I don’t like groups. I never have. There’s something about group dynamics that I find more than a little frightening. Too often groups develop an entity all their own and while it may beautifully reflect many individuals within the group, it never reflects all. The loudest voices are often perceived as having the “best” or the “right” ideas and others who are not as loud or are just in the minority fall into line or if they don’t, are seen as threatening renegades and nonconformists. Aspie Kid wrote an incredible post last week about something related to this, The Power of Suggestion on his terrific blog Aspie Kid: Perspectives From the Autism Spectrum. While his post is not about group dynamics per se, it is about how easy it is to convince people of things when they perceive the source to be trustworthy or “in the know”.
Studies have been done regarding the power of suggestion and how groups can influence individuals to do and think just about anything. Below is the famous Asch Experiment done in the 1950s; it is truly incredible, as well as troubling. It’s important to note, this experiment has been done repeatedly, but always with neurotypicals. I would be interested to see the results if it were done with Autistics.
More recently Kazuo Mori and Miho Arai redid the Asch Experiment but had each participant wear glasses that showed them the same image, yet each saw different things, thereby making them believe the answer they were giving was correct, unlike the original experiment where all but one participant was told to choose the same answer regardless of what they actually believed. They also used both men and women and found that the results when using women replicated Asch’s, but did not with the men. (That women were more likely to cave and agree with the group or majority view despite what they “knew” to be true is a whole other post!) You can read more about that experiment ‘here‘. Further studies showed that when the participants were acquainted with one another they were even more likely to go along with the majority than when they were strangers to each other.
Seventh grade: I was the new girl at a new school with new kids and teachers in a new home. I was extremely unhappy and had been for many years, though I had little self-awareness. It was just before Easter. There were only a few months left before summer vacation, but I couldn’t imagine how I would get through the year. In my desire to “fit in” I told a great many lies. I had been doing this for years. The lies were so easy and seductive. Words that were understood by the other kids in this small junior high school to have been fabricated. I was shunned and ate my lunch alone by the chain link fence bordering the oval track where I excelled at running the mile, mostly because almost no one else was willing to run the mile, they were much happier running the 50 yard dash. I found a shred of solace in running, and eating my lunch alone next to the oval track made me feel safe. I cannot remember much of that year except that despite this I was surprised to be invited to a slumber party by one of the “in” girls. Everyone was friendly at first and I let my guard down. Without even meaning to I told more lies, all the while ignoring the tug in my stomach that I shouldn’t. Lies were so comforting to me. I preferred the lies to the truth, because I could no longer sort out what the “truth” was.
The following morning all the girls gathered in a group and told me they wanted to talk to me. I knew what was coming. I froze and sat staring out the large window of the large house nestled on a hill. I heard their voices, angry, accusatory, hurt, but it was just noise swirling around me as I gazed out that window at the fog as it slowly, slowly receded over those Northern California foothills, burnt away by the morning sun. Each girl repeated a lie I’d told. Each girl repeated the things I said, often behind the other’s back in my attempt to be liked, to fit in, to be like one of them. My mind went numb. I left my body. Much later, I do not know how much actual time had passed as time stopped, my mother came to pick me up. “How was the slumber party?” my mother asked.
“Fine,” I answered as the car sped away from those girls who I was clearly not like toward our home where I would at last be safe.
In the refuge of my room later that day I felt something click deep inside. I understood that I would never be safe. There was nothing and nowhere I could go. That day was the beginning of a long, painful slide into self-injury, bulimia, anorexia and addiction to quell the beast within. There is nothing like addiction to shut the world out. Addiction is the ultimate “lie”. It is a living lie and betrayal of self. I didn’t have the means to see that my actions had brought me hardship. I did not understand yet that there was another way of being. I didn’t have the necessary tools to guide me because I had long ago forfeited my self, there was no me to find or return to. There was no “I”. Addiction helped me forget the truth.
It is impossible to live in this world and not be part of a group. (Unless you are a hermit.) We humans tend to crave companionship, whatever our neurology. Yet we have a terrible time actually getting along peacefully with one another. It took me thirty years to figure out a way to be with myself that I didn’t hate. Slowly as I practice honesty, being kind and of service to others I was able to very slowly, very tentatively become a part of. Groups can be wonderful. Together we can accomplish and do what no individual can. I am a part of a number of groups that I have come to rely on. But when groups become hotbeds of strife and gossip, where people forget that the groups principles are more important than any one individual’s grievance, I know I must leave them. I spent far too many years betraying my “self”. I know how this ends. And it isn’t pretty.
The Freedom Tower, taken this morning. It represents the full scale of what we humans are capable of – to destroy or create… it’s up to each of us to decide.