The perils of the group mentality

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If you’ve taken a psychology course, chances are you’ve heard of a term known as ‘diffusion of responsibility.’

In a nutshell, the term stands for the idea that the more people are present in any given situation, the less effort is put forth by the individual.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, this popped into my head after reading a short article in the Chronicle about a prison guard who was forced to keep breaking up a fight that broke out on Muni a while ago.

What struck my attention wasn’t the fight itself, or even the passengers’ reactions – which apparently ranged anywhere from indifference to breaking it up to cheering – it’s what happened afterwards.

According to the guard, after one of the fighters left the bus, everything went back to normal. People went back to what they were doing, and nobody seemed to care what had just happened.

An incident like this is just one example of situations where the individual gets snubbed in favor of the group mentality. Nobody does anything because everyone’s thinking the same thing: “There are plenty of people here; surely one of them will act.”

But the truth is that the only way to guarantee that someone will act is to get up and do it yourself.

Think about it. I’m sure it’s happened to everyone – you’ll be working in a group, and someone pitches an idea you don’t really like. Instead of critiquing it you roll with it, and why? Because it’s easier than stirring things up. Because it’s not your fault specifically, you’re part of the group. No one raindrop thinks it caused the flood, right?

Well, it’s that mentality that makes the flood possible.

I place a lot of value on individual thinking, and I can’t stand it when people go into the groupthink mentality of not wanting to draw attention to themselves by saying what they really feel.

If you don’t say what you feel, what good are you? You’re in this group for a reason, aren’t you? And while it’s certainly possible to get away with this forever, you’re never going to be happy or fulfilled if you sit around on the sidelines saying “it’s okay” while things that you despise and abhor slip by you.

So here’s what I submit to you. The next time you’re working on something and someone proposes something you don’t like, say something. Put forward the effort to make it better instead of letting it be mediocre.

Why? For the simple reason to make it better. The project isn’t just the group’s, it’s yours as well. Why not make it something you’ll be proud to say you worked on?

This isn’t hard. We’re talking baby steps – I’m not asking you to rush into a burning building or pull someone out of a wrecked car. Just state your honest opinion. I think you’ll be surprised at how much you can contribute with one little sentence.