Groups and Rules

Living in groups offers numerous chances for conflict, so members must comply with rules for behaving in a group. The same demand that compels individuals to want to group together also urges them to follow the rules their group lives by.

      I am hungry, I will eat this.

      But the group says: It is forbidden to eat that.

      I am tired and sleepy, I will go to sleep.

      But the group says: Do not go to sleep now.

      I am sexually excited, I will have sex with that person.

      But the group says: You must not have sex with that person.

The diversity that is basic to the strength of a group is also basic to conflicts between its members. Groups then must set rules by which all members can live together. Such rules help harness the diverse talents of its members and control the conflicts that inevitably arise.

All groups control their members. It is control not exerted from outside, but from inside the group--by the members themselves. The members decide on the rules and enforce them. They may adopt the rules of those who came before them, they may accept the rules passed down from a more dominant group, they may change the rules because of outside or inside forces, they may add new rules, or they may discard old ones. But it is the group members themselves who decide what rules the group should follow and see that the rules are carried out..

      Outside forces affect us, of course.

      There are droughts and floods, bumper crops and hard times. Situations in which the rules we've lived by don't seem appropriate.

      And other groups occasionally try to force us--through argument or violence--to alter our rules to agree with theirs.

      It is then that we must decide: Will we suspend a rule or two to get things going well again. Will we go along with a stronger group, or will we fight them? Will we go along with them until we can overthrow them? Whatever decision the group makes, that decision will carry with it the rules to ensure that the group's members will act accordingly.

      It is we, the members of a group, that ultimately decide what we'll do.

Children learn the rules of the group when they are very young. This process begins the moment they become aware that there are some things they should do and some they shouldn't. These rules are as strong as anything they will ever encounter. Even when they test the group's rules -- and adolescents in every culture do -- they are very aware of the power of these rules. This is what makes it exciting for them because they were becoming fully functioning members of the group, and they are learning about their own power by learning more about how power operates in the group.

      We learn the rules yet we also make the rules. Children and newcomers learn what rules the group stands by. These rules are part of what makes a group a group. Yet we can change the rules, or rather, the group can decide to change the rules.

The rules become a part of each young member as they mature. What they are, how they think, how they react to the world, and what happens to them in it...all are shaped by the rules they live under. The rules are not the subject of everyday thought, but more an underlying structure to their lives. They act and react subconsciously to situations according to the rules of their group.

      Life isn't fair. Life isn't unfair, either. Life just is. It is people who are fair or unfair.

      And even then it is a close call, and depends upon one's perspective. What may be fair to one person may not to another. Agreeing to the rules of fairness must be done first -- clearly and concisely -- so that everyone knows what they are. This is a Code of Fairness. Every group has one. Individuals may not learn it as a complete code, but they pick it up as they grow. (And all new situations require that members acknowledge which code the individuals can expect to be in force.)

      This is part of the problem of meeting new people. Do they follow the same code of fairness as you do. Can you trust them to do what you expect them to do?

Because rules for behavior form the basic structure of human interaction, they are not easily changed, whether it be adding new ones, discarding old ones, or modifying existing ones. The rules are constants in their lives; the rules give them stability. Even when the majority of a group's members agree that the rules need to be changed, it is not an easy thing to accomplish because when the rules are changed, the members must then make a conscious effort to change their behavior; this is one of the most difficult things a human being can have to do.

These rules have a powerful effect on a member because the group is powerful. The group's power comes from the fundamental need of every human to feel useful to other humans. They group together because they rely upon one another for survival. All members of a group, then, need to contribute to the goals of the group. And any of the group's goals, no matter how small, can be thought of as a surrogate for that ultimate group goal: survival.

Every member of a group is aware of the group and what the group has decided it needs (stability, creativity, or unity, for example). If the members of a group feel that a member is not properly contributing to the group (the member is disruptive, unproductive, threatening, or untrustworthy, for instance), that person will, at the least, not be respected; at the most, the member will be expelled from the group. And since individuals are as sensitive to what their group tells them it needs as they are to what their body tells them it needs, being chastised by the group is powerful indeed.

It is important that humans not be regarded as negatively different. If they are, they might be excluded from the group -- and the group is where they draw their self worth. In any society, in any culture, being expelled from a group they deem important is one of the worst punishments a human being can endure.

Groups need information about their members to monitor behavior and for decisions on how to deal with inappropriate behavior. Thus, information networks are formed. Group members are constantly (mostly subconsciously) observing other members' behavior. Noteworthy actions (either positive or negative) are passed on to other members, who then convey the information to even more members of the group. Negative actions usually receive the most attention (any behavior that might disrupt the group will always have priority). Positive actions are noted, but only the extraordinary receive top priority.

      We keep an eye on each other, noticing who is doing what. And we talk about it amongst ourselves. We know that this goes on, that people will notice what we do and then will tell other people. We like it when they say good things, of course, and become very uncomfortable when they say bad things. We also don't like to be laughed at by other members of our group.

      When we know that people do think badly of us--or even just think unkindly of us--we feel diminished. We feel that our value to the group has been lessened. Because others' views of us are so important, official sanctions aren't always needed for behavior deemed inappropriate by the group...gossip can change behavior all by itself.

The human the senses of all animals...are attuned to the unusual, for in the unusual often lies danger. It could be danger from outside forces (some foe attacking the group) or it could be from within the group (members who don't do what is expected of them for the group's welfare). They thus key in on the exceptional and the sensational. Their senses react because that is what they are there for.

Because of this, humans tend to view the world not from a wide view of commonality, but from a narrow searching for the uncommon, the different. They also take what they view and generalize it, relate it to their own lives, make it personal.

When they hear of abnormal behavior, or see portrayals of it, or read about it, their innermost fears are awakened. Their senses are alerted and check for what they fear.

      Seeing or hearing or reading about something that scares us gives a bad feeling inside...and a good feeling too. Our senses are heightened and adrenaline pumps. If we know it is just imaginary, the good feeling lingers when the bad feeling goes away. If we think it is true, the bad feeling stays and we look over our shoulders and keep guns under our pillows and flinch in the company of strangers.

      We find out that someone has committed some crime and we focus on it happening to us. The fact that millions of other people have not committed that crime makes no difference. We are focused...and tend to stay that way. Perhaps it is because all those people might commit that crime, that they are capable of such bad things, that anyone can do bad things...including me.

Complicating all these matters is the fact that humans usually belong to more than one group at a time. Because of this, the directives of one group can run counter to or prevail over those of another group. A group's power is directly related to the importance of the group to that person. Indeed, how groups rank is the basis for social differences.

Groups form an essential, elemental part of an individual's identity. It is Belonging. It is being considered a valuable member of the group, which translates into being a contributor to the group's survival, which then translates into helping the human race survive.

      "We've always done it this way" is not so much a reference to commonsense or expedience, but more to a statement of belonging. The we is the most important part of the statement. It implies continuity, stability, and familiarity.

Next Chapter
Title Page