Which Group Are You In?

Five dogs sittingWe often hear that humans are ‘social animals’. After the Second World War psychologists became increasingly interested in how we relate to being in groups as well as not being in groups. A group being something that has its own identity. The department that you work in is a group, if you’re at school your class can be a group, your friends are a group, your family, your gender, vegetarians, carnivores, graduates, smokers, non-smokers, even users of certain computer operating systems and so on. You see how here lies the potential for discrimination and racial hatred.

Many studies have been carried out and replicated about group behaviour and their results all appear to reach the same conclusion; by randomly categorising people into groups is in itself enough to induce bias and discrimination between those groups. So again, just like your thinking triggers categories in your mind, it appears that this is an involuntary action. Perhaps it stems from evolution where there are ‘safety in numbers’.

Let’s look again at these experiments and re-iterate their simplicity. Remember these studies have been replicated with consistent results. You randomly divide a number of people into two or more groups. You may tell participants they have been divided due to a specific reason or you can not mention anything. The point is that it doesn’t matter. You then ask the individuals to make choices regarding the group they belong to, the ‘in-group’. Results indicate that they not only always favour their group, but some choices they make favour the group over and above themselves as individuals. That is they are willing to make a choice that would be detrimental to them as an individual if it favours the group. The group clearly comes first. In addition, there is a definite bias against the other ‘out-group(s)’. A simple illustration of this is among rival sports teams and their supporters.

So what does this mean in everyday life? Many of us live by acting out roles determined by what we perceive is expected of our group and we’re in a constant loop of routine. When something happens that interrupts this loop some are at a loss as to how to move forward. At this stage it can be really helpful to evaluate everything you do. Are some decisions you’re making putting the needs of the group(s) you belong to ahead your own needs? Or are you making choices that reinforce that you definitely don’t belong to a group? Both can be unnecessary and detrimental to you.

Golden key in spotlightRemember belonging to a group doesn’t mean that you have to physically be together with others that have a similar goal or interest, you may have never met your group members! A situation such as this can potentially make you act even more in favour of the perceived group. Let’s say you want to see yourself as an entrepreneur. What do you do? Perhaps you look at other entrepreneurs and try to emulate their achievements. Or maybe you admire individuals that have achieved amazing success from nothing and again you’ll study their life and try to imitate the early steps they took. Even if you don’t actually do anything, you may want to create that impression to others in the hope that it will still somehow become true. All the time you’re desperately trying to belong to that group which can make your actions even more extreme compared to actually belonging to it.

This is all fine, most of us need goals and there’s nothing wrong with striving for something. But when you find your life seems to be carrying on without you, it’s imperative you take stock of the source of some decisions you’re making. Why do you want to achieve what you’re doing? To please somebody else? To gain their approval? Sometimes people do things because they thought it was expected of them or, ‘it’s what my mother would have wanted’. Other times they assume it is what their mother would have wanted despite never being told this. Even if it was, people change their views over time and you know anyone that loves or did love you would ultimately want your happiness, regardless of any expectations they had or you perceived they had.

Two brainsAllow me to stress something. This is just another piece of the jigsaw that makes up conditioning. It isn’t about the knowledge of understanding the studies or concepts I have highlighted, that’s the easy part. Sometimes people see such ideas as acquiring knowledge that once understood can be put aside or used as a stepping stone for something else to ‘learn’. Don’t make that mistake. Rarely are we willing to look within ourselves to find fault. When we try we tend to project that fault onto others and it becomes an endless game between victim and perpetrator. Use these ideas to reflect, doing so will strengthen awareness and you’ll begin to reclaim control of your life and of who you are.


How You Think: Introduction to Categories

Wooden archive boxesWe categorise everything. Our minds are filled with categories and everything we understand is based on how we group information together. This process is automatic and it is this that I’d like to highlight because being involuntary makes it extremely powerful.

It appears that, in various forms, categorisation occurs across species so it’s safe to assume it’s the most efficient way nature has provided of understanding the world.
This method means that you don’t have to keep re-evaluating everything as though it were the first time. When you go for a job interview, you have an understanding that you shouldn’t dress like a clown, unless you’re going to a circus. But it isn’t just knowing what to do in any situation. You think in terms of categories all the time. Words that we hear or read trigger categories within us. Check out these:

George W. Bush, Vegetarianism. Middle East conflicts. Religion, Hunting.

All of this list will trigger a category in your mind, some may be more emotive than others. This process is like a reflex, you can’t stop it. We can see how this works in our favour; it’s quick and allows minimal processing time as we can link it to what we already know which further reinforces or adapts the category for future use.

You’re actually already aware of this to some extent. Remember the last time you thought carefully before saying something because you didn’t want to come across the ‘wrong way’? This is you knowing that something you say can trigger a category in another person, but you’re aware that it isn’t the category you want to bring to their mind, so you look for other ways to express yourself so they think of the category you want them to bring to mind. This is one example, yet it happens all the time, in every communication and all the time you’re listening, reading and just being alive.

The more we look at this the more we see that cultures, beliefs and the media contribute to creating and shaping our categories. Advertising agencies and marketing departments work hard to ensure their products are linked with positive categories. Politicians say what they think we want to hear triggering positive categories, especially when they want our vote.

We’re scared of the ‘unknown’ whether it be an illness doctors are unable to define or perhaps when your boss tells you that there will be some ‘big changes’. Until we know at least enough to trigger something in our minds, we become anxious because we simply don’t know, we don’t have a category ready, no plan of action as to how we might respond.

Box wrapped in brown paper with blank labelThis process does have it’s limitations. It acts like a filter on a camera lens, everything you see, hear, feel, smell and taste is linked in your mind’s filing system so it’s subjective. When you’re arguing with someone and they accuse you of, ‘not listening’ it’s usually because the point that they have just made represents one of their categories, but it’s theirs, not yours. You only hear the words and these trigger your own, and thus, different category. It’s a little like somebody telling you that you don’t love them any more and to you that sounds absurd. You both have your own definitions of what love is, you just haven’t raised the discussion to that level of awareness so you’re merely exchanging box labels, not the contents that contain the real essence and nature of the conversation.

As you spend time recognising these thought patterns you’ll see it influences everything you do. It isn’t all negative but it’s extremely useful to be constantly aware of why you think the way you do. Raise your level of awareness so you recognise where a certain opinion comes from, are you just regurgitating something you’ve just heard? What was your position before you heard it? Take that extra time when somebody says something to think about what else they could have meant, particularly during a disagreement. What is the source of your thinking? There is certainly an argument that we can never be rid of such thought patterns, after all, it appears to be natural so what’s the problem? This isn’t so much about breaking free, it’s more about spending an occasional moment to think about why you behave and think the way you do. Focus on your awareness and enjoy examining not so much as to who you are, but why you are.