Humans are group-ish beings! Whether it's your family, your friends, your band, your artist community, your country, etc., we all belong to groups.
Whether we realize it or not, groups and group psychology have a powerful impact on our own thoughts and behaviors.
In this episode of Music Therapy, I talk with science writer and journalist Michael Bond, author of "The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do" and his newest book "Fans: A Journey Into the Psychology of Belonging".
We explore the many ways we're impacted by groups, the forces that make a group healthy and communicative, and the insular, destructive echo chambers of groupthink.
This is a fascinating conversation that had me thinking for days - and I'm sure you'll find it fascinating, too.
Songs included in episode: "Flowers on the Water" and "Better Not Lose Her" by Pretty Horse
Music Therapy Podcast Credits:
Music Therapy is hosted by Jessica Risker, produced by Sullivan Davis of Local Universe, and engineered by Joshua Wentz in Chicago.
Opening and closing music composed by Joshua Wentz.
Taped May 2023
0:00:01.1 Jessica Risker: So today's episode had me thinking for days after I recorded it, and I think you all are going to find it really interesting too. We are talking about the psychology of groups on today's episode of Music Therapy.
Hey everybody, welcome to Music Therapy. I'm Jessica Risker, a musician based here in Chicago, Illinois, and I'm also a licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. Music Therapy is an existential podcast for musicians and music fans. We delve into all kinds of topics, such as what it's like to be an artist, mental health, psychology, and music careers.
And today, we're going to discuss group psychology and groupthink.
Before we jump into that, please visit musictherapypodcast.com for previous episodes and upcoming events. And please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or give us a rating on Spotify Podcasts. They've introduced a new rating feature, so just click some stars. It helps us out a lot, and we greatly appreciate it.
Now, let's get to the episode.
As a therapist and someone deeply interested in psychology, I have always found group psychology to be fascinating. Humans are inherently social beings, whether we embrace it or not. Being part of a group is ingrained in our nature. We can all easily think of examples where groups have achieved amazing things, as well as instances where groups have done terrible and awful things.
Why does this happen? What occurs within people when they become part of a group? Whether it's your band, your family, your artist community, or your country, how do these groups impact you? Are they operating in a healthy manner, or are they headed towards the dysfunction of groupthink?
I wanted to explore this further, so I reached out to author and science journalist, Michael Bond.
Michael has written for notable publications such as the New York Times and BBC Future. He was a senior editor at New Scientist for several years and has authored several books on human behavior. The book that initially caught my attention is called "The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do." It's an incredibly fascinating read.
Additionally, Michael has a new book coming out called "Fans: A Journey into the Psychology of Belonging." It's an excellent and thought-provoking book. I will include links to both books in the session notes, so you all can check them out.
In today's episode, Michael and I delve deep into group psychology and groupthink. There's so much captivating information to explore.
As a bonus, Michael is also a musician, creating music under the name Pretty Horse. We'll be featuring a couple of his tracks throughout the episode. I believe you all will thoroughly enjoy this conversation.
Now, let's dive into my discussion on group psychology and groupthink with author Michael Bond.
Okay, I'm here today with Michael Bond. Michael, thank you so much for joining us.
0:03:42.7 Michael Bond: You're very welcome. I'm happy to be here.
0:03:44.5 Jessica Risker: Great! We're here to discuss your books, and in particular, two of them. The first one is "The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do."
This is the book that introduced me to your work. It was released in 2014. And you also have a brand new book coming out on May 11th, titled "Fans: A Journey into the Psychology of Belonging." Could you give us a brief overview of each of these books and what they explore?
0:04:25.6 Michael Bond: Sure. So the first book, "The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do." is about the field of social or group psychology, which explores how people behave in various social environments. It delves into the impact that other people have on us when we're in groups, both small and large, as well as the effects of being on our own without a group, which can be challenging.
The most recent book, "Fans," focuses specifically on the psychology of being a fan, examining the experiences, benefits, and social dynamics involved. It explores what it's like to share your interests with others, offering a unique perspective on life.
0:05:31.4 Jessica Risker: Both books are incredibly fascinating reads. I've had the pleasure of reading both of them. In fact, when my mom came over a few weekends ago, I had "The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do." on the coffee table, and I noticed she kept gravitating towards it during her quiet moments.
