephen F. Austin State University
Nacogdoches TX USA
While analyses of the movie The Matrix abound, the authors propose a new perspective, particularly useful in the current polarized political milieu in the US. The Matrix provides an excellent example of the phenomenon known as “groupthink,” and a pedagogically helpful way to address it. It is especially significant that the hero of the movie, with whom students identify, has to struggle to overcome groupthink within himself.
Keywords: The Matrix, The Wachowskis, groupthink, Plato, Manuel Velasquez, Irving Janis
Since its release, an enormous amount of philosophical analysis has been written about the movie, The Matrix, and its two sequels. Indeed, the initial release of books devoted to examining the connections between various philosophical, issues and The Matrix has, in turn, led to a plethora of books devoted to exploring the philosophical issues found in various other works of popular culture as well as those found in other aspects of the culture at large. The creators of the Matrix films, the Wachowskis, draw on a number of philosophical, religious, and literary themes and then place them within a rousing science fiction action-adventure story. The authors use The Matrix in both introductory and upper-level courses to help introduce, motivate, and clarify a number of important philosophical topics. While some of the uses we make of this film are shared by many philosophy professors throughout the world, one of the topics embedded in The Matrix has not yet been well publicized, and we consider it a valuable one to share.
Part of the enjoyment and utility of The Matrix stems from its nature as a multilayered palimpsest. Many possible philosophical interpretations have been suggested and supported by the richness of the text. Indeed, the authors have a colleague who has given a persuasive presentation onThe Matrix as exemplifying the path to enlightenment through the Taizokai mandala of Vajrayana Buddhism (Miller, 2003).
More common philosophical interpretations of The Matrix use the film to explore theories of epistemology (philosophy of knowledge) and metaphysics (philosophy of being). The film is rife with subtle details that serve to draw out details of such theories. For example, Mouse’s humorous rant about Tasty Wheat is more than mere comic relief; it exemplifies the superiority of the Evil Genius Argument over the Dream Argument in Descartes’s epistemological project in that the former, but not the latter, enables us to doubt even simple objects of sensation (Meditation I.12).
The Matrixhas also been recognized as an excellent fit for Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and supporting details for this interpretation are found in the movie as well. Neo’s initial difficulty seeing the real world after he is freed from the Matrix closely parallels the prisoner’s dazzled vision upon leaving the darkness of the cave. “And when [the former prisoner] came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn’t he be unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true?” asks Socrates (Republic 516A).Similarly, when Neo asks why his eyes hurt so much when he awakens, his mentor, Morpheus, responds, “Because you’ve never used them.” (The Matrix)
Another detail that ties The Matrix to the Allegory of the Cave concerns the difficult responsibilities of those who have been freed. As Plato has Socrates tell the story, once the prisoner has been freed from the Cave, he recognizes his obligation to return and rescue his fellow prisoners. Unfortunately, he also recognizes the risk that the other prisoners will resist being freed to the point of attacking, even killing, those who try to free them. “As for anyone who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn’t they kill him?” asks Socrates (Republic, 517a). The same obligation—and the same danger—are enacted in The Matrix. As Morpheus explains, “You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it” (The Matrix).
A significant benefit of using the Allegory of the Cave as an interpretative framework for The Matrix is that the Cave itself is a well-explored nexus of ideas, and already-existing analyses of the Cave can shed new light on The Matrix. One such analysis that works particularly well is the application of the concept of groupthink. In an exercise in his introductory text Philosophy: A Text with Readings, Manuel Velasquez introduces the notion of groupthink and connects it with the Allegory of the Cave (Velasquez 7).
The notion of groupthink originates in the work of psychologist Irving Janis, and may be characterized as the dysfunctional decision-making process that results when close-knit groups become increasingly disconnected from reality. Janis claims that the desire to get along with other members of such close-knit groups causes members to more actively identify with the group and ultimately to adopt an “us vs. them” mindset that, in turn, causes the group to become disconnected from reality (Velasquez 7).
Velasquez relates the notion of groupthink to the Allegory of the Cave. The struggle the prisoner faces as he leaves the Cave and adjusts to reality is especially difficult because of his former embeddedness within groupthink. “The journey upward is hard because it involves questioning the most basic beliefs that each of us accepts about ourselves and the universe … your philosophical journey sometimes may lead you in directions that society does not support. It may lead you toward views that others around you reject” (Velasquez 6). We can see the pernicious effects of groupthink especially well in the condition of the prisoners who remain in the cave and how negatively they react to the freed prisoner when he returns to the cave and tries to bring them the truth.
