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Group Think

October 17, 2009

I often sit back and wonder why selfish people get together in the first place. Surely selfishness would be such that they would be too selfish to even put up with each other. However in this universe like attracts like and people seem to somehow follow that rule. People with low self esteem attract people with low self esteem, thugs attract thugs, druggies attract druggies and so forth. Like the poles of two magnets are draw to each other and electrons attract electrons. We can build a whole universe of examples where things that are the same like things that are the same. Yet we are not talking about abstract analogies but the human mind which is, as I have been constantly reminded, the most complicated mass thing in the whole universe. No one really knows what goes in the mind of another person and no one has yet been able to explain what a human mind is. Is it the result of the brain running or is it a ghost that inhabits the machine we call the brain? It is an answer that even the most materialist rationalist cannot answer with absolute certainly. Yet for some reason people have their own preconceived absolutes about the mind and everyone considers themselves an expert in the mind because they own one.

Now here is a problem. H G Wells once said that all chairs are basically the same and then G K Chesterton went to great lengths to explain the numerous differences in the types of chairs that exist. The point was clear to G K Chesterton, all chairs are not basically the same and it would be a sweeping generalization to claim that they were. Chairs (just like minds) can be very different from each other. No two minds on the planet will ever be the same for various reasons.

The most fundamental reason may be that no two people can ever have identical experiences in life and no two people have precisely the same genetic expression (even if genotype is the same phenotype changes). So when people try to speak in absolutes in psychology they are doing so with some degree of subjectivity and prejudice. Not all people who were traumatized in their youth turn out to be traumatized adults. Not everyone who was bottle fed or had poor potty training will somehow become a neurotic as a result. The complication of this cause and effect theory of life experience is this thing called the rational mind. We as humans are capable of being able to make rational choices and even control our emotions if we so choose. If we were unable to control either then we would continually lash out instinctive at all forms of stimuli. The instinct may create the desire but the mind must consent to live out that desire.

You can read or hear excuses for behavior that is designed to admonish responsibility for the choices people make: ‘I was born that way, I did not get enough of mother’s milk, my teacher told me I was a loser, If only I was born into a rich family, I am messed up.’ Whilst each of these may be true and contribute the diminishing in the ability to see all possible choices, none of these will ever make a bad choice into a good one. Individually there may be mitigating circumstances that require a degree of compassion to understand but it is still a bad decision. Also when we hear the excuse, ‘I just did not think,’ as an explanation for a gang rape, we have to have to ask at what point they chose to stop thinking. They made the rational choice to go along with the crowd and they made the choice to participate. Like attracts like but collective guilt is nothing more than the sum of individual guilt.

Thinking beyond a group decision is hard because it requires running the gauntlet of popular opinion. Disagreeing with a group disturbs comfort zones and creates work, both mental and verbal. This is because the most disturbing question on earth is suddenly raised in a dormant mind: ‘Why?’ For a group that can only see the benefits of their policy it is tantamount to betrayal for anyone not to accept their view. They had considered everything that they thought was important and all of them agreed except for this one person. In a way it becomes like the song on Sesame Street where, ‘one of these things does not belong because one of these things is not the same.’ Emotionally the group can presume that this person is wrong by the weight of sheer numbers. ‘Majority rules,’ we often hear taunted across a school yard. ‘Vox populi – The voice of the people is the voice of the gods’

The notion that a majority in any group can never be wrong falls apart when it is applied to an example like to pack rape. There also numerous examples of how a group of people can often go off on a particular tangent that proves both irrational and self destructive. Mass suicides in Jones Town, race riots and Circus Maximus were all point in time that seem so self evidently wrong now but at the time were considered the popular view. Going against such policies at the time was often punished with death. People who tried to escape from the Jones Town suicide were shot by his followers. The mass had become a mob and the mob was roused to strike out at any disagreement. It is a pattern that repeats itself throughout society. Mobs do not like people disturbing their comfort zones, mental empires or collective decisions. Some ideologues find that anyone who disagrees with their world view infuriating and lash out with all the bitterness of child having a tantrum. Like attracts like and the tantrum spreads to other of their clique.

The question that disturbs people the most is the one that should asked first. I have seen endless tirades of people being outraged because someone disagrees with them but I have seen very few that ask the question: why? It is all too easy to stay within the ranks of social convention of a subculture and blame the one does not tow the party line. It is all too easy attack the person who stands out just because they stand out by not giving the rubber stamp to a proposal. Yet it is much harder to ask the person why they do not agree. Instead the answer is presupposed by people and written off as they attack a straw man version of a list of enemies. It is much easier to continue to follow the mob as they rearrange deck chairs on another Titanic.

Copyright: Damian Murphy 2009

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