To be honest, preparing for this interview was a bit overwhelming because there were so many aspects I wanted to discuss. But what initially led me to reach out to you was my contemplation on how groups shape us, both positively and negatively. I wanted to understand this from a broader psychological perspective, rather than getting caught up in specific examples that might trigger discussions on morality and group identities.
So, I wanted to zoom out and examine how our participation in groups influences us. Perhaps we could start by establishing some general facts. It seems that, whether consciously or not, we are inherently inclined to be...
0:06:55.0 Jessica Risker: You used the term "group-ish," and I think that accurately describes us.
0:07:00.9 Michael Bond: Absolutely. The desire to be part of a group is perhaps one of the most ancient human traits, even predating our existence as humans. It was present in our earliest ancestors. This desire to be with others shapes everything we do. Everyone wants to belong to a group, and this inclination likely stems from the environment in which we evolved. It was a dangerous place if you were on your own. With a scarcity of humans and numerous predators, being alone in such an environment would have been fatal.
So, we have inherited this inclination to seek out groups. If you look at your life, you'll likely notice that you are constantly part of various groups, ranging from family and work colleagues to friendship circles and communities.
Our participation in groups plays a significant role in defining who we are. While we often think of identity in terms of personal traits, identities are fundamentally social. Being truly isolated and detached from a group can be mentally and physically detrimental. Conversely, being part of a group feels great. It provides us with meaning and purpose.
0:08:54.0 Michael Bond: However, there are potential negative effects that can accompany group dynamics. One obvious issue is that when you're in a group of people similar to you, there can sometimes be a tendency to discriminate against those who are different. So, there is a tension between individuality and group identity, and depending on circumstances, that tension can pose a threat. Additionally, conformity within groups can lead to a homogenous way of thinking and other challenges that arise.
0:09:36.6 Jessica Risker: I want to... That's part of what I want you to delve a little bit more deeply into, but one place that I think is a good starting point is to dispel a long-held belief about groups and group psychology. In your book, you mention Gustave Le Bon and his theory that people in large groups kind of turn into mindless zombies, in a way, kind of just... What... Can you describe what he posited?
0:10:11.7 Michael Bond: He was one of many psychologists who proposed this idea that when people are in a crowd, they behave in ways that they wouldn't when they're alone, and these crowd-like behaviors are often irrational.
This belief persisted for a long time, until about 20 years ago when social psychologists started examining the internal dynamics of crowds to determine if this stereotype was true. They discovered that it basically isn't. I mean, when people are in a crowd, they don't suddenly become irrational or completely different people. The environment has changed, and they become responsive to those around them.
Anyone who has been in a crowd knows that there is a lot of cooperation and mutual assistance. There is a sense of unity, but it doesn't mean that there's some kind of mindlessness taking over. Instead, the crowd responds to what's happening outside the group in an appropriate way.
For example, protesters in a crowd may push back against aggressive actions by the police. It's not mindless; it's a response to the situation, and it happens quickly because people in crowds are generally cooperative.
0:12:25.6 Jessica Risker: You mentioned the word "identity," and it's a recurring theme in both books. Our identity is shaped and influenced by the groups we belong to. One quote that stood out to me was, "People in crowds define themselves according to who they're with at the time." I find that really interesting—the way our identities can shift or become attached to the group identity depending on the context.
However, I need help bridging a gap. On one hand, you explained that people in groups don't become irrational and lose themselves in this way. Yet, sometimes groups can become very destructive and do things that have caused terrible things in the world. So, I'm wondering, how does a group, which at times can be very unified and altruistic, reach this other point where things go really wrong?
0:13:54.7 Michael Bond: Do you have a particular example in mind, or are you thinking of more general situations where a population is influenced by a leader? There are instances of large groups becoming destructive, but the research indicates that the destructive impulse is not led by the mentality of people in the group. Instead, it's more influenced by what's going on outside of the group.
Leaders can have a significant influence on the group's behavior, especially if the group perceives the leader as strongly sharing their identity. So, it's not that groups are inherently bad; they are just strongly influenced by the context.
