With world problems threatening to spiral out of control, it is easy to blame others for what is going on. It is easy to forget that a lot of the problems found within our society can be attributable not to the personalities of those in charge, but to basic facets of how groups work and the contexts surrounding them. By understanding how groups do, and do not, work well we can compensate for many of these shortcomings, but only if we are wise enough to understand them.

4556937493_692c67aa01_oThe problems we are facing are not just a result of an unethical system in which the pursuit of profit seems to trump all other values in decision making. Neither is capitalism, or the government, responsible. These are all just shaping forces which, like the racial ideology of the Nazis, help people within the system better accept and fulfill their roles; their societal cubbies.

1. Social Norming

It is no secret that groups create norms, or expected and accepted behavioral codes, and reinforce these norms within the group. These norms can even violate the individual understanding or expectations of the group members, but yet remain stable within the group due to the strength of the context.

The ability of groups to continue to function, upholding behavioral standards in violation of the individual standards of most of the members, is founded on two basic properties of groups: a diffusion of responsibility, and depersonalization.

2. Responsibility diffusion

Diffusion of responsibility refers to the fact that the more people within a group, the less each individual person associates themselves with or feels responsible for consequences, which can be seen especially in regard to emergencies. This is why people often just stare at accidents, and why horrible things, like rape and incest, are frequently seen in cults comprised largely of relatively empathic people.

3. Depersonalization and/or deindividuation

Depersonalization/deindividuation is seen when the members of the group lose their individual identity and instead merge with the group itself: replacing their personal identity with the group identity. They come to see themselves as “more as the interchangeable exemplars of a social category than as unique personalities defined by their differences from others,” and thereby give up their typical ideas of right, wrong, and normal.

Groups always have a certain level of homogenity -or sameness- for instance in regard to age, interests, or goals. Most institutional groups have concrete goals around which their norms and social identity are based. This can, of course, create problems when the goals are based around abstract values like “profit” or “high scores,” and made largely independant of the external consequences of the fulfillment of these goals.

2890908342_fd0bcd0a1f_b[1]4. Conformity

Not only does behavior get “normed,” but also ideas, opinions, and ways of thinking. Not only are the decisions and views of the group members unconciously shaped by the others, but groups are prone to make decisions that are more extreme than the normal positions of the group members, known as group polarisation.

5. Exclusion of new ideas

When we proceed to then factor in the fact groups tend to neglect exclusive information in favor of consensus, and often reject novel, controvertial, and alternative ideas, then it becomes clear that groups can easily fall into negative structures and have a hard time noticing or fixing these problems.

These negative aspects of groups, ironically, are typically seen in highly cohesive groups, or groups which are tightly bound together. These groups tend to have the best performance (especially in smaller groups), and higher level of member satisfaction. This makes highly cohesive groups a double-edged sword: both useful in terms of boosting productivity and mood within the organization, but also create an atmosphere where non-conformist ideas, and people, can be rejected or not given the proper respect.

How to fix it:

So, now that we have covered a little about how groups work, we should be asking ourselves: how can we keep the positive group effects while reducing their costs and risks?

The most obvious answer is to submerge the highly cohesive, goal oriented groups, into an envelope of transparency. When outside feedback, and eyes, are on the group then the likelihood of dysfunctional norms being exposed, and brought to concious discussion within the group, is raised. The likelihood of novel ideas being ignored within the group remains intially the same, but outside feedback can bring controvertial, yet genius, ideas to the forefront of the discussion.

Of course, this would also serve to lessen externalities. When BP’s board of directors, and their meetings, were public record then decisions to use Corexit would likely have come under public scrutiny before, instead of after, its widespread use. Transparency would thus not eliminate the problems, but instead work to counter-balance them. Decisions made behind closed doors are often made without thinking of all the variables, problems, and externalities that the decision entails.

The real world is not simple, and world problems are not caused by a small cabal of evil elites. Instead, world problems are an accumulation of a mountain of small problems, little decisions, and many people unwittingly aiding the destruction of the world. Of course, that is not to say there aren’t psychopaths in leadership positions of many big companies and governments, but that their damage is amplified by the systems we allow them to operate in.

We are all human, and we all have different strengths and weaknesses. To some extent we are all influened by group processes whether we are concious of it or not, in the same way we have all felt and delt with cognitive dissonance. The object is thus not to pretend the problems do not exist or attempt to blame them on individual people, but instead to recognize why these problems continue to occur and how to best compensate for them.