How is Our Behaviour Influenced By the Size of the Group Around Us?

Is the reason why we don’t do in a small group what we will do in a crowd, different to the reason that we will do things in a small setting we wouldn’t want to do in public?

My last post asserted that people are human in small groups – that people wouldn’t contemplate doing in a small group the kind of things that they will do in a crowd. (See “Are People Getting Better While the World is Getting Worse?”.)

In the comments to this post Sarah made the excellent point that people do things in private that they would never contemplate doing in public. This is absolutely true: most violence (physical and sexual) is domestic.

Sarah’s comment got me thinking. I haven’t reached any conclusions — comments are most welcome — but I have formulated some questions and tentative answers.

1. My first question: Are there different reasons? Is the reason why we don’t do in a small group what we will do in a crowd, different to the reason that we will do things in a small setting we wouldn’t want to do in public?

My tentative answer is yes, the reasons are different.

  • Why will we do things in a large group that we wouldn’t want to do in a small group? My guess is that in a crowd we lose our identity. There is a loss of self-consciousness and so a lack of accountability and responsibility.
  • Why will we do things in a small group that we wouldn’t do in a large group? My guess is that in a smaller group we are hidden from judgements of the wider community. I think in small groups we feel that we can hide and not experience shame. Shame is a self-consciousness, a kind of hiding — and the hiding is from the group. The individual shrinks before the (real or imagined) group. (In contrast, guilt is a shrinking before our own judgements.)

2. My second question: Are there similar dynamics?

My tentative answer is yes.

It seems to me that degrading people (whether in small or large settings) means seeing the people treated badly as in some way inferior or less than human. This is perhaps most obvious in the more overt forms of racism.

The word that I use to alert me to this process is “just”. When it is used in the statement: They are just a [man/woman/Australian/unemployed person/academic…insert your favourite term of abuse]. This reduces a person to a label and so eliminates their individuality.

3. My third question: Are we talking about the split between public and private? That is: is a small group the same as private and a large group the same as public?

My tentative answer is no.

Smaller groups are often more informal and personal than large groups, but the division isn’t quite the same. A public official (mayor or police officer for instance) may be dealing with one individual, but they are still acting as a public office holder.

I don’t feel that I have a settled understanding of this subject. I feel that I am still trying to grasp what is going on. I would like to hear your views and experiences of being human in large and small groups. Have you felt reduced to a label more often in large or small groups? Do you believe that shame influences your behaviour? I look forward to hearing from you.

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