0:15:25.3 Jessica Risker: And that's what led me to want to explore this more because it feels that we are quite malleable. Do you think that's true after doing the research and findings?
0:15:40.5 Michael Bond: I would really agree with you, and I think that goes against the common understanding of how we are as people. We often think that we're defined by fixed traits. We talk about character and fixed aspects of personality, perceiving them as consistent throughout our lives and across different situations.
But that's often not the case. Even people who are often very kind can behave in a cruel way if provoked or in certain situations. Our behavior is not fixed; it is highly influenced by the social and environmental situations we find ourselves in.
0:16:45.7 Jessica Risker: There's something here in this concept of identity, that when we're within a group, it shapes our identity, and the importance... I'm thinking about it now, is the relationship between your own identity, your own group identity, and what you perceive to be outside of that group. There seem to be natural walls that we build between our groups and other groups.
0:17:18.3 Michael Bond: For sure. And that happens without us even thinking about it. It can be a very rapid process, and there have been plenty of studies where psychologists have put people in groups using very arbitrary criteria. For example, everyone in the red shirt group and everyone in the blue shirt group.
Simply being defined in that way encourages the two groups to behave, in some cases, quite aggressively towards each other or competitively, based solely on the color of their shirts or the assigned group. We don't need much to start thinking of other groups as out-groups or even enemies.
But again, I think this process is shaped by the context. In these psychological studies, the researchers often encouraged the groups to behave in ways that opposed the other group. We very quickly and intuitively form groups and favor our own group, but it doesn't necessarily mean that we discriminate against other groups.
0:19:00.1 Jessica Risker: Let's take a little music break here and listen to one of Michael's tracks. His project is called Pretty Horse, and this song is called "Flowers on the Water." Michael says "Flowers on the Water" is about how having a friend (a small group!) can change the way you see the world.
This track is sung by his friend, Hazel Trap, and Michael wrote this song and played the drums. Here's "Flowers on the Water."
0:22:29.3 Jessica Risker: Here's another quote I found interesting: "When people form a group, two things happen. The first is that the group feels compelled to distinguish itself from others, to signal its uniqueness." So that's kind of along the lines of what you were talking about. We all wear red shirts, or we have some kind of ritual or worldview, a political party.
0:23:06.3 Jessica Risker: And then the second thing is the pursuit of status. Everyone wants their group to be successful, as prestigious as possible, and tries to make it so.
0:23:14.5 Michael Bond: I think that's the basic premise that drives the psychology of groups. But how it plays out is very dependent on the conditions. There are these basic principles that shape group dynamics, but the precise outcomes can vary greatly depending on various factors.
0:24:01.4 Jessica Risker: You know, one of the things that I hope to achieve by having this conversation is to heighten our own awareness of how groups affect us and perhaps be more mindful about the ways in which we are being shaped by a group or shaping a group. I studied groups and systems in grad school, and I loved learning about the dynamics that play out. But I wanted to understand it even better.
We were talking about the health of a group in a certain way. I think there are groups that come together and work remarkably well towards a specific goal, utilizing their members effectively and communicating effectively. And then there are other groups... And I don't know if you would agree with this, but perhaps we would put cults at the other end of the spectrum, where something goes wrong.
And I'm wondering, would that be an appropriate way to think about group psychology, as along a continuum of health and how they manifest?
0:25:31.9 Michael Bond: That's an interesting question. It's a difficult one because if you look at a cult and the behaviors and beliefs that cult members engage in, they may feel good and right within that group. It's definitely true that healthy group behavior requires us to be aware of the dynamics at play.
For example, we touched on the phenomenon of groupthink without naming it. In a tight-knit group, it feels great to be part of that group, and it feels healthy. But over time, the group can become highly polarized, making it difficult to disagree with the group's common party line. There's a cohesion in the group where individuals conform to the group's beliefs, and it becomes challenging to introduce contradictory ideas. This is what's known as groupthink.
That's when a group can become unhealthy. In extreme cases, you find this in cults, where any deviation from the group's ideology is not tolerated. So that unhealthy emphasis on cohesion can be detrimental to the group.
0:28:08.1 Jessica Risker: Yes, and I had bookmarked this term "groupthink" by Janis, and I won't go through all the symptoms, but there were a few that you included in your book. I'll also include them in the session notes for this conversation on the website.
