Would You Jump Off A Bridge If……

…..All your friends were doing it?

Yes, when I was seven.

Welcome to the power of the group, one of the most useful tools and weapons at humankind’s disposal. Virtually all of our major decision-making occurs in a group setting, from the government to party attire it comes down to one thing, the group.

Why groups are powerful:

Groups pull their power from four major areas, responsibility, acceptance, thought, and polarization. In group settings it’s easy to think someone else will do it, or to feel so empowered (by the support of other members) that you’re able to ask for that number or accept that death.

Diffusion of Responsibility-This is the sense we feel when acting out at a bar with our group of friends. It’s the feeling of anonymity provided to us by a group, outsiders won’t know which one of us in the group shouted that obscenity, or pulled that prank just that it occurred. It’s also the sense we feel when walking down the street with friends and ignoring the homeless asking for change. Someone else will give it to him. When we’re in a group there is always someone else.

Social Acceptance-Whether we are in a group of criminals or a group of church-goers being accepted by the group, particularly the influential members is a powerful motivator. If we believe our actions will garner approval we become extremely more likely to do it, even if it’s out of our comfort zone. An ambitious new getaway driver will still participate in the high stakes bank heist if he believes it will get him an ‘in’ with the boss. A struggling middle class family in a strong church community will still donate money they might not have, if they believe they will appear more pious for doing so.

Group Think-How is it that ants or termites are able to build such massive complex structures to live in without a floor plan, or a head insect directing them to their tasks? While the exact reason remains a mystery to me, it is still an excellent example of group think. A cognitive phenomenon that occurs when decisions that are believed to influence the group as a whole need to be made. This is something that large organizations of any kind excel at; when something grows too large for one person to manage more managers are created. As the managerial group increases so does the likelihood of group think. While group think is something that occurs in a state of deindividualization it is powered and maintained by the individual.

Group Polarization-In today’s society this event is portrayed as extremist. This brings with it all the negative connotations of a rioting populace, terrorist, displeasing politicians, or religious groups that are even rejected by their non-extremist counterparts. This is only the stereotype of group polarization it does occur in less publicly known circumstances. Imagine yourself going out with a group of friends; all of your friends swear that the restaurant you all are going to is amazing, while you on the other hand are on the fence. By the end of the night you may not think the restaurant is amazing, but you’ll at least think it’s better than most.

All of these components combine to act as the fuel the gives groups their power, and each one is fueled by its own set of components, ranging from the individual to the environment, to the voice of the weakest minority or powerful majority. While groups are capable of unspeakable evil they are also capable of unheard of good and in the end it is up to the individuals in that group to determine what and where they’ll be known for. In the end, it is up to you.

I Was Just Following Orders…

“I was just following orders,” how often are those five words uttered in defense of crimes committed during both war and peace times. It’s a phrase everyone is familiar with, and one that has both let men go free and sentenced them to a life in prison. Despite the immediate attachment those words have with war crimes and acts of torture the situations that create them occur on an almost daily basis to everyone everywhere.

When children go to bed at nine, after brushing their teeth and preparing their bags for school the next day, they are in essence ‘just following orders.’ When a person hands their license and registration over to an officer that has pulled them over they are also ‘just following orders.’ When a gang initiate robs a corner store to prove his worth he is also ‘just following orders,’ but what about when the robbery goes a step further and becomes a homicide. Is he still ‘just following orders,’ or is he now acting according to his own free will?

This is where the power of situational factors come into play. At any given time there can be as few as half a dozen, or as many as hundreds. However, there are a few in particular that play a significant role in allowing people to ‘just follow orders.’ The first, and most universal is the need to belong, everyone has this need whether we acknowledge it or not we all want to belong to something and someone.

The desperate teenager joins the gang because of the need to belong to something bigger than himself, something bigger than the small home that holds too many people with too little resources. The child prepares for bed because of the need to belong to his/her family, the need to gain the approval of his/her parents, and the inherent idolization of their parents. A person handing over their license and registration may do so because they feel hopeless to alter the situation and the pending outcome. The opposite is also true, the officer feels obligated to process the person’s information and crime because he/she is part of something bigger than themselves, something that is for the betterment of their family, their society and a host of other things.

That is what allows the soldiers to torture their prisoners, the fearful teen to rob the grocer his family has purchased groceries from his entire life, the naive child to do as they are told whether they want to or not. It is all fueled by the belief that the actions performed are for the betterment of [insert cause of your choice]. It’s only when their behaviors and actions are questioned by a higher authority, that “I am just following orders,” is given as the reasoning.

