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The Psychology of Groups and its Influence on Human Evil

April 29, 2009

people_fightingScott Peck is one of my favorite authors.  He first touched my heart when I randomly picked up The Road Less Traveled back in college (about 16 years ago).  This masterful psychiatrist taught me about human psychology and personal development by describing his interaction with patients over the years.  I went on to read Further Along the Road Less Traveled and The Road Less Traveled and Beyond as well, which were equally impactful.  For some reason, although I knew about another book by him, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, and even bought a copy, I could not bring myself to read it.  It just seemed too dark (judging by the title and description), while his other works were uplifting, positive, feel-good books.  Well, perhaps being a little bit older and more exposed to the difficulties of life, my interest in People of the Lie was recently sparked and I devoured the book in “short order” (for me, that means about 4 weeks).  While a full book report is on the way, I will be touching on some key lessons from the book over the coming weeks.

In discussing human evil, Peck contemplates the psychology of groups relative to that of individuals.  He reaches a conclusion that has been supported by other philosophers and social scientists over time, such as Dario Salas, and has also been quite apparent to me as I observe human behavior.

“For many years it has seemed to me that human groups tend to behave in much the same ways as human individuals – except at a level that is more primitive and immature than one might expect…why they are, from a psychological standpoint, less than the sum of their parts…one of those causes is the problem of specialization.” (p. 217)

So basically, the idea is that as we get into groups, everyone starts focusing on their particular role within the group, with less regard towards what others are doing or the group output as a whole.  I see this all the time with companies that lack good leadership or that don’t encourage social interaction and team work within the company culture.  Everyone is just “doing their own job” and can care less whether someone else is stealing from the company, slacks off or gets fired.  Peck actually demonstrates the dangers of this in a case study of the U.S. military during the Vietnam war, giving an account of how group evil works in a way where everybody is able to avoid accountability.  Specialization, Peck argues, causes a fragmentation of conscience.  I wholeheartedly agree, although of course, we are not saying that “groups are all bad”; on the contrary, just that all kinds of new difficulties arise when we move from individual to group psychology.

“Whenever the roles of individuals within a group become specialized, it becomes both possible and easy for the individual to pass the moral buck to some other part of the group.  In this way, not only does the individual forsake his conscience but the conscience of the group as a whole can become so fragmented and diluted as to be nonexistent…any group will remain potentially conscienceless and evil until such time as each and every individual holds himself or herself directly responsible for the behavior of the whole group – the organism – of which he or she is a part.” (p. 218)

So how can groups become more conscious?  Naturally, it starts with individuals within the group, especially those of greatest influence, in leadership positions.  Conscious leaders generally breed conscious groups.  As social creatures, we ought to be aware of the groups that we participate in and question our purpose in those groups.  If you are part of something that you cannot or are not willing to take responsibility for – including the parts that you do not handle – then, you may be supporting some or many kinds of unethical practices.  Think about the recent Wall Street meltdown and how bankers and mortgage brokers pleaded innocence, saying things like “Hey, we were just doing our jobs, what we were told to do.  We didn’t make the rules, just trying to execute as instructed.”  And their bosses blame the government, while the government blames “global forces outside of our control.”

See how easy it is for nobody to take responsibility?  That phenomena starts in small groups, like families, and gets more complexified in larger groups, like countries.  The key takeaway on groups is that even when individual members are not in essence evil, the activities of the group overall can yield destructive results.  There are forces at work within groups that are beyond the consciousness of the individual members.  Be mindful of your associations and strive to be part of groups that are transparent and interactive, whose purpose and leadership inspire you.

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