As Velasquez explains, Janis develops the concept of groupthink in the context of examining the decision-making processes of various policy-making groups roughly from the time of World War II through the early 1970s. Janis asserts that this dysfunctional decision-making process, which he refers to as groupthink, was the major factor causing these groups to make extraordinarily bad decisions. Among the examples he explores is the decision by the Kennedy administration to aid in an attack on Cuba known as the Bay of Pigs Fiasco, and the Watergate Cover-up by Richard Nixon and his close advisers (Velasquez 7). We need not, however, limit the concept of groupthink to policy-making groups. It is clear that this concept can apply to any sort of group.
Such examples, however, can be difficult to use with students. Some are unfamiliar with twentieth-century history, and the amount of explanation required to describe the situation goes beyond what is reasonably spent off-topic in the classroom. Moreover, in this increasingly polarized atmosphere, many students are uncomfortable with political discussions, especially those that involve criticizing political decisions. This discomfort can interfere with students’ reception of the point being made. Fortunately, science fiction, by providing a hypothetical situation removed from present-day preconceptions and interference, offers an opportunity to explore ideas such as groupthink in a way that draws students in, rather than pushing them away.
To the extent that the Matrix is like the Cave, we may view the condition of humans in the Matrix as depicting a sort of groupthink. While victims of groupthink as described by Janis are disconnected from reality in the sense that their ability to evaluate reality has become distorted (Velasquez 7), the inhabitants of the Matrix are literally out of touch with ontological reality, as they inhabit a world of illusion. The most obvious example of a poor decision made by a victim of groupthink is Cypher’s betrayal of his fellow revolutionaries because he wants to return to the Matrix. Despite his awareness that the world of the Matrix is a sham, he has been so thoroughly indoctrinated into that world that he would prefer to be a prisoner inside it, than to live free in the real world. He even tries to kill Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo, whose attempts to free other prisoners have aroused his anger and hatred, because he sees them as a “them” group of outsiders who threaten the “us” within the Matrix (The Matrix).
While we can easily point to such examples of groupthink among the people who are trapped in the Matrix, what is especially important pedagogically is that Neo himself is initially a captive of groupthink. Although he has been seeking “the desert of the real,” when Morpheus finally presents him with the truth, Neo rejects it. “No!” Neo shouts. “I don’t believe it! It’s not possible!” Despite Morpheus’s attempt to explain the truth, Neo continues to shout, “Stop! Let me out! I want out!” (The Matrix).
Thus, part of Neo’s mission is not only to fight perpetrators of groupthink and those still embedded within it, but to root out the groupthink that has taken hold within himself. We see him processing his new understanding during a visit to the Matrix. Passing a familiar restaurant, he muses, “I used to eat there….really good noodles.I have these memories from my life. None of them happened”(The Matrix). Showing the hero, with whom the audience identifies, grappling with his own mistaken assumptions in order to overcome groupthink within himself has protreptic value: groupthink is not just something that we recognize and deplore in others, but something that even we ourselves need to resist. We try to get our students to consider the broader implications of this notion, and especially to consider just what plays the role of the Matrix in our own lives and in our culture.
The usefulness of this philosophical exploration of The Matrix in the classroom extends beyond helping students to grasp or even apply a specific concept. Using such works of popular culture in philosophy classes not only assists students in understanding course material, but can also help students realize that philosophy is not limited to being a classroom exercise. In this way, these products can serve as a bridge to help students apply philosophical concepts outside class and thus engage in the type of reflection about reality and about themselves that philosophy classes are designed to foster.
Descartes, René. Meditations. Translated by John Veitch. 6 April, 2017. web.archive.org/web/20141229135750/http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/descartes/meditations/meditations.html
Miller, Jeffrey. “The Matrix of Enlightenment,” Presentation at Warrior Concepts International, Sunbury, Pennsylvania, June, 2003.
Plato. Republic. Tr. G.M.A. Grube. Rev. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1992.
Velasquez, Manuel. Philosophy: A Text with Readings. 10thed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.