Some of the symptoms of groupthink include:
an unquestioning belief in the group's inherent morality,
stereotyped views of outsiders as evil,
a refusal to consider genuine attempts to negotiate,
a shared illusion of unanimity,
and pressure on members who express strong arguments against the group's commitments.
I feel like we see these symptoms of groupthink - maybe I'm just looking for them - but it seems like they are prevalent. I'm wondering... Maybe this is just my corner of Twitter, but I guess I'm wondering if...
Let me rephrase that. What are your thoughts on how social media and the internet... Well, how they have impacted group behavior or driven groupthink? I know it's a big question, but do you have any thoughts on that?
0:29:19.6 Michael Bond: Well, based on the research, I think social media and the internet have amplified that tendency. The tendency being that we tend to surround ourselves with views that align with our own and follow people who share our beliefs while avoiding those we disagree with.
Of course, there are exceptions where some individuals intentionally expose themselves to opposing views, but as a species, we generally prefer to be with people in our group. Social media makes it easier to find like-minded individuals and also makes it easy to criticize those we disapprove of by simply unfollowing or blocking them. So yeah, I think that aligns with your question.
0:30:44.4 Jessica Risker: Yes, I think that aligns with how it often feels.
0:30:53.9 Michael Bond: Have you had any specific experiences that made you think about these group dynamics on social media?
0:31:04.6 Jessica Risker: Well, again, without getting into the details of my own group affiliations, but looking at it from a broader perspective, I often read the New York Times, and sometimes it feels like people may have a different opinion from the general zeitgeist, but are not comfortable expressing it publicly - you notice that a lot in the comments section. There's a lot of that going on. That would be one example.
0:31:44.2 Michael Bond: So you mean people are hesitant to express opposing views? That's interesting. I guess if you feel like you belong to a specific group, you don't want to be cast out. Being out of the group is seen as the worst thing that can happen.
0:32:10.2 Jessica Risker: Yes. Can you speak to that? The importance of groups and what it feels like when you've been ostracized? Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
0:32:19.5 Michael Bond: Yes, the feeling of being ostracized is terrible. In my research, I've spoken to many young people who felt incredibly isolated, not part of any group or social circle, and experiencing social rejection. It's a deeply unhappy situation.
But once they found others who shared their interests, who belonged to a particular community, it changed their lives. I've often heard them say, "I found my people." Finding others with similar interests was a tremendous relief because they were no longer alone and no longer felt excluded.
0:33:39.1 Jessica Risker: Before we move on to the positive aspects of groups, I have a question from Josh, who engineers Music Therapy Podcast and sometimes co-hosts. He couldn't be here today, but he had a question for you.
Here's his question: "Fandoms often gather people who collectively love something, but sometimes these groups act as gatekeepers, determining the level of fandom one must achieve to be considered a true fan, or even becoming adversaries to the material or the creators themselves when their expectations aren't met. Can a middle ground be sustained, or does groupthink always turn a fan club sour?"
0:34:36.1 Michael Bond: That's a great question. It's true that fan clubs, in any case, can act as gatekeepers, and this is an example of where conformity within groups, or groupthink, comes into play. They set the line of what is acceptable, what they like, and if you don't agree, you may be pushed out.
But sometimes, when a group grows too large, it may fragment into smaller groups. So you get factions that don't agree with the main group, and they form their own smaller groups. This is a common tendency across various types of groups, even political parties.
You often see smaller factions emerge when the larger group becomes too conforming. So sometimes, an unhealthy groupthink situation of can lead to a healthy response by creating smaller groups that can be more diverse and open.
0:35:55.2 Jessica Risker: That's really interesting. So a group will form around a shared identity, and at a certain point, rigidity may set in, causing disagreement among some members. As a result, smaller factions can form, creating their own groups with their own distinct identities.
0:36:21.7 Michael Bond: Yes, what you mentioned in your question is one of the unhealthy aspects of group dynamics, where certain factions within a group dictate how others should behave and become gatekeepers. While being part of a group is natural, there are ways in which group behavior can become less positive.
0:36:51.1 Jessica Risker: I think we're touching upon the different roles within a group and the power dynamics that leaders may have, and how all of that can impact the health of the group. The relationship between leaders and groups is an interesting topic.
Let's listen to another song by Michael. This one is called "Better Not Lose Her." Michael describes it as a song about hanging on to someone you love. This song is also performed by Hazel, with Michael on drums.
0:41:20.0 Michael Bond: It's hard to imagine life without the groups we belong to. In many aspects of life, groups play a crucial role. For example, in a field like music, if someone claims to be completely independent, I would question how independent they truly are.
Even in extreme situations, such as individuals who find themselves imprisoned or held captive, those who believe they are part of a group beyond the prison walls tend to fare better compared to those who feel completely isolated. The effects of being part of a group have been well-documented across various aspects of life. I can't directly answer your question about the amazing things groups can do for individuals, but it is a significant and complex topic.
0:43:07.1 Jessica Risker: In your book, "The Power of Others," you discuss experiences of individuals in the military and how the bonds formed in challenging and life-threatening situations can be incredibly strong. They rely on each other for survival and develop a level of trust that can even surpass their family bonds.
When they return home, life can become difficult without that close-knit group, unless they find another group to belong to. Being part of a group, such as a sports team, can also bring out the best in individuals, enhancing their performance and creativity.
0:44:32.3 Jessica Risker: In the context of bands, it's interesting to see how maintaining a healthy group dynamic can be challenging, especially when individuals achieve success and their egos start to play a role. It takes effort to keep a group in a healthy state.
0:45:40.7 Michael Bond: Communication is essential within a group as it helps prevent the pitfalls we discussed earlier, such as groupthink and conformity. Without communication, individuals may succumb to those groupthink tendencies without being aware of other possibilities.
When it comes to communication between different groups, it can help reduce antagonism and diminish the perceived boundaries between groups. By communicating with another group, we can see them as more similar to our own group, which reduces the likelihood of discrimination or animosity.
However, I must note that I'm not a psychologist, but rather a writer who specializes in this subject. Although I've spent time with academics in this field, I haven't come across specific studies on this topic.
0:47:11.4 Jessica Risker: Gotcha. Well, I think this is kinda going back to where we started with Gustave le Bon, where kind of the takeaway is, you can't flatten a group into just a mindless mob, but humanize them.
And you gave an example, and I think it might have been on another podcast I listened to recently, where if you have a group of protesters and the police that are attempting to maintain peace or something, and you've got sort of a chain of communication from the police to within the group, that can be a much more effective way to reduce the tension there.
0:47:58.5 Michael Bond: Yeah, absolutely. I don't know if that happens in every state, but in the UK, there's a strong emphasis in certain areas on having police liaison teams who do exactly what you were describing, to be intermediaries so that the group is aware of the intentions of the police and vice versa.
For example, if there's a presumption that the police are antagonistic towards the protesters, it may be that they're just trying to keep everyone safe. And if that sort of message gets across, it can have quite dramatic effects on the perception of people in the group.
0:48:54.2 Jessica Risker: How do you think the Covid era and the threat and anxiety we felt impacted our groups on a more global scale? Do you think that hardened the boundaries between groups?
0:49:13.9 Michael Bond: It's possible. It seemed that way, but whether those effects are long-lasting remains to be seen. One thing it did was demonstrate to people how much they need other people, especially when they ended up isolated without a group. People really suffered because of that.
And musicians, for example, felt that absence as well, because music is very much a group activity. Even if you're a solo musician, you need an audience to interact with. So musicians really felt that absence. But in terms of hardening group boundaries, I don't know. It's a good question. What do you think?
0:50:18.0 Jessica Risker: I think that it did. But as you said, I don't think it's permanent. I think when the anxiety relaxes, hopefully that will reduce some of the boundaries. But it feels like when you're feeling more threatened, I imagine you're going to...
I was talking with another therapist on this podcast, Rachel Jones, and we were talking about how anxiety sort of sends us towards black and white thinking, and we tend to be more rigid in our thinking, more rigid in what's okay and what's not okay. And so I think there was a lot of anxiety, especially in America, it's a political... And that's not just... Things happening all over, but a lot of anxiety, a lot of polarization.
