October 05, 2010

None of us is as dumb as all of us

“As Freud put it: 'The feelings of a group are always very simple and very exaggerated, so that a group knows neither doubt nor uncertainty.'" 

~Fred Alford, Group Psychology and Political Theory

Meetings. Groups. Town halls. Family reunions. Chapels. Wherever people of like-mind gather together, the potential for evil is present. Group dynamics foster situations so powerful that unconscious forces compel us to behave in ways we would never do without feeling ‘safe’ within our group.

This post is not about deifying liberalism or demonizing conservatism. What this post is about is self-awareness protecting us from destructive (regressive) behaviors naturally arising from group allegiance. The past few years on message boards have reinforced for me the value of group participation when like-minded or like-experienced people become stronger through group affiliation. We come to know ourselves as individuals, connected to---and yet---separate from, the group.

Group participation can make us smarter by challenging our narcissism and increasing our awareness so we look outside ourselves beyond the narrow scope of self-preoccupation. Groups can also, as the above picture suggests, make us dumber: rigidify our narcissism; increase our defenses; narrow our information pool resulting in short-sighted and erroneous decisions. The more fragile our core self (immature narcissism), the more we view difference as a threat to the ‘self’, projecting demeaning attributes onto anyone with a different point of view. In a pathological definition, normal projection can escalate to ‘otherizing’, thus justifying inhumane treatment in the pretense of self-righteous morality.

Tell me what I want to believe
"Informative conformity often occurs in situations in which there is high uncertainty and ambiguity."
The more like-minded the group, the bigger threat we are to ourselves, so certain are we that our perceptions and beliefs are correct. When friends and family contradict our worldview, we retreat to the private safety of our oh-so-certain narcissism. When we only listen to talk shows corroborating our favorite illusions, when we only speak with people who validate our beliefs, when we homogenize ourselves in group certainty/superiority, we are vulnerable to self-deception. The truth is that the enemy is not out there, the enemy is within.

Group affiliation fosters an illusion of certainty if we isolate ourselves from conflict and break essential connections with others.

As Warren Poland writes, “…too often in the service of the self, we develop allegiances to our narrow views.” Diversity prevents polarization. Any group disrespecting difference through implicit or explicit ‘otherizing’, fertilizes the soil for destructive groupthink to take root and to flourish. A wise leader nurtures dissent as a beneficial means to healthier and better decision-making. A healthy leader encourages differing viewpoints, which curtail extremist and shortsightedness by minimizing self-righteous/narcissistic certainty. 

The pathology of Otherizing 

We define ourselves as a group by our similarity of thought, experiences, and beliefs. We differentiate ourselves from other groups in a process called ‘othering’. Othering is not pathological when members extend dignity and respect to those who have a different ‘voice’ from their own. But sometimes in our attempts to coalesce as a group, we lose ourselves in a rigid process of othering that includes projection of disowned qualities onto ‘others’. 

The first video on my prior post illustrates the dangers of groupthink, polarizing fellow citizens into ‘us or them.’ Once an us or them polarity has rooted in our imagination, interaction is increasingly adversarial. There is no cooperation, no mutual understanding, nor sharing of opinions. People dig trenches for open warfare, ridiculing and even humiliating ‘the enemy’: enemy being defined as anyone with a different worldview. What is being threatened by this difference is one’s narcissism. The narcissistic belief that ‘we’ are right and ‘they’ are wrong; that ‘we’ are moral and ‘they’ are not; that ‘we’ are the answer and ‘they’ are the problem. Once someone has been pathologically otherized, we are no longer obligated to empathize, nor behave responsibly because ‘they’ do not merit our respect. The Other has become an enemy. 

I’ve watched this polarity escalate over the years, especially as Americans become intolerably uncertain, fearful, anxious; our trust in traditional structures eroded by rapid change. We want to stop losing even more ground than we already have but recognize our limited power as an individual. We join a group aligning best with our beliefs and hope our contributions will make a positive difference. This like-mindedness with others is mutually beneficial. Commonality increases self-esteem, alleviates helplessness, hopelessness and despair. Group participation directs our energy and skills towards goals we believe will correct the errors of the past. However, we must be aware of our need for groups while remaining alert to unconscious defenses degrading prideful membership into hubris and disdain for others. 

