Annabel Beerel

The Madness of the Crowds!

by Annabel Beerel, Ph. D.

Madness, said philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, is the exception in individuals, but the rule in groups. Psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud agreed. He saw people participating in groups regress to an infantile state. According to his observations, the more a group has in common and the higher the degree of mental homogeneity, the stronger the evidence of the “group mind.” When the group mind goes into action the individual gives up his or her own autonomy and sense of self and sacrifices these in service of the group or the group’s leader.

The famous psychologist, Carl Jung, held some very strong views about group pressure. According to him –

“Every man is, in a certain sense, unconsciously a worse man when he is in society than when acting alone….Any large company of wholly admirable persons has the morality and intelligence of an unwieldy, stupid, and violent animal. The bigger the organization, the more unavoidable is its immorality and blind stupidity….. Society, by automatically stressing all the collective qualities in its individual representatives, puts a premium on mediocrity, on everything that settles down to vegetate in an easy, irresponsible way. Individuality will inevitably be driven to the wall.”

Jung’s strong views on the unethical behavior of groups, is one among many. In general, human behavioral researchers hold the view that individuals are endowed by nature with qualities of sympathy and consideration. These sentiments provide them with a capacity for justice, caring and even altruism. Depending on the circumstance, they can at times even be objective about matters that involve their own interests. However, the collective egoism of the group rapidly destroys these more noble sentiments. In the face of group pressure, individuals succumb to the group’s overriding interests. These interests are most often more about establishing the group’s power, or who has power within the group, than how to make ethical or wise decisions.

Many philosophers, sociologists and psychologists have written about the impact of group pressure on individual behavior. Almost without exception, they conclude that individuals tend to lose their sense of autonomy and personal authority when they are part of group activities or participate in group decision making. Individuals are influenced by their great concern about belonging and being accepted by the group. Breaking away from the group is for most people a terrifying thought. Groups and teams offer a shared sense of self that offers people a sense of definition and a reality in the world. Challenging the group or breaking away from group or team membership requires a strong personal ego and well-developed sense of self. It can also be a dangerous move, as the group tends to turn on and scapegoat detractors.

Groups do not only share common understandings and outlooks, they also share secrets and defense mechanisms. Working together they learn to see things the same way. They also learn together how not to see what they do not want to see. They have self-deceptions in common. The power of the collective pact impacts thoughts, oughts and moral behaviors. If the group does not want to see unethical behavior, it will not. It also has the potential to “kill” anyone who breaks this unconscious agreement. Collaboration at all levels is the name of the game and the passport to safety.

Increasing the size of the group increases the difficulties of achieving a group self-consciousness. The larger the group, the less inclined to ethical behavior and the more people are held sway to the coercive pressures within the group. Depending on the circumstances, individuals in the group either silence themselves totally or uphold the group ego. In the worst cases, they forsake themselves totally and become part of an unruly mob!

The idea that groups diminish the moral agency of individuals is an alarming one. I imagine many of us have witnessed how group dynamics alters the self-differentiating power of the individual. The pressure to conform to group pressure in business organizations is enormous. Frequently I hear phrases such as: “I try not to rock the boat;” “you have to play by the rules;” “you cannot fight the system.” One need only attend a group meeting to see many of these dynamics at work.

When we note that many organizational activities are carried out by committees or teams, we need to be cognizant of the group effect. The smaller the team the less likely the group dynamic will impact the ethical and self-defining capacities of the individual. The larger the team or the group, the more likely individual autonomy and agency will be squelched. Similarly, the more bonded and united the group, the greater the common mind and the less likely anyone will step out of the explicit and implicit rules for keeping the group intact.

One important strategy business managers should adopt when assigning teams is to keep on changing the membership. This limits the development of too much bonding and too much of a group mind. Understandably managers are often reluctant to do this as the team seems to be working so well together and they often resist the idea of embracing new members. Depending on the purpose of the team or group, the price of letting a group mind develop may be too high not to intervene.

So, is there any counter to this rather pessimistic view of groups? Well, one psychology researcher, James Sorowiecki, in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, argues that overall, crowds are more intelligent, more attuned, and more savvy than individuals. In his book, he cites innumerable examples that seem to indicate that groups of people outthink individuals every single time. There are two important caveats that he includes when drawing his conclusions. The first is that the crowd includes diversity. This means that the people offering their ideas, opinions, and recommendations come from diverse backgrounds. The second is that the individuals who make up the crowd are independent of mind. This means that these individuals arrive at their conclusions, suggestions and so on relatively free from the fear of group pressure or a loss of moral freedom. He claims that the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus and compromise.

Sorowiecki explains crowd or group mind behavior as arising out of individuals being uncertain about what to do. They maybe uncertain because they do not have the facts, the dilemma or challenge in question is outside of their experience or, they are overwhelmed by conflicting tensions. Whatever the reason, the individual feels that the crowd must know something they do not know, or know best, so they defer to crowd opinion.

This is an interesting and plausible explanation for many individual’s behavior. I would personally agree with some of Sorowiecki’s rationale. What Sorowiecki does point out very clearly is that to get the benefit from the wisdom of crowds or groups, an essential feature is that each individual in the group is capable of arriving at independent conclusions. This means there is no (or minimal) group pressure, no fear of being an outlier, and no group think or group bias. In an organizational setting, where culture very quickly gets a hold of the group mind, finding opportunities for the individual to think and act from this place of independence is not that easy. Creating that space is the role of management; management that creates an environment that practices ethics. Practicing ethics means, among other things, talking, dialoguing, discussing, sharing, ethical dilemmas and moral value tensions and concerns. Only an open environment of this nature can counter any pressures to conform or follow the lead of others.