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Biology 202
2004 First Web Paper
On Serendip

Individual versus Group Behavior

"The passions released are of such an impetuosity that they can be restrained by nothing...Everything is just as though he really were transported into a special world, entirely different from the old one where he ordinarily lives, and into an environment filled with exceptionally intense forces that take hold of him and metamorphose him"

Emile Durkheim on Group Consciousness (1965)

The discussions we have been having in class about the brain and the self as well as the idea that we are constantly changing led me to think about group versus individual behavior. Although some people may feel otherwise, I think we are all influenced in different degrees by others. All of us, at one time or another, have known what it is like to be part of a group. However, there often seems to be a negative feeling towards the group, with more focus being put on negative group behavior. This paper is an exploration on group and individual behavior and thought. Are certain people more group oriented? Are others more individual minded? Which one is the "real" self?

According to an article I read, the biological explanation behind why we behave differently when we are in a group as opposed to being on our own is that the limbic system in the brain, which is involved with emotional activity, dominates the person's actions and thinking, and therefore suppresses the neo-cortex, or the logical thinking part of the brain when a person joins a crowd. Therefore, the person acts irrationally because he or she is under "emotional pressure (1)." The author of the article uses the stock market as an analogy, stating that the reason why markets crash in various societies, rich or poor after a sudden boom, is that people tend to follow crowds (1). This analogy leads me to ask whether non-Western societies are therefore irrational, since they are regarded as collectivists. And also, if stock brokers in various societies act in the same irrational manner, does that not prove that individuals in different societies behave the same? These two ideas seem contradictory to me and also, they raise many questions regarding the idea that joining a group means loss of rationality.

When I studied psychology, it was always made clear that western and non-western psychology were different because of the western emphasis on individuality and the collectivist nature of non-western societies. Statements like these make clear and definite comparisons between western and non-western societies: "Western societies often define adjustment by one's level of individuality, independence, and achievement promoting emotional detachment from social groups...Contrary to Western cultures, many Eastern cultures endorse a communal view of society and do not conceptualize a person apart from his or her relationships." (2). Furthermore, it was stated that social hierarchy, social support, and interdependence are highly valued in these (non-western) cultures. Thus, these different views lead psychoanalysts to believe that Western groups would endorse antisocial coping strategies (strategies targeting independence and self-advancement) and non-Western groups would be more likely to endorse prosocial coping strategies (strategies targeting joining with others for support and considering the needs of others).

But is this really fair? I was raised in a non-western society but I do not feel that I have no individual self. My American friends are no less loyal in their friendships and consider the needs of others. In an unrelated study performed on groups of boys and girls that concluded that there are gender differences in the way we learn, Dr. Grobstein, professor of neurobiology at Bryn Mawr college responded to the study by stating that, "Population differences, while real are of no use whatsoever in characterizing a given male or female...For any particular measure, a given male may be more 'male-like' or more 'female-like' than a given female." Thus, comparing groups may show major differences between boys and girls but comparing individuals may have different results. In the same way, a given non-western person may be more individualistic than a given western person or a given non-western person.

Upon reaching adolesence, parents and teachers warn children about "peer pressure" and the dangers of choosing the "wrong" kind of group. Images of teenagers smoking and drinking excessively or joining gangs are presented as consequences of "peer pressure." Even images of football "hooligans" creating all sorts of trouble after games repeatedly shown on television adds to the idea that even a non-violent person may somehow become violent when in a group. A relatively recent news article about teenagers who performed violent attacks on strangers and videotaped these "pranks" caused concern regarding group pressures. In the article, Jay Reeve, a psychologist at Bradley Hospital at Brown University in Providence, states: "Group pressure can override common sense fairly easily for these folks. ... Teens tend not to have developed a clear sense of right and wrong, apart from their peers." The immediate result, he concludes, is that teens are more prone to impulsive, violent behavior. Additionally, Dr. Alice Sterling Honig, professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University in New York agrees that violence is often linked to peer acceptance and states that, "murderous feelings and triumph of physical power are glorified and held up as splendors by society (3)." To be an individual is praised, to be in a group is to be dependent and to cause trouble. The message too often is that to be easily influenced by others is to be weak and in a dangerous position.

