No matter where we look, it seems people are increasingly joining mass political movements that seek to wield power over others with the goal of creating their utopian vision of society. Controlling groups promise we could eradicate all manner of negative societal outcomes if we’d just adopt their ideology.
But being aligned with or a follower of a group isn’t always borne out of logical and rational consideration of that group’s policy proposals and aims. Often, people join a controlling group simply in order to feel powerful. They have visions of stomping the heads of the losing group, or at least shouting in triumph, "My group rules!" We can only understand this tendency — and avoid it in ourselves — if we look closely at group psychology.
It’s Human Desire To Be Part of a Group
In 2020, large political groups and mass cultural movements have engulfed much of our national conversation. We’re more polarized than ever, and groups with very distinct visions of what America is and what it ought to be are vying for influence.
Many who have aligned themselves with controlling groups don’t seem to understand group psychology. They adopt the ideas of a mass movement not out of careful and logical consideration of that group’s ideals and policy proposals, but because they desire power. Philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “Much that passes as idealism is disguised hatred or disguised love of power.”
We join groups to protect ourselves, to be aligned with like-minded people, and to further our interests.
There’s a reason why this is. We’re tribal creatures, and we join groups to protect ourselves, to be aligned with like-minded people, and to further our interests. That’s natural and okay, but the danger of this is that our desire to be part of a group may cause us to fall into groupthink — a psychological phenomenon in which our desire for harmony or conformity to a group results in irrationality or dysfunctional behavior. We may find ourselves supporting horrible ideas and policies just to be accepted by others.
Keeping Groupthink in Check
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a part of a group, we need to be careful to understand our own psychology and not blindly follow a group that has bad ideas that would play out horribly in real life.
The truth is, we’re often too afraid of being cast out of a group to stand up to it when it starts to adopt or promote bad ideas. In our ancestral past, standing outside of the group was dangerous in much more literal ways than it is today — if we were cast out of the tribe, we would literally freeze or starve to death.
Today, we can see people failing to stand up to powerful groups in modern day cancel culture. When the cancel culture mob descends on a target, we often see people apologize, fire someone, resign, or otherwise bow to the mob because standing against such a powerful group feels dangerous. Even if logic dictates the group is wrong about their assessment, beliefs, or ideals, people join them in lockstep because doing otherwise may make them feel powerless or bring great personal cost.
“In the crowd, one feels no responsibility, but also no fear.”
While we naturally gravitate toward others and feel a strong urge to be accepted as part of a group, this can lead to a state that psychoanalyst Carl Jung called mass-mindedness: instead of thinking for ourselves, we allow the group to think for us. Groups are self-affirming, so even if their ideas are irrational or unethical, speaking out against the group can lead to ostracization and alienation.
That means that even if the group floats a bad idea or policy proposal, mass-mindedness will lead us to support it. The group has overwhelming influence, so its members act unconsciously, moving in lockstep toward some vision or goal that may ultimately be harmful, but we don’t see it or speak out. Better to be a part of the powerful group than alienated or cast out. As Jung put it, “In the crowd, one feels no responsibility, but also no fear.”
How We Can Avoid Falling into the Power Thirst Trap
So how do we avoid this temptation to be part of a controlling, powerful group? It’s perhaps no coincidence that we’ve seen so many young people join mass political movements in tandem with a rise in self-love culture — the prevalent idea that we’re already perfect, need not improve, and should just “love ourselves as we are.” Self-love culture is actually self-worship culture, and leads us to think we can't be wrong about anything. It encourages us to avoid self-reflection at all costs. But self-reflection is exactly what we need because it may reveal that we’re actually doing something bad in order to feel powerful or in the name of loyalty to a controlling group.
Self-love culture is actually self-worship culture, and it encourages us to avoid self-reflection at all costs.
As Jung stated, “It is the nature of political bodies always to see the evil in the opposite group, just as the individual has an ineradicable tendency to get rid of everything he does not know and does not want to know about himself by foisting it off on everybody else.”
Quiet self-reflection, away from the influence of other minds, can help us to get strongly rooted in ourselves, see ourselves as autonomous, unique beings, and assess ideas for their merit — not whether or not the group agrees. This can help us avoid the sway of mass groups vying for power.
Humans have a natural desire to align with a group, and that’s okay — but often those groups are just seeking power over others or adopt bad ideas. To avoid falling into line with a nefarious controlling group, we must become aware of our own psychology — not see ourselves as a unit whose existence is solely defined by participation in a group.