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Giving in to Groups

In a society of constant grouping and organizing, our relentless need to be accepted keeps us from holding on to our own individuality. Doris Lessing pointed out in her essay, "Group Minds" that, "when we're in a group, we tend to think as that group does… We also find our thinking changing because we belong to a group." Most people desire group belonging to such an extent that they almost fear being singled out, leading them to classic "group mentality". I agree that indeed, we often surrender to the obedience mechanism of the group, regardless of our own beliefs of right or wrong. Necessity places us in all kinds of groups, but through not understanding social laws, I think we give way for them to commandeer our very individualism. People who are unaware of the group mentality are destined to become prey to it.

We all want to be accepted, to belong, and to be wanted, but at what cost? If we, as a people, could tap into the great deal of information we have acquired about ourselves to further understand the implications and rules of the typical group, we could then relate with each other while still keeping perspective of ourselves. However, a lack of this understanding makes retaining control of our own opinions intensely difficult. We can assume that most individuals living in the Western World have experienced just this at some stage in their lives. The following three instances illustrate this idea of caving under group pressure.

A typical test overseen by various psychologists and sociologists, as described by Lessing, would require a group of people to assess and compare the length or size of 2 pieces of wood. These pieces would be very similar, but just different enough to be perceptible. The majority of the group, all but 1 or 2 people, would be taken into the researcher's confidence and instructed to absolutely insist that the different blocks were the same size. The uninstructed minority will attest to the fact that the blocks are indeed marginally different. However, the majority will still insist that the blocks are quite identical, leaving the minority subjects in a state of incomprehension, exasperation, and even irritation before, more often than not, eventually falling into line and admitting that the blocks are indeed alike. One in that situation might think, "Well, the blocks must be the same. Why else would everybody be so adamant in saying so?" Just as Lessing acknowledges, "It is the hardest thing in the world to maintain an individual dissident opinion, as a member of a group."

From what I have seen, maintaining an individual opinion is even more challenging for a teenager. As an instructional aide working in a high school, I see this being demonstrated on a daily basis. One particular student of mine, "Billy", gave way to some rather poor decisions due to group pressures. When I first met "Billy" in September of '99, he seemed to have a decent sense of himself. He was trying to become a good student. He didn't smoke, drink, or do drugs. Things were going relatively well for him. Then, he met "Michael" and "Joe". These two kids were not so straight laced. "Billy" fell in with them almost immediately. However, as "Billy" brought his intelligence and wit to their group, "Michael" and "Joe" only brought the glorification of their delinquent actions. After a few weeks of this, "Billy" fell right into line with the others: smoking, drinking, and even dabbling with marijuana. Indeed, the group mind, that had shone such a light on these things, had won him over.

On the other hand, even educated adults are prone to giving in to the opinions of a group, however contrary to their own. In the case of anthropologist Richard Borshay Lee, this is all too familiar. Lee was doing some fieldwork in the Kalahari (South Africa) with the !Kung Bushmen. During Christmas time, it is customary for local Tswana-Herero tribes to slaughter an ox for their Bushmen neighbors as a gesture of goodwill. Being his last Christmas with the !Kung, Lee decided to provide the ox himself as his own goodwill gesture. He found and purchased the largest, meatiest ox that money could buy. The beast must have weighed about 1,200 lbs. On the hoof. Lee was quite pleased with himself. By the next morning, word had spread of the big black ox chosen by Lee. From that morning on, all Lee heard from the people was how much of a "meatless bag of bones", as they put it, his ox was. The people contended time and again that although the ox was surely large, it was merely big boned and thin to the point of death. Lee was taken aback, confused, and rather disappointed. "Well, about eight different people have told me I got gypped," Lee pointed out to his wife, "that the ox is nothing but bones." By the time Christmas came, Lee was a bit downhearted from the constant barrage of complaints as well as the thought of not having enough meat to feed the great number of people that would be attending. However, when the time came to slaughter the ox, it was quite loaded with fat and more than enough meat. Lee was left bewildered once again. He had truly come to believe that, just as the group had told him, the ox was no good. Yet in fact, the ox was more than perfectly fine. And so, the Bushmen merrily danced and feasted for 2 days. Lee later learned that it is customary amongst the !Kung to criticize a man's kill, like Lee's ox, so as to prevent arrogance. Consequently, Lee was nonetheless a victim of giving in to the majority opinion.

So it would seem we are all vastly influenced by the groups in which we are a part, more so than we would ever lead ourselves to believe. Just as in the 3 situations previously discussed, we all fall victim to this mechanism of group obedience. The problem lies in remaining oblivious to this phenomenon. Whether we be influenced into making choices contrary to our better judgement or convinced to metaphorically label black as white when we know better, few of us are able to escape the group mind. In summary, Lessing put it best when she emphasized that, "We are group animals still, and there is nothing wrong with that. But what is dangerous is not the belonging to a group, or groups, but not understanding the social laws that govern groups and govern us."

Works Cited

1. Lee, Richard Borshay. "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari." Annual Editions in Anthropology 00/01: Ed. Elvio Angeloni. Guilford, CT: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 2000. 27-30

2. Lessing, Doris. "Group Minds." Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum 7th: Ed. Laurence Behrens, Leonard J. Rosen. New York: Longman, 2000. 333-335