As social animals, we humans feel an inherent desire to belong. Being part of a group, sharing ideas and emotions with other people gives us a feeling of immense power. Additionally, this sense of belonging is essential in maintaining the integrity of our very personality. As people who have been through solitary confinement have said that those long periods of isolation caused them to doubt their very existence. They felt as if their personalities were disintegrating.

Consequently, we feel a deep desire to belong to groups. But being part of a group can alter our personality in profound ways and if unfortunately, you are a part of the “wrong” group, you can end up in really deep trouble. It will not only be destructive for you but it can also be damaging for those around you. Therefore you must know the group dynamics and how it can alter one’s mind and behavior so that when your group starts to affect you in a toxic way, you are aware of it and can resist.

  1. The desire to fit in

Almost every time you enter a new group, you are met with suspicion and intense scrutiny. As you try to adjust to the new environment, you’ll feel that others are constantly “judging” and “scrutinizing” you in subtle ways, mostly non verbally. This will be evident in the way they look at you, their body language and slight remarks. Under the pressure of this scrutiny, you begin to question yourself. Am I doing things right? Do I fit in? What are they thinking about me?

Ultimately, after some time, the first and foremost effect of the group on you will be “the desire to fit in” and strengthen your sense of belonging. As you fit in and follow the rules, you’ll start to gel in, eventually decreasing the process of scrutiny and giving you a sense of relief.

The first way you do this is by changing your appearance according to the group. You begin to dress and behave in the same fashion as others, just like the team members of a football team wear the same outfit. Similarly, you increasingly begin to speak in the jargon of the group.  

The second way is by internalizing the ideas and beliefs of the group. You begin to use the same jargon that is characteristic of the group. Most importantly, slowly you begin to mold your own ideas according to the group’s collective beliefs. This is the trickiest step as there is intense “Rationalization” involved. The longer you stay in the group, the stronger is this effect. You are not aware of this as its happening because it’s all happening unconsciously.

In fact, you’ll vehemently deny that any such thing is happening. But you can notice that by looking at some of your ideas that were different before joining the group and how they have now slowly adapted according to the overall group ethos. It’s extremely important for you to understand this fact because that’s exactly how entire countries fell victim to some of the most absurd ideas in history and did horrible stuff. You must retain the ability to think independently so that you can differentiate between the right and the wrong.

2. The Emotional Plague

If you notice, babies are highly sensitive to the moods and emotions of the mother. If she smiles, they smile, if she is anxious they follow. This ability to catch the emotions of the mother developed as a survival mechanism long ago. Like other social animals, we are programmed to sense the emotions of others, especially those close to us. For our hunter-gathering ancestors, if one person sensed danger, it was essential that others sensed that too just by looking at his face, as no forms of communication had been developed by then.  

This is the third effect of the group on us, the contagiousness of emotions. Just after entering a group, we become prone to catching up the emotions of others. Especially if we have started to feel comfortable in the presence of those around, we are more likely to get affected as our defenses are low.

Some emotions are more contagious than others, anxiety, and fear being the strongest of them all. As mentioned earlier, the ability to communicate danger was essential to the survival of our ancestors. But in modern times we do not face such instant dangers instead these days its anxiety about possible or imagined dangers looming in the future that might spread among the group. Desire is also highly contagious, if we see that others want something, or are following a new fashion, we are quickly infected with the same desire. This is the exact reason for the popularity of celebrities.

This whole phenomenon of emotional contagion becomes a self-fulfilling dynamic. If any three people in a group are feeling anxious, there has to be a reason. You become the fourth one. Slowly it gains legitimacy and others are pulled in, ultimately making the effect viral. You must observe yourself while doing this whether your fear is actually rooted in reality or you have just caught it up from the group members.

You can do this by looking at the object of fear, is it something real or an imagined demon? The importance of resisting such contagious anxiety is manifold in times of social media when news spread like wildfire. You must realize that contagiousness of emotions is a tool used by demagogues to stir fear and anxiety in people. Such fears are then used to target entire communities by demonizing them. Therefore be extra aware and conscious when you feel like getting carried away in the group spirit.

3. Hyper certainty

When we are deciding for ourselves, we inevitably have doubts. Is it the right thing to do? Am I doing it the right way? But once in a group, such doubts are neutralized by the collective wave. If the group has to decide on something, it seems the debate will go on forever, but we need to act. At this moment whatever the decision is, we need to support it. If you dissent, you might be marginalized or ultimately banished. But most importantly, if everybody else is rallying along, we feel compelled to so, all these people cannot be wrong at the same time.

This is exactly what happens in most of the financial crazes. If some people join a dubious financial scheme and make some money, everybody joins in. Those who are cautious are actually cowards and can’t take any risks. As individuals, it’s almost impossible to resist what so many other people seem so certain about. More importantly, if it worked how ashamed and embarrassed we’ll feel to be suckers. On the other hand, if we do such stupidity on our own and if it fails we are attacked ruthlessly by others, but covered by thousands doing the same, we are saved from accountability, which encourages us to take more of such risks

If as individuals we commit some mistake do a stupid thing, there is a chance that some friend or family member might warn us and we stop. But in groups the opposite happens, everybody validates the decision no matter how delusional because they are all victims of the group effect.

Similarly, this is exactly the reason why countries jump into self-destructive wars. Just look at the Second World War. Hitler was convinced that he would make Germany great again by conquering most of the world. Why do you think the entire German nation followed him? It’s precisely because of that hyper certainty that clouds the group’s collective intellect. Emotional frenzy combined with hyper certainty throws the group into visibly suicidal situations. What was then the result of the madness of Hitler? Not only Germany was reduced to rubble but half the world along with it.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *