It is not the similarity or dissimilarity of individuals that constitutes a group, but interdependence of fate. ~ Kurt Lewin
Human sociality is of interpersonal relationships with varying degrees of affinity bonding. As indispensably gregarious creatures, the humanity of humans relies upon having emotionally nourishing intimate relationships.
A dyad is a relationship between 2 people. It offers the greatest potential for intimacy.
A triad is a group of 3. Even the addition of a single member to a group, such as going from a dyad to a triad, alters interaction dynamics. Hence, having the same level of intimacy as readily achieved in a dyad is difficult in a triad.
Whereas the closest relationships provide emotional support, intimacy between members drops exponentially as group size rises. Small groups provide a sense of belonging. In contrast, larger groups can give a person the sense of being in a sea of people without much empathic connection.
Émile Durkheim termed the emotional discomfort of not belonging in a group anomie. Unless explicitly warmly welcomed, newcomers to a large group often experience anomie.
Regardless of size, the interaction dynamics of sustained groups are complex. Individuals create their social environment as well as being subject to and shaped by the social groups they encounter.
Individuals’ behaviors affect their social environments. When you pick your friends, it matters to you and it affects both what happens in the group and your behavior at a later time. ~ American evolutionary biologist Julia Saltz
Group mental life is essential to the full life of the individual, and satisfaction of this need has to be sought through membership of a group. ~ Wilfred Bion
English psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion (1897–1979) looked at groups from a Freudian perspective. In the 1940s Bion argued that within groups were 2 intrinsic mentalities: “work group” and “basic assumption.”
Work-group functions are always pervaded by basic-assumption phenomena. ~ Wilfred Bion
The work group mentality is the reason that the group came to be: a group’s founding and ongoing purpose. The basic-assumption mentality enfolds the underlying assumptions upon which group behavior is based.
The term to conceptualise the prevailing state of a group’s “as if” is “basic assumption.” Individuals within groups may be observed to be acting as if certain relationships existed among themselves or between them and the group leader. Basic assumptions operate outside the explicit awareness of group members and are useful in explaining why a group seems to act at variance with its stated mission. ~ Wilfred Bion
Bion contended that the core creed of the basic-assumption mentality is that “the welfare of the individual is a matter of secondary consideration – the group comes first, in flight the individual is abandoned; the paramount need is for the group to survive.” This creed has the same motivation as an individual’s fear of death.
Bion and English psychiatrist Pierre Turquet identified 4 basic assumptions: dependency, fight-flight, pairing, and oneness. (Oneness was not one of Bion’s initial basic assumptions. Oneness was elaborated by Turquet in 1974.) Adoption of any of these assumptions impedes a group from accomplishing its ostensible goal.
In dependency, a group aims to achieve security through a single individual. Group members are beholden to its leader. The Catholic Church, with its pope, is exemplary of a dependency group.
In fight-flight, a group behaves as if its self-preservation is in jeopardy. In fight mode, a group is aggressive and hostile. In flight, a group aims to avert an external threat or snuff internal friction. Bion saw military groups as often acting in fight-flight modes.
Pairing involves a fantasy about establishing a meaningful relationship with a perceived powerful individual, or by a subgroup emerging to deal with a perceived authority. In Freudian fashion, Bion argued that the relationship is sexual in nature, though the pairs need not be male/female.
With oneness, a group commits itself to a cause outside itself to ensure its survival. Oneness is an attempt at synergy. A feeling of oneness may also psychologically help a group deal with an unknown perceived as threatening.
Synergy is the secret desire of every group. When a group comes together, the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. But there is regressive synergy, which is self-destructive. ~ South African group consultant Derek Hendrikz
Bion was struck by the primitiveness of many group processes, and the emotionally unbridled behavior that groups sometimes demonstrate. Whereas a mature mind comprehends complexity by accepting existence in shades of gray, an immature mind thinks in the extremes and opposites of black and white: good/bad, love/hate. Bion believed that the primitive qualities of group psychology corresponded to those in immature individuals.
Groups do not always function rationally or productively, nor are individual members necessarily aware of the internal and external controls they rely on to maintain the boundary between their announced intentions and their hidden agendas. ~ Center for the Study of Groups and Social Systems
Groups may regress into dysfunctionality the same way that individuals do. A group may demonstrate mental illness in demanding excessive conformity, have little tolerance for independent thinking, or exhibit paranoia toward out-groups, including their demonization.
Other signs of group dysfunction include demoralization, factionalization, and abuse of power by group leaders. In extremity, groups manifest corruption by disregarding the norms and morality fundamental to group identity.
The apparent difference between group psychology and individual psychology is an illusion produced by the fact that the group brings into prominence phenomena which appear alien to an observer unaccustomed to the group. ~ Wilfred Bion
Sociologists define groups by the degree of affinity bonding individuals have. The spectrum runs between primary groups and aggregates.
An aggregate is an assemblage of individuals temporarily sharing the same physical space, but do not view themselves as belonging together. A public crowd that does not come together for a shared purpose is an aggregate.
Family and close friends are what American sociologist Charles Cooley called a primary group. Referring to their importance to personal well-being, Cooley called primary groups the “springs of life.”
Groups often have rich value and belief systems, and when we identify with groups, these provide a lens through which we see the world. ~ Australian social psychologist Jolanda Jetten
People define themselves through 2 channels: personal traits considered outstanding or in terms of social identity. Social identify comes from primary groups.
When personal identity is salient, individuals focus on how they consider themselves different from others. In contrast, when social identity is important, the identification is of similarity with others in cherished primary groups.
Social identity is a potent means to boost self-esteem. What matters is not whether a person is legitimately in a group – only that a person feels to be part of a group, and that associative identification is considered relevant to understanding oneself and one’s place in the world. The self-esteem boost comes from a sense of existential security: the comfort of feeling to be part of something larger, with more resources, and thereby more powerful.
The individual and their own perceived self-worth is affected by membership in social groups in profound ways. ~ Jolanda Jetten et al
In contrast to the closeness felt in a primary group, a secondary group is one where its members at least share an interest. Secondary groups are the building blocks of contemporary society.
In and of themselves, secondary groups are emotionally unfulfilling. Consequently, secondary groups tend toward collections of primary groups, as the people within seek and find friendships and alliances.
Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way – and the fools know it. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
When controversies arise, coalitions commonly form within secondary and even primary groups. Even triads can have trouble coming to consensus. Comity easily falters when facing contestable abstractions in belief systems; so too a sense of responsibility when people are in a group. The larger the congregation, the less likely someone will courageously, or even helpfully, step forward.
Diffusion of Responsibility
Group size has a significant influence on how people interact. ~ James Henslin
In 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was raped and repeatedly stabbed to death in the middle of the street in a residential neighborhood in New York City. The brutal murder took nearly a half-hour.
38 people witnessed the killing. None attempted to intervene. Not even one lifted a telephone to call the police.
The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. ~ Irish politician Edmund Burke
An American experiment in 1968 tested the willingness of people to help someone during an emergency. If participants thought they were the only one that could help another in distress – in other words, a dyad – all rushed to help.
If they thought they were part of a triad, only 80% responded, and more slowly than in a dyad. In 6-person groups, only 60% were stirred to see what was wrong, and they were even slower to respond.
The responsibility for helping was diffused among the observers; there was also diffusion of any potential blame for not taking action. ~ American social psychologists John Darley & Bib Latané
Diffusion of responsibility is an innate inclination. Healthy young children are naturally helpful, but they too suffer the bystander effect when someone is in distress but others are around.
Trust is one of the most important synthetic forces within society. ~ German sociologist Georg Simmel
Various principles are at work in determining group stability and change: pleasure, rationality, reciprocity, and fairness. Whereas pleasure and rationality are purely personal, reciprocity and fairness reflect mores as well as satisfaction.
Following the pleasure principle, people withdraw from a group when participation is no longer enjoyable. Under the rationality principle, group involvement is a calculation of being better or worse off.
There is no duty more indispensable than that of returning a kindness. All men distrust one forgetful of a benefit. ~ Cicero
The reciprocity and fairness principles are closely related. Both are vital to continuing group interaction. No one sensibly tolerates being taken advantage of or being treated unfairly.
People’s ideas about what is fair in their interactions with others often conflict with simple calculations of gain and loss. The fact that they may come out ahead in an interaction does not guarantee that they will feel good about it and continue the interaction. ~ William Kornblum
Communication is often critical to feelings about group interaction. When people can freely share information about what they are experiencing, and can trust what others say, they feel much better about interacting.
Affect Toward Groups
People are motivated to reserve the ‘uniquely human’ essence for in-groups and to withhold it from out-groups. ~ American social psychologist Amy Cuddy et al
As with all things, people view groups in terms of affinity or rejection. Those groups which an individual identifies with is an in-group. Conversely, an out-group is one whose existence is considered objectionable.
An us-them mentality is unfortunately a really basic part of our biology. ~ American social psychologist Eric Knowles
He that is not with me is against me. ~ Matthew 12:30, The Bible
A reference-group is one which serves as a basis for self-evaluation. Reference groups are in-groups with imagined admirable attributes.
A reference-group may be either primary or secondary, or even those with which one has only secondhand information about. That reference-groups are common illustrates the universal tendency of people to question their own self-esteem and suffer attribution biases.
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When others are perceived as being like oneself, such as when among those in an in-group, mentalizing is easier and considered more accurate. By this, others are regarded as reliable, yielding a sense of self-comfort which internally strengthens emotional bonding.
When perceivers assume an initial general sense of similarity to a target, they engage in greater projection and less stereotyping. ~ American social psychologist Daniel Ames
The opposite dynamic occurs in the presence of out-group members. Uncertainty remains unresolved, as one lacks the assurance of predictability that ready mind perception provides. This unease may stimulate fear and animosity.
Prejudices toward in-groups and against out-groups is universal, appearing in children by age 6. Individuals consider in-groups more positively, while out-groups are vilified. This generalizing tendency is termed attribution bias.
Attributions of in-groups and out-groups begins early: 6-month-old infants favor faces of the same race with which they are already acquainted.
Race-based bias emerges without experience with other-race individuals. ~ Chinese psychologist Naiqi Xio
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Our minds retrieve race because it predicts alliances in our social world. When other cues predict cooperative alliances better, the mind reduces its reliance on racial categories. ~ Leda Cosmides
That perceptual biases of categorization lay at the root of prejudice was recognized by Polish social psychologist Henri Tajfel in 1979. His insight went against the prevailing view of psychologists at the time, who assumed that prejudice was a byproduct of personality.
Our species is profoundly coalitional, and in most times and places moral prescriptions apply only to one’s in-group, not to humanity in general. I don’t see any evidence that we evolved innate, universal moral rules about how to treat all humans. That’s why history, as James Joyce said, is a nightmare. Prehistory is worse. ~ American anthropologist Don Symons
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Members of out-groups can often be represented as animals, both through spoken metaphors and through artistic depictions. ~ Nicholas Epley & Adam Waytz
Dehumanizing out-group members begins with denying their humanity. It increases the extent to which violence against out-group members is acceptable and justified.
In the fascist style of politics, one of the crucial elements is distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’. We are intrinsically good; they are intrinsically bad, defective, subhuman, et cetera. ~ English philosopher David Livingstone Smith
Attributed negative behaviors of out-group members are thought to owe to inherent personality flaws, whereas observed positive behaviors are flukes. Conversely, the goodness of in-group members is taken for granted, while objectionable acts by in-group individuals are overlooked or explained away as misunderstanding or lapses of judgment.
An “ultimate attribution error” is proposed: (1) when prejudiced people perceive what they regard as a negative act by an out-group member, they will attribute it dispositionally, often as genetically determined, in comparison to the same act by an in-group member; (2) when prejudiced people perceive what they regard as a positive act by an out-group member, they will attribute it in comparison to the same act by an in-group member to one or more of the following: (a) “the exceptional case,” (b) luck or special advantage, (c) high motivation and effort, and (d) manipulable situational context. ~ American sociologist Thomas Pettigrew
Group affect can form a gyre of intergroup alienation, leading to hostility. In-group interactions may exaggerate the belief that one’s own group is disliked by another. This diminishes the likelihood of intergroup relations, increases defensiveness once in an interaction, and thereby tends to confirm the earlier mistaken assumption.
Typical attribution errors include misperceptions between racial groups and also between men and women.
If a White policeman shoots a Black or Latino, a White individual, given no additional information, is likely to simply assume that the victim instigated the shooting, whereas a Black individual is more likely to assume that the policeman fired unnecessarily, perhaps because he is dispositionally predisposed to be a racist.
A related phenomenon has been seen in men’s perceptions of women coworkers. Meticulous behavior in a man is perceived positively and is seen by the man as “thorough”; in a woman, the exact same behavior is perceived negatively and is considered “picky.” Behavior applauded in a man as “aggressive” is condemned in a woman exhibiting the same behavior as “pushy” or “bitchy.” ~ Margaret Anderson & Howard Taylor
The male drive for dominance is particularly strong against members of out-groups, who are viewed as competitors.
In several studies using computer simulations, white participants – role-playing police who must quickly decide whether to “shoot” a suspect – are more trigger-happy against black men than white ones. Other studies found white men more likely to dole out a death sentence to black male defendants if their facial features were “stereotypically black” (e.g., a wider nose, darker skin).
The flagrant history of violence by whites against black Americans in the United States is illustrative of the drive to reduce out-group competition. Between 1877 and 1950 nearly 4,000 black men were lynched by American white men. (There still is no US federal law against lynching.) During the days of Jim Crow, a black man may be murdered simply for speaking “disrespectfully.” In 1904, a crowd in Mississippi sipped lemonade and nibbled devilled eggs as they nonchalantly watched a black couple being mutilated and burned alive.
Most victims were black men accused of having had sex, or simply wanting to, with white women. In 1955, 14-year-old Emmet Till was lynched in Mississippi for simply having whistled at a white woman on the street.
Overt racial violence abated a bit in the 21st century before Donald Trump assumed the presidency in 2017. It has since crept back up.
Race remains a potent and often divisive force in American society. ~ US President Barak Obama in 2017
The personification of the Devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew. ~ Austrian-born German political leader Adolph Hitler
In the Western world, the perennial out-group since antiquity – subject to frequent persecution and pogroms – has been the Jews.
Jews were despised in ancient Greece and Rome: labeled as atheists for not believing in the Greco-Roman gods. Jews dressed strangely, ate different foods, spoke a different tongue (besides the native one), and mostly kept to themselves. At the same time, Jews were grudgingly admired for their love of learning, their sagacity, and some had wondrous skills in the art of medicine.
Early Gentile converts to Christianity shared this bias against Jews. They read several of the New Testament texts as condemnations of Judaism, most particularly blaming Jews for killing Jesus. (For example, Matthew 27:25 cites Jews as responsible for killing Jesus: “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’.”)
Always a cultural minority, Jews were often preyed upon by the Christian majority. On the medieval stage, the Jew was a stock character of mockery or hatred. During the crusades, whereas Muslims were the ostensible target, Christian mobs slaughtered Jews and pillaged their homes.
Jews were expelled from France in the early 13th century, followed by England in 1290, after the king could extort no more from them. Jews in Germany suffered repeated massacres in the 14th–15th centuries.
Jews were blamed for causing the Black Death in the mid-14th century. Beginning in the late 15th century, Jews were a target of the Spanish Inquisition.
During the Middle Ages, Jewish real property was repeatedly confiscated. This led them to specialize in valuables that could be readily transported, such as jewelry. Ostracized from labor guilds in the Middle Ages, and so unable to work in the trades, Jews were forced to specialize in finance.
Politically, the Jews were often a convenient scapegoat, especially as their skills and power as moneylenders made them a convenient target.
The Jews are a nervous people. Nineteen centuries of Christian love have taken a toll. ~ English politician Benjamin Disraeli
The harsh terms insisted upon by France after the Great War resulted in hyperinflation and economic depression in Germany in the 1920s. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power was abetted by flaying at the twin threats of communism and rapacious capitalism; in both of which well-known Jewish names were readily identified with, owing to the prominent Jewish role in finance.
Hitler’s rants were, of course, just the beginning. In Germany and Poland, a network of 42,500 facilities were used 1941–1945 to concentrate, confine, and exterminate 11 million people, including 6 million Jews. Nearly 500,000 Germans participated in the planning and execution of the Holocaust: an industry in and of itself. (The image of the 6-pointed star (Star of David) with “Jude” inscribed within was the badge that Jews were forced to publicly wear in Nazi Germany to identify their heritage.)
German Jewish émigrés had a huge effect on US innovation. They helped improve the quality of research. ~ American economist Petra Moser
Anti-Semitism simmers in Europe today for the same reasons as throughout history: the distinctive Jewish culture, which emphasizes learning and diligence, and produces skilled people who garner both admiration and resentment. Jews are the ultimate out-group which out-competes: a perfect formula for persecution.
Given current ongoing political tensions in the Middle East, it is noteworthy that Muslims have historically been much more supportive of Jews than Christians. When Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638, they allowed Jews to worship freely in the city – a stark contrast to the bans imposed by previous Christian rulers.
While Europeans routinely carried out pogroms against Jews, Muslims consistently offered them refuge. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews fled to Muslim lands to escape intolerant Christians.
In the 21st century, with anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments simmering in Europe, the 2 besieged minorities often work together to combat social stigmatization.
A leader is someone who influences the opinions, attitudes, and behavior of others. Even a group of friends has leaders.
Generally, people become leaders by expressing the values of the group in a way that resonates with its members. Leaders tend to be more talkative and exude self-confidence and determination.
Attribution biases affect choice of leadership. Taller and better-looking people are more likely to become leaders.
Subtle subconscious influences affect leader choice. In one experiment, groups of 5 people sat at a rectangular table: 2 on one side, 3 on the other. After discussing a topic for 5 minutes, each group chose a leader. Although only 40% of the people sat on the 2-person side of the table, 70% of the leaders came from that side. We tend to interact more with people facing us than with those to the side of us, and so have greater confidence in the people in which we interact with in that way.
There are 2 types of leaders: instrumental and expressive. An instrumental leader tries to keep a group working toward its goals. An expressive leader is often not recognized as a leader, but certainly is one by keeping up a group’s morale via sympathy and good humor.
In keeping members on task, instrumental leaders sometimes prod, and so create friction. In contrast, expressive leaders are usually more popular, as they stimulate bonding and reduce friction.
In the 1930s, Kurt Lewin determined 3 basic leadership styles: authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire. Authoritarian leaders give orders. Democratic leaders try to build consensus. Laissez-faire leaders are permissive.
Other leadership style frameworks were later declared, including those including transactional and transformational leaders.
Transactional leaders focus on performance and motivation via rewards and punishments. While effective in clarifying roles and responsibilities, such leadership can be chilling, and appear amoral. Bean-counters tend to transactional leadership style.
Transformational leaders attempt to alter their followers’ mode of approach by challenge and inspiration, partly by creating a vision to aspire to. The charismatic self-confidence of transformational leaders tends to stifle constructive dissent, and so can lead groups down a path with disastrous consequences.
Beyond personal bias, the typical namby-pamby conclusion about leadership is that the best style depends upon the group and the situation. Hindsight bias works wonders in evaluating particular instances of leadership style. Leaders either take the credit for group success or are blamed for failure.
What is universal about groups is that humans naturally create social hierarchies, with certain individuals emerging as leaders. With rare exception, people lack the ability to effectively work together without leadership.
“Cynicism and tribalism are very closely related. You protect your tribe, your way of life and thinking, and you try to annihilate anything that might call that into question.” ~ American journalist Dean Nelson
Conformity is acting in accord with prevailing social standards, attitudes, or practices. Conformity is a universality of human behavior.
“Humans conform.” ~ German social psychologist Daniel Haun & American psychologist Michael Tomasello
In 1958, American social psychologist Herbert Kelman distinguished 3 types of conformity: compliance, identification, and internalization.
Compliance happens “when an individual accepts influence because he hopes to achieve a favorable reaction from another person or group, or avoid specific punishments or disapproval.” Belief has nothing to do with compliance.
(In 1969, Australian psychologist Leon Mann distinguished compliance to avoid a negative reaction from conforming to make a positive impression or gain favor, calling the brown-nosing variety ingratiational conformity.)
Identification occurs “when an individual accepts influence because he wants to establish or maintain a satisfying self-defining relationship to another person or group. The individual actually believes in the responses which he adopts through identification, but their specific content is more or less irrelevant. He adopts the induced behavior because it is associated with the desired relationship. Hence, the satisfaction derived from identification is due to the act of conforming as such.”
Internalization happens “when an individual accepts influence because the content (ideas and actions) of the induced behavior is intrinsically rewarding. He adopts the induced behavior because it is congruent with his value system. Behavior adopted in this fashion tends to be integrated with the individual’s existing values. Thus the satisfaction derived from internalization is due to the content of the new behavior.”
“The 3 processes represent three qualitatively different ways of accepting influence.” ~ Herbert Kelman
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“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
In-groups exert a tremendous conforming force upon its members. People in individualistic cultures often like to think that they are independently minded, immune to something as superficial as group influence. Experimental studies demonstrate otherwise.
In 1932, American social psychologist Arthur Jenness asked experiment participants individually how many jellybeans were in a jar. Then he put the group in a room with the jar and asked them to provide a group estimate. Asking individuals afterwards for a bean count, their answers, with rare exception, moved toward the group estimate.
A spot of stationary light in a dark room often appears to be moving: a phenomenon labeled the autokinetic effect. The illusion is so compelling that most people insist that the motionless light is moving. Turkish American social psychologist Muzafer Sherif used the autokinetic effect in 1935 to study conformity. He first established how much autokinetic movement individuals perceived: typically, 2–6 inches. Then Sherif put 2 or 3 people in a room and asked them to agree on the degree of autokinesis.
When individuals face a new and unstable situation first individually and then in a group, each establishes a range and a norm (standard) within that range; the range and the norms tend to converge when the subjects come into a group situation. But the convergence is not as close as when they start with the group situation first.
“When individuals face a new, unstable situation as members of a group for the first time, a range (a scale) and a norm (standard) within that range are established which are peculiar to the group, and afterwards, when they face the same situation alone they stick to the range and norm established in the group.” ~ Muzafer Sherif
In 1951, American social psychologist Solomon Asch asked student participants about simple comparisons of line lengths, with answers so obvious that a child could feel assured about the correct answer (see figure below). But, as the test progressed, others in the group – who were actually confederates – began to consistently and uniformly give wrong answers.
35% of the participants conformed to the confederate (wrong) answers at least half the time. 40% gave numerous wrong answers. Only 25% stuck with correct answers, in defiance of the invisible conformity pressure.
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Conformity – like other common psychological traits not viewed altogether favorably – is more readily detected in others than in oneself. People often fail to recognize their own susceptibility to social influence.
“When hearing about classic experiments on conformity, students often marvel at how far people will go to conform, but note that they would never act that way in the same situation.” ~ Emily Pronin et al
“Many groups make their decisions through some process of deliberation, usually with the belief that deliberation will improve judgments and predictions. But deliberating groups often fail, in the sense that they make judgments that are false or that fail to take advantage of the information that their members have.” ~ American behavioral economist Cass Sunstein & American behaviorist Reid Hastie
A misinformation cascade is the cultural equivalent of a rumor wrongly taken to be true and occurs much more commonly than it would among rational beings. A mistruth is proposed and finds positive reception, whereupon it becomes accepted as conventional wisdom. Those who dispute such a “fact” risk damage to their reputation and censure.
Fat & Heart Disease
In the late 1940s, American doctors started treating more patients who had heart disease. American physiologist Ancel Keys became interested in the issue. Keys was piqued by seemingly counterintuitive data: American business executives, presumably well-fed, had high rates of cardiovascular disease (cvd), while cvd rates were dropping in post-war Europe, which had reduced food supplies.
Keys hypothesized a correlation between cholesterol levels and cvd. Keys compared diets and heart disease in the US and other countries selectively.
Satisfied that his hypothesis was correct, Keys promoted his research upon becoming a member of the American Heart Association. He convinced the AHA to recommend a low-fat diet to Americans.
Keys’ findings were considered so important that he was featured on the cover of Time magazine. In 1980, the US government incorporated his idea into its “food pyramid,” which it promoted throughout the country for what constituted a healthy diet.
Soon everyone “knew” that diets rich in fats led to heart attacks. In 1988 the Surgeon General of the United States announced that ice cream had become a major health hazard.
Researchers who disagreed with Keys and published contradictory findings were either ignored, or the results treated as exceptions.
Keys’ cherry-picked the countries he used to draw his conclusion. If he had bothered to include all 22 countries for which he had available data, rather than eliminating those which did not provide the results he wanted, he would have found no correlation between fat and heart disease.
The problem of cardiovascular disease is more complicated than fat consumption. Lifestyle, especially exercise regularity, sugar consumption, and overall diet are significant factors.
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“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” ~ Voltaire
“The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.” ~ Stanley Milgram
Obedience to authority figures runs strong in every society. American social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted experiments that demonstrated this.
Milgram, a Jew, sought to understand how the Holocaust was so neatly accomplished. Milgram ran experiments with American participants 1960–1974. The participants were cajoled into administering shocks at a level that would have been lethal (if they had actually been delivered).
Before carrying out his experiments, Milgram asked a variety of psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, and philosophers to guess how many subjects would be willing to deal out deadly volts. The consensus opinion was: 1/10th of 1% (1 in 1,000 people).
Many participants were hesitant to administer severe shocks. Some were severely stressed at the prospect. Yet the experimenter’s insistent verbal prods that “you must go on,” resulted in a 65% success rate of participants giving lethal jolts when they could not see the victim.
If participants could see the person being shocked writhe and howl in pain, only 40% were willing to apply deadly voltage. When Milgram added another punishment deliverer who refused to go along with the experiment, only 5% were willing to go all the way.
“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” ~ Stanley Milgram
“I was just following orders.” ~ Adolf Eichmann
Milgram’s experiments were going on when German soldier Adolf Eichmann, head of the Nazi Gestapo’s Jewish section, was on trial in Israel in 1961.
Eichmann, who had fled to Austria, then Argentina, after WWII, was abducted by Israeli agents and brought back to Israel. The Israelis subjected Eichmann to merciless interrogations every day for 9 months before putting him on a show trial.
The world was expecting to see a monster. They were sorely disappointed at the scapegoat.
Eichmann was slight and mild-mannered. He insisted that – although he was chief administrator of an organization responsible for mass murder – he was only guilty of doing what his superiors ordered.
Eichmann said he did not hate Jews. He had a Jewish half-cousin whom he had hid and protected during the war.
Following fruitless appeals after conviction, Eichmann was executed in an Israeli prison.
“It is easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of action.” ~ Stanley Milgram
“Social coercion may alter mechanisms of voluntary agency, and hence abolish the normal experience of being in control of one’s own actions.” ~ Belgian psychologist Emilie Caspar et al
The human desire to conform appears inborn, as it develops at a tender age. Children’s level of conformity closely matches that of adults.
One experiment tested the conformity inclinations of young simians. 2-year-old children, chimps, and orangutans dropped a ball into a box with 3 sections, one of which consistently produced a food reward. After the participants had figured out how to get the treat on the first try, they watched as untrained peers failed at the task.
Then the roles were reversed: the participants took another turn while being watched by their peers. The apes stuck with their prizewinning ways. But children more often than not dropped the ball where it would not result in reward. (They had not forgot. If no one watched, the children went back to the winning choice.)
“Children as young as 2 years of age conform to others, while chimpanzees and orangutans instead prefer to stick with what they know.” ~ Daniel Haun
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Young children quickly and strategically learn by observing adults. They tend to trust adults they view as conformists rather than dissenters. Preschoolers often succumb to the adult’s point of view even when it conflicts with what they know.
“Young children are sensitive to information provided by adults; strategically considering motivations, social context, and authority.” ~ Daniel Haun & Michael Tomasello
Relying upon the power of multiple minds and memories, groups have the potential of making better decisions than individuals. Many companies employ teams to improve decision-making. Groups that have success in decision-making share certain characteristics: a small team with open communication and a shared mind-set that identifies with the group and agrees on acceptable group behavior.
Jury members share more information during decision-making when there is greater diversity in the group; such juries are thereby in a position to make a better decision.
Interpersonal dynamics are instrumental in group decision-making. Individuals employ various tactics to influence others. Though the most effective techniques vary according to the type of decision being made, the most frequent tactics are inspirational coaxing and appeals to reason.
There are disadvantages to group decision-making. The one most explored is groupthink: premature decisions from group members seeking conformity out of anxiety, trying to avert conflicts. In shunning unconventional ideas, groupthink shuts out options.
Groupthink arises in homogeneous, isolated, cohesive groups under stress, where objective or impartial leadership is absent. Groups within government responsible for making foreign-policy decisions are excellent candidates for groupthink, as they are like-minded, isolated, and under pressure.
Political cliques and the military are boiling kettles of groupthink. The onset of World War 1 was an exercise in groupthink in each of the European powers involved. In the 20th century, groups within the US government repeatedly indulged in groupthink, to grave consequences.
US Military Groupthink
In 1941, the US military had evidence that the Japanese were preparing to attack Pearl Harbor. But they refused to believe it and continued naval operations as usual.
The destruction of the US naval fleet on 7 December 1941 ushered the country into World War 2. What FDR declared “a date which will live in infamy” owed to groupthink by the US military, abetted by a President that welcomed entry into the war that was already raging in Europe, and was just looking for a selling point.
Similar disbelief led the US to provoke its all-out war with Vietnam in 1964. Despite evidence of the strength and determination of the North Vietnamese military, the Pentagon refused to believe that “little, uneducated, barefoot people in pajamas” could best the US. In 1973, having been dealt a humiliating defeat, the US tucked tail and ran.
In 2001, the Bush administration ignored repeated warnings of an impending terrorist attack. On 11 September came another date to live in infamy, owing to groupthink complacency. The neglect was so egregious that conspiracy theorists readily spun a story that the Bush administration allowed the attack to further turning the US into a militarized police state, and give it impetus for a vendetta war in the Middle East. The administration’s subsequent conduct only fanned conspiracy flames.