I still did not get a clear explanation on how this change how or why we behave differently. Then I read French sociologist and philosopher, Emile Durkheim's view on group behavior, or more specifically, "group consciousness." Durkheim feels that attempts to explain "irrational" behavior are "post facto attempts to explain socially generated compulsions which cannot be understood nor controlled." I agree with Durkheim's statement because linking group behavior with irrationality seems too clear cut. Also, is positive group behavior considered to be irrational then? Durkheim also states that, "social psychology has its own laws that are not those of individual psychology" and that there is a "conflictual ebb and flow between singularity and community, self and group...on the one hand is our individuality and, more particularly, our body in which it is based; on the other it is everything in us that expresses something other than ourselves...(These) mutually contradict and deny each other (6).." Both Durkheim and German Sociologist Max Weber not only agreed that individual and collective states of mind are different but also that being in a group as opposed to being alone is "transcendence", an "extraordinary altered state of consciousness among individuals in a group, which Durkheim called "collective effervescence." Also, unlike the idea that non-western people are collectivists and western people are individualists, Durkheim proposes that the individual and the collective state of mind are within all people and that there is a constant struggle between these two states. Furthermore, Durkheim and Weber see the individual as egoistic and immoral but subdued within the transformative grip of the social (1).

An interesting question was raised by a former Biology 202 student, who wanted to know if terrorists are as crazy as we think they are and whether their brains function very different from ours. Of course, most of us would assume that terrorists are crazy. But what she found out was that terrorists are, in fact, like us. Clark McCauley, Professor of Psychology at Bryn Mawr notes that terrorists are not crazy and that "psychopathology and personality disorder no more likely among terrorists than among non-terrorists from the same background (5)." This caught my attention because terrorists are a perfect (negative) example of individuals who crave membership in a group or organization where the members are like family members to each other, "each with their role, and each providing support for their fellow terrorists (5)" The thought of many individuals giving up their lives for a cause or a group of people seems downright crazy to many people. This "blind loyalty" (5) may signal irrationality but I also think that these terrorists may have individual interests in mind. After all, didn't the terrorists of September 11 kill in order to enter paradise? Is this not individual interest? Terrorists are also said to "crave power" (5) and perhaps even fame and notoriety. And what about the fact that stockbrokers follow crowds in the interest of the individual.

I had hoped to find more information on this topic but the lack of information on positive group behavior (online) indicates that group behavior is generally thought of as irrational. It would have been great to find out more on positive group behavior for instance, my favorite bands would not create wonderful music if there were no such thing as "group consciousness". I have reached to the conclusion that all the answers I have found are too clear-cut. I agree most with Durkheim in believing that both the individual and group modes exist within us, struggling with each other and maybe even working with each other. Maybe how we behave in groups reflects how we are as individuals, or how we would like to be as individuals.

I would like to conclude this paper by mentioning that there are studies being done on the collective decision-making by ants (of the genus Lepotothorax), which looks at "how individual cognitive abilities are designed to optimize group behavior (4)." I think studies likes these are a great starting point to understanding why we humans behave the way we do.

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WWW Sources

1) Psychology is the Key

2) How antisocial and prosocial coping influence the support process among men and women in the U.S. Postal Service

3), ABC News Online , Punch-Drunk Teens: Experts Say Peer Pressure, Media Fuel Youth Violence

4) Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University , Collective nest site choice by ant colonies

5) the Serendip Website , Terrorists: How different are they? By Stephanie Habelow

6) Dept. of Anthropology Boston University , Charisma, Crowd Psychology and Altered States of Consciousness by Charles Lindholm


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