0:51:07.2 Michael Bond: That can also depend on... For me, sometimes it engendered a sense that we were all in this together. That was in the UK.
0:51:18.3 Jessica Risker: I don't know, I don't know that it felt like that in the USA.
0:51:20.8 Michael Bond: Ah, well, we had moments when people would come out into the streets and bang pots and pans or make noise in support of the National Health Service at a particular time every week, and that would happen, and you had that collective solidarity. And that's something that just reminded people that we are in this together, so there was a lot of unity. But it is also true that it lasted only for a short while, and then you didn't have that anymore.
0:51:54.3 Jessica Risker: I think here there may have been leaders who liked to play up some divisions among groups, and that didn't help our situation.
0:52:08.4 Jessica Risker: I don't want to take up too much of your time. I'll open this up to you, especially your new book on fans. I don't want to... There are so many great observations about fandom, about the psychology of fandom, and the benefits.
And I don't want to give away... There are also just so many great anecdotes and examples, and I don't want to give any of those away. I think you should definitely go check out this book. But is there anything that you would like the audience to know or any takeaways that you would like to share with them?
0:52:46.1 Michael Bond: Well, one thing that surprised me about talking to many fans, as we've just been talking about groups, but it's about fans and fandom, is how much they gain from the relationship with their ideal musician or artist or even a fictional character. It's the social benefit of being part of a group of people who share their interest.
There's always that relationship between the fan and the hero, if you like, that can be really deep and enduring. And I think that's often not appreciated. When people think of fans, these relationships, psychologists describe as "parasocial," which basically means that it's a one-sided relationship. There are two people in the relationship, but only one of them knows. You're never gonna meet the person.
But that doesn't make them any less meaningful because you can follow someone or admire them because you think they share a similarity with you or a set of values or your aspirations. And those kinds of qualities can really bring a lot to someone's life.
So that's another benefit of fandom that people might not think about. It's not just a relationship you have with your other fans, it's really a relationship you have with your hero.
0:54:38.5 Jessica Risker: And you mentioned that it might... In addition to everything you said, it might magnify something that you aspire to be or that you admire in them.
You know, my dad always told me, "Don't get to know your heroes, because you'll probably be disappointed." And there is an aspect that feels important in this relationship of idealization of the hero, if you're a fan.
0:55:31.2 Michael Bond: The availability of social media and the personal sharing by musicians can make those relationships feel more intimate. Depending on what the artists actually share, you may get glimpses into their lives, such as their living rooms. It creates a sense that you know them to some extent, even though they may not know you. It can feel like having a connection with a friend, especially if they serve as a role model.
However, if your hero does something disappointing or morally objectionable, it can be distressing.
0:56:25.3 Jessica Risker: There is a question. If you have time for one more question. Sure, because this is geared mostly towards musicians and you're a musician yourself, so I don't know how you do it all... Okay, here's the question for a band... Since a band is a group, do you have any suggestions for bands to achieve healthy cohesion?
0:56:50.0 Michael Bond: Talk a lot, yeah, communicate a lot. I would just say to communicate a lot and don't have too many rules because the values of your group are already set when you're in this and you're playing under the same name. It feels fantastic when you're writing together or getting together.
So you've got all that, that's all set within there, just keep it flexible. I feel like it would be a mistake to try and tell musicians what they should or should not do. That's my opinion.
0:57:37.3 Jessica Risker: I love both of your books so much. Thank you for making them.
0:57:41.5 Michael Bond: Thank you, Jessica. Thank you so much. It was a really interesting conversation.
0:57:48.9 Jessica Risker: Thank you, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you.
Okay, I want to thank Michael Bond for his time today. I could have talked to him for five more hours, probably more on this topic. I really hope you guys found it interesting and informative.
Please check out his brand new book, "Fans: A Journey into the Psychology of Belonging." His older book, "The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Group Think, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do," and he's got other books too.
You can visit his website at michaelbond.co.uk to learn more about him, listen to his music, read some of his articles. He's really quite accomplished.
I hope you guys have been doing well. Music Therapy Podcast is hosted by Jessica Risker, produced by Sullivan Davis of Local Universe, and engineered by Joshua Wentz in Chicago.
Peace and love until I see you again!