The complete lack of evidence is the surest sign that the conspiracy is working. ~ Anonymous
Just as LBJ lied to drag the US into Vietnam, so President George W. Bush lied to the country to invade Iraq. The Bush administration claimed that it could deliver cheap oil to the US and turn Iraq into a model democracy: a war and nation-building that would practically pay for itself, the administration advertised early on.
Men never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war, or before an election. ~ Prussian politician Otto von Bismarck
The Bush Jr. administration also groupthought its way into torturing suspected terrorists, forsaking decency to debase the country’s moral stature and violate the Geneva Conventions. Government officials defended torture morally as the “the lesser of 2 evils.”
Though somewhat attenuated, the Obama administration continued the Bush torture policy at the military prison complex in Guantánamo, Cuba. Groupthink maintained its grip.
Columbia Space Shuttle
On 16 January 2003, the US space shuttle Columbia launched after 18 delays over the previous week. 82 seconds after launch, a suitcase-sized piece of protective foam broke off and struck the left wing of the shuttle, damaging it.
Though engineers expressed concern, management groupthink discounted the prospect of danger. The flight director, Steve Stitch, emailed the Columbia crew:
Some debris came loose and subsequently impacted the orbiter left wing, creating a shower of smaller particles. We have seen this same phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for entry.
On 1 February 2003, during entry into Earth’s atmosphere, the Columbia explosively disintegrated, instantly cremating its 7 passengers. Groupthink lit the match.
NASA insiders, confronted with danger signals, proceeded as if nothing was wrong when they were repeatedly faced with the evidence that something was very wrong. They in effect normalized their own behavior, so that their actions became acceptable to them, representing nothing out of the ordinary. This is an example of organizational ritualism. ~ Margaret Anderson & Howard Taylor
We have created trouble for ourselves in organizations by confusing control with order. ~ Margaret Wheatley
An organization is a structured, goal oriented, secondary group. An organization has a sustaining existence independent of its members. Whereas informal organizations are groups with generally agreed-upon but unwritten norms, formal organizations have explicit, written rules, roles, and norms. There are 3 types of organizations: normative, utilitarian, and coercive.
One joins a normative organization to help pursue the organization’s stated goal. The intentions of such groups range from self-interest, fellowship, religion, and politics to environmental and societal well-being. In their participation in voluntary associations, Americans stand out as a nation of “joiners.”
Utilitarian organizations are those that pay their members for their contributions. Corporations are utilitarian organizations, as are government agencies. Membership in a utilitarian organization is voluntary, but those needing remunerative employment must join one.
Coercive organizations have involuntary membership. People are forcibly committed to coercive organizations, such as prison and mental asylums. Nation-states are coercive organizations.
All organizations exist to eliminate deviance. ~ American organization scholar Kim Cameron
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Formal organizations were relatively rare prior to industrialization, as life largely centered around personal relationships. In medieval Europe there were 3 exceptions: the Catholic Church, the army, and guilds.
Early organizations differed from modern ones most tellingly in their intentions. Whereas modern organizations are goal oriented, which necessarily involves change, preindustrial organizations were often tradition-oriented: determined to maintain the status quo. Armies, in serving defensive or offensive purposes, might be on either or both paths.
The church and the army were hierarchical bureaucracies. In contrast, guilds – which locally controlled their respective crafts – were barely bureaucratic.
A bureaucracy is a conceptual model of departmentalized responsibilities and functions within an organization, with the aim of efficiency. Bureaucracies are the beating hearts of large organizations.
Max Weber outlined the characteristics of bureaucracies which ostensibly help them reach their goals.
▫ Hierarchy. Duties flow downward and accountability flows upward. Each level assigns responsibilities to the level beneath it and is accountable to the level above it.
▫ Specialization. Tasks are distributed to an appropriate department, which may be an individual or group. This specialization assumes competence at the departmental level.
▫ Written rules. Bureaucracies rely upon codified procedures. Rules tend to take on a life of their own: burgeoning with growth and proliferating as time passes.
▫ Written records. Records are kept of communications and activities within the organization, and with contacts outside the organization. These records serve to distribute information and evaluate performance.
▫ Impersonality and replaceability. An office (designated position) is important, not the individual holding it. Every worker is a replaceable unit. This makes everyone within the bureaucracy a small cog in a big machine.
The dysfunctions of bureaucracies are legend. Weber was keenly aware of the ability of bureaucracy to dehumanize the people it supposedly served. Although formal organizations are intended to benefit humanity, Weber presciently feared of people becoming servants to their bureaucracy.
In a bureaucracy, a rule is a rule and red tape can be insensibly hard to break. Rather than a means to an end, rules become an end in themselves.
Lack of communication between departments has often been the norm in bureaucracies: the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. This is typically because a department is a primary in-group for its members, whereas other departments are other tribes. Besides poor decisions, the morass from communication snafus alienates those within a bureaucracy from the organization they serve. Blame on a department can result in a siege mentality among department members, which can counterproductively exacerbate communication inadequacy with that group.
Then there is sheer incompetence. In a tongue-in-cheek analysis of bureaucracies, Canadian educator Laurence Peter proposed the Peter principle in 1969; that “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.” (Though Peter is credited with coining the Peter principle, José Ortega y Gasset had suggested the concept at least 15 years earlier.)
The ring of truth made the Peter principle famous. But, if it was an apt generalization, then organizations would commonly flounder.
(How many well-run organizations do you know through first-hand experience, as contrasted to those that seem to fumble about? As the old saw goes, “good enough for government work.”)
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In their actual functioning, bureaucracies are microscopically undermined by the human cogs within the machine, who are at times creative and stubborn enough to resist bureaucratic blueprints.
Informality many times amounts to cutting corners, but it can also provide needed flexibility. Especially competent secretaries often have far more authority, responsibility, influence, and output than their official job titles and salaries suggest. (A common reason for this is sex discrimination in the workplace, and that most secretaries are effective women (else they could not hold their job).) Informality often emanates from the top, as the personalities of leaders shift culture and alter organizational outcomes.
