“A fireball five miles high and four miles across rose above Eniwetok within seconds, billowing into a mushroom cloud that hit the stratospheric ceiling thirty miles above the Earth and spread outwards for over a thousand miles in every direction, disgorging a darkening snowfall of dusty ash as it went, before slowly dissipating. It was the biggest thing of any type ever created by humans. Nine months later the Soviets surprised the western powers by exploding a thermonuclear device of their own. The race to obliterate life was on – and how. Now we truly were become Death, the shatterer of worlds.” - Bill Bryson
The above quote, from The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, is one of the most lighthearted descriptions of the deeply depressing events that occurred in the early 50s, brought about by group action. Bill Bryson’s lines highlight global examples of how
“A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy”.
I'm grateful to Michael Hanley, who pointed me to Clay Shirky who used these words in the title of his talk in 2003. Though it was specifically on the behaviour of groups using social software, Shirky paralleled that to supposition from reports (“Experiences in Groups”) on group dynamics studied by psychologist W R Bion some decades before.
Shirky talks in detail about the ‘social stickiness’ of groups, as discussed by Bion. He also speaks of the 'the paradox of groups' - the unpredictable, but ever-present attribute of a group that clearly sets the function of it aside from that of a mechanical system.
The broadest example of ‘social stickiness’ is the way groups react to change required of them. Groups resist change, even if the individuals that make up the group may believe firmly that change should occur, and that some may even want it to. We’ve all seen this in the work place, in some form or other. Groups can unwittingly foster this resistance, even if their purpose and given assignments are to assist change to happen.
They may do this without malice or intent to forestall the change they are charged with bringing about. In so doing, they find innovative ways to perform their core duties without actually actioning change. They may even provide rational, complicitous reasoning to justify their strategies.
Some groups tend to be inherently adaptive and emergent. They adapt to accommodate change, rather than to bring it about. Their emergent disposition permits them to come up with new ways of adjusting to this. It may also permit them to invent ways of maintaining the status quo.
In this respect, such a group appears to behave like many other dynamic systems. The 19th century engineer, Henry Le Châtelier, observed that with these systems, "any change in status quo prompts an opposing reaction in the responding system."
The role of the individual:
It’s not as if the individual is incapable of actioning change. There are plenty of examples of how individuals embrace change, usually initiated from within, but not always. It’s that they behave differently when acting within and on behalf of the group they are a part of.
Bion clearly defines the minimum number of members for group behaviour to be three. “Two members have personal relationships; with three or more there is a change of quality”. With three or more, the dynamics of the group also appears to dictate the behaviour of the individuals making up the group.
Jekyll and Hyde:
The dual nature of people in groups, that of individuals and of social beings, no doubt contributes to the emergent quality of groups. Shirky emphasises this in metaphorical reference to the Necker Cube, also alluded to by Bion, in that it can be looked upon as being in two distinct juxtapose positions.
For some individuals this quality may manifest itself in an almost Jekyll and Hyde fashion, which could have the potential to provide a powerful point of emergence within a group.
But the factors that govern the behaviour of a group seem to be more than just what can be predicted by simply viewing it as a dynamic system. A more fitting description for some groups is that they resemble complexity systems. The elements of adaptive as well as emergent behaviour provide some explanation for the seemingly capricious way a group can modify its conduct and intent while continuing to exist.