Loose Cannon or a 'planted' Land Mine?  
“There are advantages to being slightly more extreme than the group average. It’s a way to stand out, to ensure others will see us as righteous group members.”
Like-mindedness may amplify animosity towards others (other=anyone threatening our identity). Members may be geared towards proving their loyalty to the group by scapegoating ‘the other’. In a twisted perversion of loyalty, aggressive/bullying behavior proves a member’s devotion to the group, an unhealthy form of image maintenance. 

The interesting thing (as evidenced by the video clip) is that fellow bystanders were reluctant to counter the bully’s aggression. Social psychologists have observed and documented the Bystander Effect numerous times. People are reluctant to take action, even in life-threatening situations. The greater the number of people, the less likely an individual will intervene.

In this particular video however, were bystanders reluctant to intervene for fear of being ostracized? Would their intervention be viewed as betraying one of their own? Maybe it’s fair to say bystanders were reluctant to ‘rock the boat’ because they wanted to be seen as team players---even if they were uncomfortable with some of the team’s behavior. I am sure most Tea Partiers were uncomfortable when a team player humiliated a disabled man by throwing dollar bills in his face. The whole point of the dollar bill incident, at least in my view, was humiliation---a projection of the man-in-a-white-shirt's humiliation onto someone else now that his power and privilege in our society is melting faster than Alaskan glaciers! (Not that I can presuppose knowing what this man-in-a-white-shirt was feeling prior to acting like a bully on the playground though I’m certain we would not have gotten along, even in my six-year-old days).

When someone behaves aggressively, group members ought question precedents leading to behavior that is assumed, by the bully, to be acceptable even heroic! Unfortunately, what generally happens is the bully is viewed as a loose cannon, a freak incident, someone losing control in the excitement of the moment. There is no doubt in my mind that were a fellow liberal to throw dollar bills at Sarah Palin, he would be given the same benefit of the doubt conservatives gave the bully in the teapot. We are much more generous in our perceptions of fellow members of our own group. Thus, the situation escapes scrutiny as the group ignores precedents creating a volatile situation. They may even scapegoat the aggressive member as an anomaly. But you have to ask yourself the question: would this man have behaved the same way if he were by himself? Would he have behaved aggressively if he were in a diverse group tolerating opposing opinions? How much power did the situation have over the man-in-a-white-shirt? And who bears responsibility for his aggression?

“No one raindrop thinks it caused the flood"

Group leaders own responsibility for cultivating the environment, appealing to member’s emotions by stereotyping other people, thus creating pathological ‘otherizing’.

Group members bear responsibility for standing by and doing nothing. It was obvious in the video that some members were uncomfortable with man-in-a-white-shirt’s aggression though they did not confront the aggression, at least not in the widely circulated video.

We could examine the man with Parkinson’s Disease and ask why he felt compelled to attend the gathering? Did he hope people would empathize with him, broadening their view of social responsibility? I suppose that would be my interpretation of his motives. But then again, I am a bleeding heart or so my conservative friends and family suggest when needing my listening ear and compassionate support.

Each individual in the Teapot Incident bears responsibility. We are each responsible our behavior, no matter the situation, no matter the leader, no matter who gives the orders, who cheers us on, or who says nothing.

Situations of us-ness have the potential to make us wiser or regressively dumber. It's important to learn about the situational impact of a group on our individual reactions. It’s imperative to recognize Us-ness as a healthy connection while also protecting ourselves and others from the disconnecting power of otherizing.

Ever mindful of the pack,


Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect

Gale Warnings. Stormchild has written many blog posts about the dangers of groupthink. She was my mentor, encouraging further studies about the destructive and the creative power of 'groups'.


  1. Hello CZ,

    This is an interesting thought provoking article. Thank you, (as always) for another great piece of writing.

  2. HI dogkisses!

    Thanks for commenting. This video bugged me so much I had to put some serious thought into understanding why. Most of my family members are 'extremely' Republican---so Republican they consider it an attack on their identity if you aren't republican, too.

    I dislike politics, almost unhealthily so. With the way things are going though, maybe I need to take the paper bag off my head and speak up?

    You wouldn't believe the nightmarish conversations I've gotten myself into! and all because I assumed people made decisions based on 'information'. Not really. I think a lot of people make decisions based on their emotions and if you wanna make somebody act irrationally, just threaten their identity!

    I hope to write about this a little more. Maybe it will help before our Thanksgiving reunion.

    Nice to hear from you...I've been so busy and haven't kept up with your blog. Once the snow flies again, there's plenty of time to sit at my desk and read!