One all-too-common outcome is organization management appropriating far more than its fair share of compensation. Such corruption is the tendency of organizations toward oligarchy, where a strongman or small clique rules over a vast bureaucracy. Pay is not the only inequity. Bosses commonly take the kudos for the hard work of their subordinates.
The problem of oligarchy – a small class of rulers exercising immense authority within the organization – exists within any bureaucracy, whatever its ideology. ~ American sociologist Frank Elwell
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In their inertia, bureaucracies are self-perpetuating. In a process called goal displacement, even after an organization has achieved its ostensible goal and has no further reason to continue, continue it does.
March of Dimes
The March of Dimes was founded in 1938 to combat polio. At the time, the cause of the debilitating disease was a mystery.
(President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who suffered from polio, founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which American comedian Eddie Cantor called the March of Dimes for its fundraising activity, which solicited dimes. The name stuck. Shortly after his death, FDR’s visage was put on the dime to honor him.)
To raise money to fund finding a cure, the organization placed posters of children on crutches near cash registers in nearly every retail store in the US. They raised money beyond their wildest dreams.
After American virologist Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio in 1955, the threat of polio was wiped out almost overnight. But did the March of Dimes stop marching? No way. They had jobs to protect.
So the organization targeted a new, vaguer, enemy: birth defects. But then, in 2001, researchers had managed to map the human genome: a breakthrough that held the possibility of eliminating birth defects and ending the March of Dimes raison d’être. Hence a new slogan (and mission to go with it): “stronger, healthier babies.” There will be no end to that campaign.
(As of 2016, sacrificing clarity for sheer vigor, the March of Dimes was providing “a fighting chance for every baby,” despite babies’ utter inability to fight chance (or fate, for that matter).)
Since industrialization, organizations have become a central feature of society. As societies are defined by their institutions, people are subject to this institutionalization.
The hierarchical structuring of organizations results in the concentration of power and influence with a few individuals at the top. Because organizations tend to reflect patterns within the broader society, this hierarchy, like that of society, is marked by inequality in race, gender, and class relations. Although the concentration of power in organizations is incompatible with the principles of a democratic society, discrimination against women and minorities definitely still occurs. ~ Margaret Anderson & Howard Taylor
Organizations are somewhat sensitive to the social milieu in which they operate. The more egalitarian the society in which a firm is located, the more equitable its treatment – and vice versa: hence, the inequities and discriminations that are rife within American and British corporations and institutions, despite laws against such.
Organizations have formidable advantages, and modern life is unimaginable in their absence. They can marshal vastly greater resources than can an individual. Organizations permit specialization and thus the development of expertise – a critical advantage in a world of staggering and ever-increasing complexity. They allow many different kinds of talent to be combined and directed toward some big task.
Perhaps most important, they are durable, even relentless, where individuals are flighty and, of course, mortal. Organizations can sustain a focus for decades, if need be: watching, waiting, planning, and then seizing opportunity when the time is right. ~ American social policy and political analyst Jacob Hacker & American political scientist Paul Pierson
Weber theorized that modern organizations – especially those in the Western world – practice rationalization: substituting natural human inclinations toward emotional values and social mores for stark efficiency in meeting goals.
Weber regarded bureaucracy as the ultimate expression of rationalization. He was not favorably impressed.
The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental. ~ Max Weber
Rationalization does not assume better understanding or greater knowledge. People who live in a value-rational environment typically know little about their surroundings (Nature, technology, the economy). ~ American sociologist Joan Ferrante
The consumer buys any number of products in the grocery without knowing how they are made or of what substances they are made. By contrast, ‘primitive’ man knows infinitely more about the conditions under which he lives, the tools he uses, and the food he consumes. ~ French sociologist Julien Freund
Chemical corporations, for example, manufacture pesticides and advertise them as a rational means for the quick and efficient killing of bugs in the house, in the garden, or on pets. Yet, the millions of people who buy and use these produces have no idea how the chemicals work, where they come from or what consequences they bring except that they kill bugs. Thus, on a personal level, people deal with pesticides as if they were magic. ~ Joan Ferrante
With its technocratic mind-set, modern capitalism is an epitome of rationalization. A capitalist’s entire existence aims at maximizing profit. To achieve this, managers seek to raise – though technology – the productivity of the labor they employ.
The drive for increased productivity inheres in each capitalist firm by virtue of its purpose as an organization for the expansion of capital; it is moreover enforced upon laggards by the threats of national and international competition.
In this setting, the development of technology takes the form of a headlong rush in which social effects are largely disregarded, priorities are set only by the criteria of profitability, and the equitable spread, reasonable assimilation, and selective appropriation of the fruits of science, considered from a social point of view, remain the visions of helpless idealists. ~ American political economist Harry Braverman
Toward the end of the 19th century American mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced the notion of scientific management. His work influenced the development of assembly lines.
Inspired by Taylor, a series of efficiency studies were carried out at the Hawthorne factory of Western Electric Company in Chicago during the 1920s–1930s. Experimenters manipulated working conditions in a number of ways in an effort to improve productivity.
After a year or so of this, performance greatly improved. This was attributed to the experimental manipulations (e.g., changing light level).
But when working conditions were returned to their original state, productivity continued to climb. At first befuddled, the reason finally dawned on Australian psychologist Elton Mayo, one of the experimenters.
While conducting their research, the experimenters had continually consulted workers and paid careful attention to most every detail of their work. The improved work performance owed entirely to workers feeling valued: the injection of humane concern made all the difference.
Looking back at these studies, German-born American sociologist Henry Landsberger dubbed this dynamic the Hawthorne effect in 1958.
The most obvious shortfall in rationalization is a disregard of ethics. Corporations worldwide constantly provide ample illustrations of this.
Weber called the irrationalities produced by supposed rationality the “iron cage of rationality.”
Ultimately, we must ask whether the creations of these rationalized systems create an even greater number of irrationalities. ~ American sociologist George Ritzer
The problem is tunnel vision: goals are entirely context-dependent, and the goal itself becomes the context.
