Adventures in Groups, part 1: A brief history of weird group behaviour

“We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.” – Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

It’s a cliché to say that in groups, people behave oddly. It’s a cliché because it’s true. We’ve all had weird experiences in a group, finding ourselves agreeing to strange beliefs or acting in uncharacteristic ways. It does seem that groups can trigger behaviour in us of which we don’t consider ourselves capable.

History is full of examples, particularly from the stock market. Dutch investors went mad for tulip bulbs in the early 17th century, driving up prices until a single bulb cost 10 times a skilled worker’s annual salary. A company which fraudulently proposed to set up trade between South America and England caused the 18th century “South Sea bubble” and attendant financial collapse. And communities in the developed and developing world alike still fall prey to moral panics surrounding those they perceive as outsiders, from 17th-century witch trials to modern American anti-immigrant sentiment.

Of course, our personal and professional lives are full of less dramatic examples. I once attended a conference where a group of unsatisfied participants more or less took the conference staff hostage. Not with guns or threats or any open hostility, mind you, but in the sense that the group in question presented the staff with a list of demands and refused to leave at the end of a session. (They didn’t get their way, by the way, and eventually allowed the staff to leave without further incident. However, it certainly added a lot of hostility to an already-fraught experience.)

R., a woman working in the social justice sector, had an odd experience in a leadership workshop. The participants were directed to form self-selected groups. Her group had just formed when another woman approached them, wanting to join. The group was unsure about admitting another member, leaving the prospective new member feeling hurt, but did allow her to join. “She seemed relieved,” R. described, “but then excused herself to go the washroom and when she returned I could make out that she had been crying. I thought then that she really seemed very sensitive about the issue of belonging to a group of relative strangers.”

Odd, hostile, and harmful group behaviour crops up in offices and work teams quite frequently. A., a young woman working in a university administration office, encountered a bizarre and immature string of passive-aggressive bullying she witnessed on the part of a supervisor and an employee towards another employee. Among other incidents, the two instigators sabotaged their target’s birthday celebration and mocked their perfume. “It was all very bizarre behaviour,” A. recounted. “There’s a lot of passive aggressiveness here.”

Groups can even change the way that we see. In the famous “unequal lines” experiment (also known as the “Asch conformity experiments”), a sizeable minority of participants agreed with a majority belief that was clearly wrong. (I won’t rehash the experiment, but if you’re interested there’s a good primer here.) While some participants reported going along with the minority out of a discomfort with appearing different, or a lack of confidence that made them doubt their own perceptions, some actually found their perceptions so distorted by group pressure that they “were apparently unaware that the majority were giving incorrect answers.”

What do these stories have in common? It seems that group membership is so important to us that we will protect it at any cost. We will act in ways we ordinarily would find morally reprehensible, or get sucked into financial bubbles which common sense would ordinarily protect us from, or deny the evidence of our own eyes in order to fit in. In many ways, this is a good thing. Humans are social animals, after all, and we need to cooperate to survive. But the darker side of this need to belong is the need to exclude.

All social change, all great human accomplishments are group accomplishments. Like I said above, groups of people working together are infinitely more powerful than any single individual…but power of groups to become weird, uncomfortable, and even dangerous is also greater than that of any individual. The good news is, there are things you can do to survive and even thrive when groups go wrong.

What’s your weirdest, worst, or wildest group experience? Tell us in the comments!

Up next: A grand unified theory of group behaviour.

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