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Weekly 3: Uncovering group influence

Summary: Acknowledge your biases. See others in yourself. Choose your social circle wisely. (~5 min r

Idea Journal Weekly 3

May 3 · Issue #137 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Acknowledge your biases. See others in yourself. Choose your social circle wisely. (~5 min read)

#1. We all have biases -- it helps to be aware of them
Social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner have found in their research that we tend to associate our identity and self-esteem with group membership.
Tajfel and Turner write in their paper The Social Identity of Intergroup Behavior that there are two effects of this tendency:
1. In-group favoritism: we favor those in our group. 
2. Out-group bias: we’re biased against those outside our group.
Their research, which has been corroborated by other studies, helps explain the durable attachments many of us have to various groups: from ethnicities and religions, to companies and sports teams.
You might expect this. 
But Tafjel and Turner found that group membership can be just as influential when the makeup of the group is arbitrary.
In one experiment, they split strangers into groups using a coin toss to determine group membership.
Tafjel and Turner told one group that they were together because they liked one type of art.
As a result, the members of that group saw their fellow members as more agreeable than members of the others groups. 
Even though they were strangers selected at random, and weren’t art connoisseurs.
#2. We're less independent than we think
Author and researcher Robert Greene writes in his book The Laws of Human Nature that you’re not as much of an individual as you think. 
As Greene puts it: “To a great extent, your thoughts and belief systems are heavily influenced by the people who raised you, your colleagues at work, your friends, and the culture at large.”
You’re under subtle pressure to fit in, and you will respond to this without being aware of it. 
Here are two tests to help you see how influenced you are by the groups you belong to: 
1. Think of how many times you’ve promoted an idea that is contrary to the group’s position on some fundamental issue, and then held onto that idea for a long period. You probably can’t think of many times.
2. Look at the bad decisions made by a group that you belong to, and how often you went along with them.
None of us can escape the influence of group membership. We are all susceptible. 
But Greene notes that some of us are more susceptible than others because of insecurities: “The less we are certain about our self-worth as individuals, the more we are unconsciously drawn toward fitting in and blending ourselves into the group spirit.”
By displaying conformity, we gain the superficial approval of the group. 
We also cover up our insecurities in the process.
But while the group’s approval is fleeting, our insecurities remain – “we must continually get people’s attention to feel validated.”
For Greene, the way out of this cycle is to increase your self-esteem: “If you feel strong and confident about what makes you unique – your tastes, your values, your own experience – you can more easily resist the group effect.”
You can rely on your work and accomplishments to anchor your self-opinion. Then you won’t be as driven to constantly seek approval and attention.
Greene acknowledges that the point of increasing your self-esteem isn’t to become self-absorbed and cut off from the group. 
Outwardly, you do what you can to fit in. But inwardly, you subject the group’s beliefs and ideas to scrutiny – comparing them with your own, adapting those that have merit, and rejecting others that go against your experience. 
As Greene puts it: “You are putting the focus on the ideas themselves, not on where they came from.”
#3. In some groups, membership is a choice
Author and researcher Josh Kaufman writes in his book The Personal MBA that over time, you become more like the people you spend time with, and less like the people in other groups.
For Kaufman, this observation is explained by two tendencies: convergence and divergence. 
Convergence is the tendency for group members to become more alike over time.
It also explains how groups tend to police their members’ behavior. 
As Kaufman puts it, a group’s norms can act like gravity: “if they are violated, others will exert an influence on the rebel to bring them back in line.”
For example, say you work at a company that has a workaholic culture. If it’s normal to start work at 6am and finish at 10pm, then it can be difficult to work shorter hours. Violating the norms is a signal to the other members that you don’t belong in the group. 
Divergence is the tendency for groups to become less like other groups over time. 
Group behavior often evolves to distinguish members of one group from other groups. This means that a group’s norms will change over time to ensure that the group can’t be confused with another group or imitator. 
For example, divergence explains why fashions among the socialite class in New York City change so quickly and dramatically. 
In such a social circle, dress is a way to signal your wealth or status. But when the latest fashions start appearing in a store like Target allowing others to imitate a given look, that social circle will change its fashions to compensate.
Kaufman suggests that you can use convergence and divergence to your advantage. 
If you want to become less shy and more outgoing, spending more time with social people will start to influence your behavior. On the other hand, if you find yourself spending time with people whose behaviors aren’t serving you, break away. 
“If your social circle isn’t supporting your goals, change your social circle.”
Other Weekly 3 issues about group dynamics
Quote of the Week
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it, you’ll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
- Writer Rudyard Kipling in a 1935 interview
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