As a therapist and introvert, I find that the collective energies of some groups make me feel trapped. While collective energies or intellect can empower us, forces like groupthink can also rob us of our ability to function independently. Even when we think we’re making a decision on our own, we’re often being influenced by the crowd.
In protestors at the Iowa Summit on immigration or at demonstrations against policy brutality across the nation, we can see the psychological phenomenon known as groupthink at work. Coined by psychologist Irvin Janis in 1972, groupthink defines a group of homogenous individuals who develop a mindset that exhibits a me-versus-you or us-versus-them mentality. It’s a phenomenon that you can see not just during protests, however, but among teammates on sports teams, too.
In The Power of Others, Michael Bond shows how we are blind to our own groupthink much of the time. Group forces, he writes, can undermine our ability to evaluate a situation based on our own observations — or, to put it plainly, to think for ourselves.
Let’s say you’re at quiz night at a local bar and have to come up with answers as a team. Even if you’re pretty certain that an answer is wrong, you might find it difficult to disagree with your teammates — so-called majority rule. Something in you, despite that the answer is incorrect, wants to maintain peace and cohesiveness, or to remain part of the pack.
At the start of the book, Bond discusses what he calls emotional chameleons: people whose emotions tend to change based on the surrounding environment, how others react to an event, or the popularity or sensationalism of the event.
Think back to how you (or someone older than you) felt when Princess Diana died in 1997. Most everyone who knew about her death, all over the world, mourned her. There was a certain power in her story that caused people to feel closer to her than they actually were.
During that time, you probably didn’t want to say anything negative about Diana, for fear of being ousted from the conversation — or, in some ways, from society as a whole.
In cases like that, Bond posits, it’s almost impossible to escape groupthink and the power of the collective spirit. You are almost forced to change or ignore your own thoughts, feelings, and perspectives. You become, according to Bond, an emotional chameleon.
Bond explores another interesting way that others influence us: emotional contagion and the automatic synchronization of body language. Synchronization, he explains, shows that we have very little to no control over how we respond to others’ emotions, body language, and even facial expressions. If you’re sitting in a meeting or classroom you might notice yourself mimicking the body language of the speaker or teacher. She crosses her leg, you cross your leg or arms. She raises her voice, you raise yours. She lowers her tone, you lower yours.
Whether or not you recognize it when you do it yourself, you can see people unconsciously mimicking the body language of strangers sitting near them on the bus or at a restaurant.
Bond’s book also made me think further about something I’ve noticed firsthand as a therapist. In general, many clinicians experience burnout due to something called vicarious, or secondary, trauma. We feel the trauma and stress of each client’s own difficult experiences. It is difficult to ask a client questions about every detail of her life, then walk away feeling totally separate from what she’s been through.
In my case, when clients are reporting frightening or emotionally upsetting information, I sometimes notice that my own body language becomes tense or defensive. I automatically mimic the posture or the emotional state of the person telling me their story.
What’s key here, Bond would have us realize, is that your emotional and social responses to a person are heavily influenced by that person’s emotions, feelings, or body language — and not as much your own feelings or thoughts or opinions.
Bond successfully uses both studies and historical examples to illustrate these types of phenomena. The Power of Others is an interesting read — or so I think.
Of course, I may just be mimicking the opinions I read on the back cover.
The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do
Oneworld Publications, May 2014
Paperback, 320 pages