It is but a slight exaggeration to say that business transactions, which govern the course of industry, are carried out with an eye to pecuniary gain. The industrial consequences, and their bearing on the community’s welfare, are incidental to the transaction of business. ~ Thorstein Veblen
In aiming to efficiently attain an end, the external environment is considered only to the extent that it facilitates the goal or poses obstacles. The well-being of outsiders is an externality either unthought of, disregarded, or considered an obstruction to be overcome.
More often than not, people set valued goals without first evaluating the possible disruptive or destructive social consequences of reaching them. This failure to consider such consequences lies at the heart of the destructive side of organizations in general, and of multinational corporations in particular. ~ Joan Ferrante
The moral vacuum of rationalization in the corporate environment creates a culture which employees emulate with deception and fraud, either to customers or – if an employee feels unfairly treated by the employer – against the company itself.
Sociological rationalization becomes psychological rationalization: unethical behavior as a benchmark. As the work environment is commonly a major influence in workers’ lives, behaviors learned or accepted at work become a norm that carries over into everyday life.
What is apprehended with facility and is consistent with the process of life and knowledge is thereby apprehended as right and good. ~ Thorstein Veblen
What men can do easily is what they do habitually, and this decides what they can think and know easily. A habitual line of action constitutes a habitual line of thought, and gives the point of view from which facts and events are apprehended and reduced to a body of knowledge. This gives the definitive ground of knowledge as well as the conventional standard of complacency or approval in any community. ~ Thorstein Veblen
Workers are commonly trained to do their jobs in a certain way, and only under normal circumstances. They are not prepared to respond creatively, or to anticipate unusual situations. This bureaucratization of employees leads to what Thorstein Veblen called trained incapacity: “that state of affairs in which one’s abilities function as inadequacies or blind spots.” In other words, trained incapacity is the inability to appropriately respond to novel circumstances, or to recognize when rules and procedures are outmoded or inapplicable.
(Veblen’s “trained incapacity” is an incomplete insight of a more generalized categorization of individual faculty: random competence versus random incompetence. People who do well to perform routine tasks adequately are randomly competent; alas, such individuals often blunder when trying to accomplish tasks involving novelty, which requires on-the-spot problem-solving. Conversely, one who is randomly incompetent is generally competent, but subject to occasional fallibility: the manner of mistake that plagues us all, owing to human limits of attention and cognition. There is a dash of delicious irony in this terminology, as it is facilely non-intuitive: random competence being easily misunderstood for general competence. (This being a rare language instance of an adjective (random) defining the nature of the noun (competence), not merely accenting it.) To be clear, random incompetence is generalized competence, with the caveat of an error sometimes (that is, a random incompetence); whereas random competence is fairly assured competence only for the most basic (rote) assignment; otherwise, competence is random (as not likely as not).)
The more expert – or at least the more educated – a person is, the less likely that person is to see a solution when it is not within the framework in which he or she was taught to think. This problem has always existed in all professions, but it tends to be accentuated under modern conditions. ~ American systems theorist Herman Kahn
Occupational trained incapacity follows the institutionalization provided by the public education system, where students are taught what to think, not how to think.
Educated incapacity derives from the general educational and intellectual milieu rather than from a specific education. ~ Herman Kahn
Good decisions invariably involve understanding the environment in which a decision is to be carried out – decisions being only as good as their probability of proper implementation. From an organizational standpoint, decision-making is an epitome of power.
Weber emphasized that power in an organization is not vested in a person, but in a position within a hierarchy. This kind of power is familiar and clear-cut.
But power and decent decision-making is not so categorical in large organizations. The compartmentalization of bureaucracies means that understanding the environment often requires coordinated communication. This complicates the decision-making process and makes apt decisions less likely. Ironically, a further obstacle to good decision-making in institutions comes with the use of outside experts.
Decision-making in large organizations is inherently complex because no single person provides all the input that goes into a decision. Rather, a decision is a shared product of information and judgments provided by a variety of people in different disciplines. Often the decision maker does not fully understand the principles underlying the recommendations and judgments provided.
When something goes wrong, finger-pointing is inevitable. Experts assert that they only give recommendations within a provided context, and do not control the implementation of decisions. Meanwhile, managers claim they relied upon expert advice to make decisions about processes they do not fully comprehend.
Very often, organizations are inflexible because there is too little communication between functions; they are too segregated. ~ English consultant Ken Robinson
Karl Marx believed that the replacement of living in Nature with living within the institutional constructs of capitalism led to alienation: a state where life is unhappily tyrannized by the forces of human invention.
In the 1887 book Community and Society German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies sensed the alienation within societies under the sway of impersonal organizations, particularly the increase in goal oriented relations at the expense of emotively-bonded relationships.
Family life is the general basis of life in the community. Both village and town retain many characteristics of the family; the village retains more, the town less. Only when the town develops into the city are these characteristics entirely lost. In the city, and therefore where general conditions characteristic of the state prevail, only the upper strata, the rich and the cultured, are really active and alive.
The state is the common people’s enemy. The state is an alien and unfriendly power; although seemingly authorized by them and embodying their own will, it is nevertheless opposed to all their needs and desires, protecting property which they do not possess, forcing them into military service for a country which offers them hearth and alter only in the form of a heated room on the upper floor, or gives them, for native soil, city streets where they may stare at the glitter and luxury in lighted windows forever beyond their reach!
City life and the state down the common people to decay and death; in vain they struggle to attain power only for a revolution if they want to free themselves from their fate. The masses become conscious of this social position through the education in schools and through newspapers. They proceed from class consciousness to class struggle. ~ Ferdinand Tönnies
German sociologist Georg Simmel highlighted how relationships in modern society were increasingly mediated by money in the 1907 book The Philosophy of Money.
The individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of a purely objective life. ~ Georg Simmel
In the 1951 book White Collar American sociologist Wright Mills described how modern consumption-capitalism shaped society in such a way that people had to sell their personalities as well as their skill set. This is especially true in a service-oriented economy.
In a society of employees dominated by the marketing mentality, it is inevitable that a personality market should arise. People are required by the salesman ethic and convention to pretend interest in others in order to manipulate them. Men are estranged from one another as each secretly tries to make an instrument of the other, and in time a full circle is made: one makes an instrument of himself and is estranged from it also. ~ Wright Mills