    Big hugs,

  3. CZ, I don't think there is anything unhealthy about disliking the order that is and has been existing.

    When existing politicians are trying to manipulate the constitution I find it not just difficult to sit and tolerate. Now days it seems like politicians are using public office to dominate rather than represent. This changes the meaning of politics due to the behaviors and actions of politicians.

    It is great that you wrote from the URL you posted recently. I read the URL and your words outlines it well. Thank You


  4. Hi CZ,

    I've returned to this post several times, each time for a different reason. The post moves me in many ways. It touches me personally.

    I've recently (and not so recently) had some experiences that make me feel like I imagine I would if I had been the man in that wheelchair, only the most recent time, I did not remain as calm as he did. No bills were thrown at me but instead words.

    And who said, "Sticks and stones may break your bones but words shall never hurt you" ??? My mom says it, but I'm sure she didn't come up with it.


    I wish tolerance happened more often. It gets very complex when the views are about a subject that is altogether personal to each party.

    I just can't seem to make things work in my family. I'm surely the 'other' and feel like the scapegoat.

    I have been calm and quiet for so long that I finally lost my cool and now I feel like the bad guy.

    I always find a way to blame myself for trouble in my family and now, since I lashed out, which I most certainly did, most inappropriately, and to the person who least deserved it, I wonder if I will ever not be this scapegoat.

    I will give my sincere apology with genuine regret for my action, but the feelings I have from years of my trying to fit in and accepting a gradual great lack of respect are still there.

    I'm glad I read this post again for a couple of reasons and especially when I read this: “No one raindrop thinks it caused the flood" --just what I needed to hear.

    Thank you CZ!

  5. Dear Dogkisses,

    Thank YOU for reading my blog. I am the worst blogger in the world. People are so kind as to revisit my essays and then I don't even show up for weeks. I must apologize profusely for my lack-of-participation at my own party.

    Life is hectic and then sometimes it's not-so-hectic. I've been deeply involved with my nephew and vocational rehab and therapy which leaves little time for thinking through a topic and writing my thoughts.

    You however, have touched my heart with your words.

    I understand feeling like an outsider which has been somewhat of a new experience now that my nephew is under my wing. It breaks my heart to see how he is treated, even by family members, who don't take even ten minutes of their day to read about Aspergers. Instead, they rely on lay-folk criticisms like: lazy, slow, retarded, arrogant. You know, the way people interpret anyone's behavior who doesn't just fall in line with the rest of society? I get so irritated.

    This post affected me on a much deeper level than tea party politics.

    Please don't blame yourself too harshly for lashing out. I've done it myself. Frustration with people's stubbornness and idiocy (lol) increases our DESIRE to be heard and seen. So yes, sometimes OUR reaction to their ignorance is last raindrop causing a flood.

    How does someone deal with their isolation when they don't 'fit in' with the crowd? How do we raise one another's consciousness about disabilities and limitations?

    You would think that if ANYTHING could get through to someone's illusions of self-sufficiency, it would be a family member's illness.

    Don't take on tooooooo much of the responsibility for whatever happened in your family, but don't alleviate yourself of responsibility for the altercation either. It's a balance, isn't it?

    Surely we can find ways to assert ourselves without seeking validation from invalidators? They can't give what they don't have to give.


  6. Hi CZ,
    Thank you for your response. No need to apologize, esp., to me. I think I'm the worst when it comes to "not being at my own party."

    I'm trying not to be hard on myself but the situation has deeply depressed me. I suppose I'll eventually come to terms with it. I've written a truly sincere letter of apology.

    I can't think of anything to do when I have done something to hurt someone I deeply love, other than to let her know how truly remorseful I am. Yet CZ, I'm still very hurt myself. I wish my family, any member, would take one tenth of the time to apologize to me that I have taken in trying to figure how I can make amends.

    Members of my family have said things about or to me that hurt worse than any cut or bruise I've ever had. Things that I wouldn't even say to a stranger.

    Nobody in my family ever apologizes to me.

    I've been blamed for my son having schizophrenia. "He didn't have a dad," or, "You moved several times."

    Anything (to them) is better than saying we have mental illness in our family.

    Then my sis said I had never been sick, which sent me over the edge.

    After years worth of being sick, many times for days and days without any help, so sick I couldn't reach the phone beside my bed, then all the while pushing myself, trying so hard to help my son for the past ten years, how could she say I had never been sick?

    I think if my siblings believed that I'm actually not well, they would feel guilty for not doing anything to help. I guess it is easier to believe that I make up having fibromyalgia and CFS.

    Thank you again for your work, your honesty and esp., for your time.

    In gratitude,


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