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Weekly 3: Your individuality vs. the group

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Idea Journal Weekly 3

September 19 · Issue #209 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.


Summary: We’re all influenced by the groups we belong, including broader society. A key step to retaining your individuality is acknowledging how groups influence you. This issues explores a few ideas on how to do that.
(~5 min read)

#1. Society's lies that you believe
Entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant writes on his blog that, “What society wants for you is not always what’s good for you.”
That’s because while individuals search for truth, groups search for consensus—and society is the largest group. 
As Ravikant puts it: “Even smart, critical thinkers go along with many of society’s truths, knowing deep down they are lies.”
Here are two examples: 
1. The idea that money won’t make you happy is a societal “truth,” but it’s not an individual truth. 
Look at all the individuals around you trying to make money. 
“They know money can remove a lot of sources of unhappiness and get them to a point where happiness is under their control. It becomes their choice, as opposed to being inflicted upon them by external forces.”
2. Another societal lie is that you send your kids to school to be educated.
As Ravikant points out, they may get an hour of education in a given day, but the rest of the time is indoctrination. 
“They’re taught at the speed of the slowest student, and they’re mostly taught subjects that are irrelevant or obsolete.”
School is really a combination of education, socialization, compliance training, and babysitting.
Seeking truth as an individual is hard.
“You essentially have to understand, with deep conviction, things that you’ve been programmed to misunderstand.”
#2. Having biases is natural, 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.
#3. You're less independent than you 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.”
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
Idea Journal
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