Friday, May 16, 2008

Group think

I've been thinking recently about how we respond to group situations. It came to mind because I was remembering how when Mikko was 5 weeks old, we took him on a sailboat ride that had me seriously fearing we would fall into the bay. The boat was tipped at a 40-degree angle at least, we weren't wearing life jackets, I was holding a fifteen-pound weight, I had no hands free to hold on to a line, and then Mikko wanted to nurse! I braced myself as best I could with my feet and just hoped I didn't kill myself or my new baby. I kept looking around at the other 20 passengers and the 2 men of the crew and marveling that they didn't look like they were just this side of death. I was not at all certain I wouldn't fall into the water.

I was repondering this event and musing that I might have said something to the crew about how scared I was if I had been the only passenger or one of only a few. I might have requested a life jacket or asked for a suggestion for a better seat -- on the way back, our backs were leaning against the hull since the boat was now tipped the other way, and that felt very cozy, looking up at the sky, as opposed to leaning forward staring down into the waves.

It reminded me of that oft-told story of the woman who was stabbed in a hallway and a dozen witnesses over the half hour did nothing or little to stop it. It's told in terms of bystander apathy or diffused responsibility, where at a certain critical group size, no one in the group will take responsibility for a situation. Everyone looks to the others for cues about how to act, and even if that is inaction, that's what the group will do.

Here's a quote about the effect from wikipedia:

"A common explanation of this phenomenon is that, with others present, observers all assume that someone else is going to intervene and so they each individually refrain from doing so and feel less responsible. ... People may also assume that other bystanders may be more qualified to help, such as being a doctor or police officer, and their intervention would thus be unneeded. People may also fear losing face in front of the other bystanders, being superseded by a superior helper, or offering unwanted assistance. Another explanation is that bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. Since others are doing exactly the same, everyone concludes from the inaction of others that other people do not think that help is needed. ... An alternative to explanations of rational motivation is that emotional cues to action can be as powerful as irrational ones, and the presence of a group of inactive others is a pre-rational emotional cue to inaction that must be overcome."

I think the lines "People may also fear losing face in front of the other bystanders," and "the presence of a group of inactive others is a pre-rational emotional cue to inaction that must be overcome," explain perfectly my reaction on the sailboat. Thinking of it now, I wonder why I didn't put my and my baby's safety over my trying to fit into a crowd -- but fitting into a crowd is a powerful motivator.

The better side of this picture is that there's a good spin to put on the same issue. This is what Jean Liedloff means when she writes in The Continuum Concept about humans being "innately social." We want to cooperate with our group; we want to fit in with those around us.

That's why it's unnecessary to "teach" babies to share or talk or eat food instead of poop or whatever it is -- they pick up these cues naturally, and some things take longer than others to sink in and some depend on physical and mental readiness, but usually a relaxed approach to educating babies works as well or better than an intensive campaign to "train" them. The natural method is not a hands-off approach -- in fact, it's very hands-on, a modeling for and a communication with the child, but it's much less stressful to expect that a child wants to and will learn what you and your tribe do.

Whenever I read comments like, "If you don't teach him how to use a regular cup now, he'll always be using a sippy cup" (often from child-development experts as well as other parents), I snicker at the image of a 50-year-old sighing at a restaurant and resignedly asking the waiter for his water to be poured into a sippy cup instead: "My mother just never taught me how to drink from one of these regular glasses." There's a lot of advice to consciously encourage babies to crawl, or walk, or speak, all operating under the ludicrously false assumption that children don't want to do these things and perversely will not unless coerced.

I always wonder if these concerned parents and pediatricians and psychologists think we should use flash cards to teach our babies to say "mama" or PowerPoint to present the fundamentals of crawling. Maybe some sort of workshop on clapping or a lecture on blowing spit bubbles?

The motivation to be just like those around us is powerful. As parents our biggest role is just to continue being human and expect our children to grow up in the way they were going to in the first place.

2 comments:

Cindy said...

I can't believe you don't have more comments! This is great stuff! :)

You said, "I always wonder if these concerned parents and pediatricians and psychologists think we should use flash cards to teach our babies to say "mama" or PowerPoint to present the fundamentals of crawling. Maybe some sort of workshop on clapping or a lecture on blowing spit bubbles?"

ROFLMBO! Yes! People just don't get "natural learning" in our culture! My 8yo taught himself to read before his 4th birthday. All I did was read to him when he asked me to, otherwise he would look at books and sound things out on his own.

Your post also reminds me of our trip to Amish country in Lancaster, PA a month ago. The tour guide told us that the Amish were not "qualified" to teach their own children! The reason.....because they only have an 8th grade education. But wait, their children only go to school through 8th grade as well, yet they are not qualified to teach them the exact same things they learned in school? Doesn't make any ounce of sense to me! Then most of them go on to be some kind of craftsmen or farmer. They really don't even need an 8th grade education for those, although, I'm sure most "uneducated" adults would test at least at an 8th grade level anyway. We all learn through life, every moment, whether we realize it or not!

Okay, I'm rambling again. :)

Hobo Mama said...

Wow -- I totally agree with you about the Amish. It's amazing how much learning by example has been denigrated and replaced with learning from experts. I hope that our country never gets to outlawing homeschooling/unschooling because of that.

I think the whole historical trend toward requiring education for kids, and having the state provide it free of charge, was born out of a good impulse. You know, in the 19th century, if you've got 7-year-olds slaving away in a mill or cleaning chimneys, you can see how reformers would want to give them an opportunity for something better, even if their parents disapproved. But now, like you were saying with your son, most kids in this culture will naturally learn what they need to be successful in this life (whatever that means! another post, ha ha!), like reading and math and so on. I think our tendency now is to overvalue the play & study aspect of childhood and to separate kids out from adults, rather than recognizing that they need & want to learn how to become adults like us.

See, I ramble too! I can't help it, so I appreciate it in others, too! :) Thanks for commenting on so many posts -- I want to respond to them all as I steal time while the baby's sleeping.

Related Posts with Thumbnails