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  • Dayna Sharp, LCSW

Group Think: Lessons from the Past



Ever wonder why people do the things they do? This is a particular time of life when I personally have been seeking to learn and understand more of what we know about human behavior and our social history. One quick glance at the news, and I find myself wondering: How did wearing a mask become such a politicized, evocative act? Why would people put themselves and others at risk by going to large parties and events during a pandemic? What is going on in the police departments around the country? Why are people looting and destroying stores in their own neighborhoods?


Truth be told, it's all almost too much to bear. But having some sense of understanding helps. At least things make a bit more sense. And maybe it's possible to find some hope in that.


So here are some interesting thoughts about humans, groups of humans and human/group behavior. See if you think any of it feels relevant to our times.


  1. Human beings experience conscious thoughts and feelings--these are within our awareness, and influence our behavior.

  2. Human beings also have unconscious thoughts, feelings and memories--outside of our awareness, and they often guide our behavior. Sometimes these unconscious thoughts and feelings are uncomfortable, socially unacceptable and/or painful, so our mind protectively banishes them from our awareness.

  3. When an individual joins a group, there is a sense of belonging, of kinship, of something important shared--a value, a goal, a characteristic. A bond is created between the members and between each member and its leader (if the group has one).

  4. Because the individual in the group feels such a bond and sense of shared experience, there is little need for restraint, and the unconscious can predominate. Wishes for experiences related to sex, greed, violence, all-encompassing power can be unleashed.

  5. A group thinks in images. The feelings of a group are relatively simple and very exaggerated. The group knows no doubt or uncertainty. The group has been described as an experience in hypnosis.

  6. Group members experience emotional contagion. When humans perceive an emotional state of an other, because of our mirror neurons, we often experience the same or similar emotional state in ourselves. In the group, the greater number of people who experience an emotion, the stronger that emotion reverberates throughout the group.

  7. Because groups can become so emotional, the individual can lose their power of critical thinking.

  8. For similar reasons, groups typically don't prioritize truth. In fact, they seek out illusion based on their emotional reaction. Whatever idea fits with the group's emotional state is preferred, as opposed to an alien or competing idea based on fact.


There's another piece that needs to be addressed. Those of us who live in the US are all by citizenship and residency in a group: we are US Americans. Over the past year and few years, we have become more and more divided. Because of the pandemic, our economy is struggling and uncertain. Schools and businesses have closed and when re-opened, are significantly altered. There has been ongoing bouts of instability and violence in our communities. Even our holidays are surrounded by question marks. Everything we take for granted about life in our society has deeply changed since last March. What happens when a group falls apart?


  1. A sense of panic can be experienced by group members.

  2. Trust in leadership is often lost.

  3. There is a loss of empathy and consideration for other group members.

  4. There is likely to be a loss of emotional ties to other group members, and a resulting sense of dread.


So what are the lessons we can learn from the past? Where can we find hope in all of this? Well, believe it or not, these ideas about human and group behavior were written right at the end of and immediately after World War I. And right after the Spanish Flu. The world has seen unbelievably hard times in the past, and has overcome them. I believe we can and will, too.


I think it's also important to understand just how critical our human need for belonging is, how much we need emotional ties to others, and to make sure that we're fulfilling those needs in healthy ways. Finding a group of people to invest in, to invest ourselves in can help us feel more stable, and able to maintain a sense of balance during a rocky, uncertain time. The good news too, is that emotional bonds can be created and strongly felt even over Zoom and other online apps, so it is possible to find a group even while social distancing.


Conversely, taking time away from social media and news can help reduce the "emotional contagion" phenomenon, and give you more calm and emotional space to be able to think clearly--hence, stopping the contagion and group escalation. It's okay to feel scared, angry, sad, all of that. Feel it all, but take good care of yourself. Do something, ie. vote, write letters, protest, whatever helps. Take breaks, ie. great music, good food, dress up for Halloween, do something fun. Find joy in your relationships. And find a group that offers a chance at connection and shared values.


We can't change the world, but we can create space to hold onto ourselves, do what we can, and try to make our own corner of it as safe and joyful as possible.



Reference: Freud, Sigmund. (1921). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Logos Books, 2018.



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