Recently I read two items about the power of groups. The first concerned a new book, Talking to the Enemy, written by an anthropologist named Scott Atran, who has traveled around the world making a detailed study of terrorists and all violent extremists, including suicide bombers, by asking one simple question: Why do they do it?
The answer is not, as we believe in the West, religion.
As Atran puts it: “People don’t simply kill and die for a cause. They kill and die for each other.”
In his study, which has taken him around the world in search of jihad in all manner of unlikely places, he finds the same scenario.
Rather than a big centrist organization, terrorist groups start as a group of soccer buddies, school chums or even petty criminals, who become good friends and then form themselves into a little freelance unit.
According to Atran, a terrorist group operates like any small tribe. In anthropological terms, classic group dynamics then takes over; of most value to everyone in any cell is the friendship, approval and loyalty of the group.
Cost of commitment
Atran discovered that the most important currency in these small clusterings is the ‘commitment cost” - the lengths to which the members are prepared to go for the cause.
Most of the groups demand total blood-brother commitment, so that suicide, the ultimate sacrifice, becomes the way to show the depth of your allegiance.
As London Times columnist Bryan Appleyard put it, “Thus you belong only because you are prepared to die, so when the time comes you die because you belong not to Islam but to your buddies.”
Crowdsourcing for medicine
The other fascinating item I read concerned the power of crowdsourcing – the act of laying problems at the feet of large groups, rather than individual ‘experts’ to solve difficult medical problems.
Recently a Harvard dean, working with a group called InnoCentive, crowdsourced the entire university – faculty, students, administrators and staff of all varieties – to offer answers to one of the biggest conundrums of modern medicine: type I diabetes.
In his project, called ‘the Challenge,’ Harvard Medical School Dean for Clinical and Translational Research Lee Nadler purposefully involved a community with no apparent expertise in the problem to answer the question: What do we not know to cure Type 1 Diabetes?
Nadler invited the entire community to come up with proposals. A large panel of experts in a variety of fields judged the entrees and selected 12 ideas they considered highly innovative.
The 12 winners among the 190 entries included an undergraduate student, a patient, a PhD student, a human resources representative and researchers. Almost none of them had any expertise in medicine.
All the winners came up with out-of-the-box ideas for dealing with diabetes. For instance, one diabetes patient suggested that, instead of just using numbers – type 1 and type 2 – to classify diabetes, doctors adopt a scale called the Diabetes Triangle, using three simple measures to classify diabetes in a much more specific and personalized way.
Another winner, undergraduate chemistry major Megan Blewett, suggested that researchers study how the immune system interacts with lipid (fat) molecules in diabetics from a chemical perspective for new insights into how to treat the disease.
Wisdom of crowds
Aside from finding some potentially innovative solutions or treatments for diabetes, the Challenge was an experiment in ‘open innovation’, using the wisdom of crowds and making use of the knowledge of the largest possible community to solve scientific problems.
Karim Lakhania, an assistant professor of Harvard Business School suggests that ‘open source’ expertise can often reveal innovative solutions to thorny scientific problems and new directions in medical research or health care.
What he’s essentially saying is that a group mind is often more creative than an individual expert at coming up with answers.
These two separate stories have a single thread: both illustrate the extraordinary power of community.
It’s now becoming apparent that the need for people to belong is so inherent and strong in us that we are even prepared to die to gain acceptance by our peers.
Power of belonging
Humanity is profoundly tribal; we feel most at home in small clusters in which we are a part of the whole. Indeed, so primal is the need to belong that ostracism is one of the most unbearable situations human beings endure.
A former Mennonite, Robert L Bear, referred to the Amish practice of ‘shunning’ as a ‘living hell of torture’. Teen girls at British boarding schools exile ‘to Coventry’ friends who have become too arrogant– no one speaks to her for a term — as the ultimate punishment to get her back in line.
Aboriginals understood the immense life-or-death power of ostracism or shunning for extreme cases, as it often ends in death. This most primal of human urges — not to stand apart but simply to fit in, particularly with the people who immediately surround us — may well be so necessary to our existence that we are prepared to die in order to belong.
By the same token, groups also appear to possess a ‘field effect’ so that the group, when left to its devices, can prove more expert than experts themselves.
‘We are told that to make sure order is maintained, someone has to be in control,’ says British management consultant Charles Leadbeater, author of We-think: The Power of Mass Creativity, a book for which readers are invited to offer additions or revision.
‘Yet these activities seem ordered precisely because no one seeks to be in control and so people have to exercise their sense of responsibility, adjusting to one another, sorting out disputes as they go. The order comes from within these communities, not from the top.
‘To get complex tasks done reliably, we have assumed we need a clear division of labor, so everyone knows in advance what they are supposed to do, and whose job it is to do what. Yet in these non-organizations people seem to voluntarily distribute themselves to work, as and when it needs to be done.’
The need to move beyond the boundaries of our selves as individuals and to establish ourselves as part of a group is so primordial and necessary to a human being that it remains the key determinant of we live or die. It may also be the key to creativity.