The power of social to do harm

There are obvious benefits to being social.

It creates a sense of belonging and it plays an undeniably important role in shaping your identity. It offers protection and enables growth thorough cooperation and sharing. It is efficient.

It is no surprise that psychologists have isolated social proof and reciprocity and peer pressure and the like as powerful drivers of behaviour.

But gangs and suicide bombers are also testimony to the power of social forces. Unarguably these are not good. In fact extremists of any kind are linguistically a misnomer in the sense that ‘extremity’ implies being isolated, single and somehow rare. On the contrary, extremists are some of the most closely knit social groups that exist. Their beliefs are extreme, but they are highly socialised.

As participants in various social groups, we must learn to appreciate that sometimes belonging to two social groups are mutually exclusively. In some cases it is obvious in others not so much.

You can’t be a member of two opposing gangs – that is obvious. As groups grow they become weaker after a certain point.

Let's compare one group everyone is familiar with (Christians) with the company/ organisation that employs us.

You can’t be a real Christian and also be ‘of this world’. Christianity is losing ground in developed countries – not because it is being challenged by more educated people who have a better grasp of science.  There are many believing scientists – those belief systems are not irreconcilable at all.

(Ironically, it is more likely that people who have a poor grasp of philosophy to end up favouring scientism, mistaking that for scientific thinking. But that is another topic for another day.)

Christians are losing ground because the glue that bound them together (strong beliefs in specific norms and values guided by the Bible) are weakened. Christians are progressively unwinding the more polarising beliefs (about sex, marriage, homosexuality etc.) and it is this misguided attempt at seeking acceptance with the broader society that makes the group less distinctive and undermines the loyalties that the existing members have to the group.

As the group seeks to grow and spread its influence, it finds that it has to become more permeable at the edges of its definition. And this causes it to lose shape.

The same principle applies to companies who grow beyond a certain size. Whilst the Dunbar number may not be scientific, it is intuitively a very appealing concept.

When companies lose their founders/ great leaders (Apple>>Jobs) then social cohesion suffers. We call it something different – we may call it culture or values for instance; but ultimately it is the glue that loses its power to make the component parts adhere to each other.

This has implications for community engagement/ management and all other groups too.

We all want to belong to groups, but there are lessons we should heed:

  1. The bigger the group gets, the weaker the social cohesion
  2. Not all groups are positive
  3. Blind conformity is dangerous

Chuck Norris and Rambo have now joined forces in The Expendables, but belonging is not always all it is cracked up to be. 

We need our fair share of Lone Rangers too.