So if we are all ‘just following orders’ in one way or another, how can we hold each other accountable for the actions we are ordered to commit? How can the teen be held accountable for the robbery and possible murder, the customer service rep held accountable for luring a client into an extended warranty, the solider for mistreating prisoners that he has been trained to think of as less than human.

This is the power of situational factors, they allow people to reach a sense of defused responsibility. “I didn’t want to burn that man I was ordered to,” “I didn’t want to rob that store, I had to,” “I don’t care if you buy the extended warranty, its company policy.”  When the personal sense of responsibility is low, and a powerful external identity is present it becomes frighteningly easy for people to engage in actions they would never be capable of under different circumstances.

“I was just following orders,” is a useful and ready reasoning to fall back on when being held accountable, the question is, how much of it was orders and how much of it was real?


The Goths, The Nerds, The Jocks, The Preps…

The Goths, The Nerds ,The Jocks, The Preps, The Hipsters: Identity

Whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we chose to or not we are all part of a group. Being the social creatures that we are humans automatically form and identify themselves with groups, whether it be familial, political, educational, social, orientation, culture, or fashion. We all navigate our days by shifting through our many group identities and interacting with the members of those groups.

It is not even necessary to leave the comfort of your own home to find groups. Households are composed of numerous groups that are constantly interacting with each other and battling for dominance. Whether it be the familial group as a whole, the parental group, the child parent group, the child pet group, the sibling group, the list goes on and on. Groups are everywhere, even when we perceive ourselves to be alone, we are identifying with a group.

At its most basic form grouping boils down to the ‘in’ and the ‘out.’ Consider the following scenario, you and a dozen others are attending a training seminar for a cooperation you hope to work for. Initially everyone may be milling about, inspecting refreshments, some people may stand closer to others, or everyone may have their own personal space. Either way there is a general dissociated feeling of everyone ‘being in this together’ or you may view everyone else as the competition immediately forming a group of 1.

Eventually someone speaks to someone else, this causes an immediate change in social dynamics. There is now an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group, if you have yet to speak to anyone and the general feeling of ‘being in this together’ is present you are immediately placed in what you perceive to be the majority ‘in’ group. The two speaking are now the ‘out’ group, you no longer identify with them and become wary of them. In essence they have become ‘the enemy.’

Now look at it from the pairs perspective, they have each made a friend and have become slightly more comfortable with the situation. They now have someone to share their immediate worries, expectations and goals with. Their anxiety has decreased while their confidence and subsequent performance has increased. In their eyes they are the ‘in’ group while everyone else is the ‘out’ group.

Within the larger group of strangers there is a sense of diffusion of responsibility, no one in particular feels as if they should be the one to initiate conversations because “somebody else will do it.” Whereas within the pair there is a heightened sense of responsibility and expectation, the group is small enough that each member can hold the other accountable and they are more likely to seek out and bring others into their group.

The group dynamics will slowly shift until there is a change in perceived power, now the more social pair group with its three or four members is perceived to be superior, while the larger group of strangers is perceived to be inferior. This is the power of group identity,  a very powerful factor in determining group success and persistence. The stronger the feeling of belonging is in a group, the stronger the sense of their being a group, the more empowered each individual becomes in carrying out actions through the name of that group.

Group identity is just one of the many factors that play a role in grouping, and it is arguably the most important one in retaining, recruiting, and enabling members of a group. The perception that someone belongs to something is a powerful motivator as long as that something is clearly defined.

Grouping and group identity can also cause someone to behave in ways that they would never behave in under different circumstances. Someone who is relatively shy and does not strike up conversation with strangers, is much more likely to if they are part of a group that is based around making new friends as long as they act under the identity of the group. Because their identity (locus of control) shifts from being themselves to being the group.

I am no longer John McShyAlot I am now John the PR man for SocialBeings Incorporated.

As you can see successfully identifying with a strongly defined group can have powerful effects on your behavior, thought process, and performance levels. While in the ideal world such a powerful psychology phenomenon would be used for good, it is more often the case that group identity is used to influence others to behave in negative ways, such as murder, robberies, vandalism and other crimes.

Whether its our group at home, our group in traffic, or our group at work we are all part of many groups, and form new ones without so much as a conscious thought. Being aware of these groups and how they can and do influence your behavior is key to gaining a better understanding of yourself and the things you identify with.

So ask yourself, which group are you apart of?