Around the County

The power of groups

By Pat Stuart
Posted 10/14/21

Some of you kept your in-person social and economic groups going through the COVID crisis, hoping the virus would not land and spread through your numbers. Other groups have come back to in-person …

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Around the County

The power of groups

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Some of you kept your in-person social and economic groups going through the COVID crisis, hoping the virus would not land and spread through your numbers. Other groups have come back to in-person meetings despite the serious and growing spike in COVID cases in the county.

This afternoon, soon after I send this column off to the newspaper, I’m attending the first such in-person meeting of a large social group in nearly two years. Without doubt, a lot of people will be there.

Why? Why take that risk when it’s no great hardship nor serious cost to resort to Zoom or one of the other online group services?

I can hear you saying, “We need the personal interaction, the hugs, the community.” Which is what the experts who study us and our behavior say, as well.

Just to see what else it’s all about, I consulted Google, where I learned a bit.

First, and just reinforcing what we all know, groups give us a cornucopia of delights. Family groups shape our personality and our values. Religious groups form our beliefs and ideals, our morals and ethics. Social groups give us support and esteem, leading to assurance that we can control our own lives. Some say that groups are even essential to our health and well-being, that without them we become more vulnerable to disease, prone to injury, and even subject to death. 

In the workplace, groups function to problem-solve, to pool experience and thinking, to create a company culture while filling many of the same needs as social groupings.

Wow! With all of that and much, much more, how could anyone even consider not being part of a group? Or, for that matter, to belong to as many groups as possible?

I was ready to sign on to groups being not just an essential part of the human condition but a very positive one.

Then, I began reading about the other side of the coin. Belonging to groups, we’re told, isn’t all good. In fact, it can be downright deleterious to our health and well-being.

Groups — any kind of group — can give its members an “us versus them” mentality. We’re White; they’re Black. We’re Christians; they’re Muslims. We’re rich; they’re poor. We have; they don’t. We live in Powell; they live in Cody.

By the same token, you get groups who take that to extremes. Think ISIS and the Proud Boys, who certainly weren’t conceived in a vacuum or operate in one. 

Along that line, you don’t need me to even briefly enumerate the effects of group identity spiraling out of control, downward from discrimination to genocide. And all of that has been front and center of human behavior since we emerged from the mud. We know about it. We mostly tolerate it. We rarely think about it, and almost never try to control the extremes even when we see the effects in our ourselves or our own families. 

Then, we manage to convince ourselves that it’s either not-so-bad or downright good. Go figure.

Here’s another negative: Groups are poor decision-makers. No surprise, we’re outstanding mental gymnasts and can dumb down in a heartbeat when dropped into a group.

In short, the much-vaunted team approach in corporate America may be a pretty poor way to run a business. At least, sociologists warn executives, managers, and leaders that either you need to be aware of the negative aspects of group dynamics and work to channel them positively or ... find a better way to “run a railroad,” as my mother would have said.

Studies show that if you measure the ability of each person in a group to solve a problem individually, then put them together with the same problem without the benefit of strong leadership and clearly defined goals, the group’s decision is, on average, a third less efficient than the individuals’. That’s the dumbing-down effect.

Well, books about the pros and cons of groups and our behavior within them abound. Some may even make fascinating reading. My point is that our human need to be part of a group is so strong that, even with remote alternatives available, most of us will adapt to or risk almost anything to maintain our group memberships.

COVID, move over.

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