The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Following the crowd

In any group, a sense of “people like us” will establish itself. The way a newcomer will experience it is through people in the group who role model how members of the group “do things like this”. For those who join, following the others is the way they can belong. Eventually, it establishes the group’s culture.

Given a culture, the group will seek to secure it. You’ll recognize it for example with the habits that don’t disappear. To change a culture it takes people who do it with intention and find others who follow them.

The film “A few good men” highlights how much power role modeling and even more so, peer pressure, can develop. In the story, two Marines have been accused of murdering a colleague. They base their defense on the fact that the victim was given a “code red” – a common, but unsanctioned, exercise where enlisted men and women discipline each other. Corporal Barnes is one of the witnesses who testify, in this scene he shares with pride how dutifully he followed the rules. In another scene Col. Nathan Jessup finds himself confronted with his notion of what the right thing to do is.

Finding themselves in court, they both have to deal with the difference between written and unwritten rules of the group. And are confronted with the system they put in place to enforce the rules.

Groups will feel uncomfortable when the rules are not being followed. It’s a threat to their idea of “how to do things like this”. Reacting to this threat they’ll choose either of two methods: role modeling or peer pressure. Both spread, but in different ways.

Role modeling allows individuals to show how things are to be done in the group. They will be followed if they are perceived as leaders or if their actions allow them to establish themselves as leaders.

Peer pressure, on the other hand, is the way subgroups and individuals will use to enforce the behavior they assume to be right. It’s usually set up using fear to establish the pressure.

In times of crisis and uncertainty, the habits in the group are challenged by the crisis and uncertainty hinders the move forward as the direction lacks clarity. Written and unwritten rules suddenly don’t apply as usual, leading to uncertainty.

Another source of uncertainty is the lack of reliable information. This is evident in circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic where needed information simply doesn’t exist yet. As it’s an unbearable thought for many, they try to make sense of the situation and multiply available ideas. Sorting and filtering the information as well as reasoning becomes the individual’s task and responsibility.

It’s a situation in which intentional role modeling will appeal to reason and peer pressure to fear.

What we often see, is that following the crowd will most often mean to follow the fear. And with enough fear around, lack of concern may establish itself as one variant of fear. Instead of acknowledging the fear it is denied.



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