Groups are Individual

Nearly all primates live in social groups, which serve to protect resources and mark territory but humans are also motivated for complex reasons relating to identity, emotional wellbeing and relationships. By living and working in groups many of the incredible technological, scientific and artistic achievements that allow us to live our lives as we do would not be possible.  However, it is a rare person who experiences high personal comfort levels and a strong sense of belonging with every kind of group with which they are involved.  Despite the fact that groups are so important and endemic to human life what makes them work is in many ways a mystery even though vast quantities of research and reflection about them take place and continue. Answering this question is a bit like identifying and understanding the Holy Grail.

Professionally I have worked with many groups and they are rich ground for a psychologist but on a personal level I find groups quite challenging and put this down to having attended a large number of schools throughout my early childhood and teenage years. That ‘new kid on the block’ feeling is easily evoked and although I don’t actually avoid new groups I can’t say I relish negotiating the inevitable pecking orders and unspoken rules. As a psychologist I learnt about and worked with the various theories of group formation and dynamics so I guess I have a higher then average awareness of these and struggle sometimes to not call out the most obvious injustices and occasional hostilities.  

I write this as I travel to see ‘my’ football team at their home ground. I know the ritualised ‘in and out group’ pantomime will be played out in the anthems we sing, the insults and the non-verbal behaviours exchanged between home and away fans and for the most part it will all be a part of the football banter that is ‘just a bit of fun’. However, now and again, someone goes too far and all the pent up fury and frustration that has been building up in their day-to-day life erupts in a stream of furious invective that is just way out of proportion to the fact that we are here to see some guys kicking a football around for 90 minutes. It is at times like this that I question why I would ever want to be part of a group like this.

When I was doing PhD research, the focus of which was teachers and their involvement in each other’s work those nebulous but core ideals of generosity, respect, empathy, understanding, commitment and good communication appeared to be key ingredients. If we assume teachers are largely representative of the general population and in my experience they are, these ideal ingredients are probably ones that ensure all groups operate well. I would go further and suggest that the degree to which anyone new to the group experiences these from established members probably predicts how well a group will survive and operate in the long run because unless a group constantly develops with the addition of fresh thinking and experiences it will stagnate and eventually die.  We see political parties and huge organisations struggling to maintain a cohesive and unified identity, families who are at war and history provides many examples of nations that are so ridden with internal conflict that they implode and self-destruct.  Groups of whatever size and type are complex, problematic and difficult to understand but one thing seems clear to me: every single individual has a part to play in ensuring the group’s core values and also in speaking out when others don’t.

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