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Clinging to Your Crew

Today social ostracism is likely temporary—and far from the end of your world.

In this moment, your need to fit in is stronger than your need to articulate your views, even though you're pained by the choice to clam up. We evolved not to be tireless defenders of the "truth" (however hawkish we perceive it to be), but to fit into the prevailing group. That is one reason we experience such piercing discomfort at the prospect of being ostracized.

There was a time when ostracism meant grave danger. Today it probably only means a grave hassle. But we unconsciously conflate the two because we are possessed by a powerful drive to conform at almost any cost.

The reason this urge is strong is that for most of human history the group was our meal ticket and primary means of survival. Then, as population and mobility increased, our ancestors encountered an ever-expanding circle of family, kin, clan, and band.

Today that circle encompasses teeming cities of anonymous people who have formed subgroups such as Democrats, plutocrats, Ivy Leagues, bowling leagues, and, of course, co-workers. Far too often, we erroneously invest these loose social networks with powers better suited to a congress that really does determine survival.

Everyone has ancestors, but not everyone leaves descendants. Those who did were almost certainly members of a functioning group or tribe. Charles Darwin himself observed, "A tribe including many members who... were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection." Darwin showed that the survival of the individual was responsible for evolution but recognized the key role of cooperation in this very survival.

Social anxiety and concern for status are the emotional checks that keep our cooperative, conformist behavior on track. We often tacitly believe, "I must fit in, or the effects will be terrible." Or, "If I don't fit in here, I won't fit in anywhere."

However, getting fired from your job or cold-shouldered by a group of acquaintances hardly means getting thrown down a volcano. Still, the need to be accepted among peers is so powerful that anxiety kicks in even under wholly non-life-threatening circumstances, such as showing up solo at a cocktail party or being called on to speak in public.

We want to prove our loyalty to a group, but loyalty carries its own hazards: In our zeal to avoid banishment, we might commit too deeply or for too long. Often we are so keen on fitting in that we fail to ask whether we really benefit from an affiliation in the first place.

An extrinsically motivated employee may be so focused on pleasing a demanding boss or organization that he loses sight of his own best interests, as Scooter Libby might well attest. Those who join cults or other exclusive groups often cannot backpedal even when they want to; instead, they discover the radical asymmetry between the cost of adhering and the benefits of membership.

But you don't have to be a cult leader (or campus fraternity president) to capitalize on the human willingness to make sacrifices in order to commit to a group. Groups often make it hard to fit in: Exorbitant membership fees win you 365-day access to elite clubs; burdensome rituals signal your adherence to a religion; and trial by fire is the price of admission to many a workplace.

Commitment is a difficult thing to fake. Often, one proves allegiance for allegiance's sake. "SuicideGirls" (modern hippie chicks who sport piercings and tattoos), bikers, and rock musicians all send signals that are believable. No other group would accept this get-up, so you guys are stuck with me, and me with you. Nuns and monks take a vow of celibacy, perhaps the starkest proof of group allegiance winning out over individual interest, at least from a Darwinian viewpoint.

Once we're safely ensconced in a group, we face a new dilemma: the need to distinguish ourselves. In other words, we want to fit in, but once accepted, we wish to stand out. An individual who shines or stands apart often reaps personal benefits, but there's also a benefit to the group. Dissenters and contrarians make for a stronger organization (up to a point). Cooperation does not mean homogeneity. Groups are stronger with a wide variety of talents serving a similar end. The Beatles did their best work after butting heads. Research scientists who furiously debate the causes of global warming outperform those who refuse to acknowledge conflicting data. Michael Moore and Ann Coulter each believe that they epitomize the patriotic American, and a political system that allows for such shrill extremes is more vibrant than a nation that squelches them, no matter how reviled each is by their respective out-group.

Of course, most people couldn't stomach the idea of being hated by half of America—the pull of conformity is just too strong. The rewards of group acceptance include the sense that we're doing well by doing right by others. In contrast, getting frozen out can foster intense pain, unless we properly understand how we needlessly contribute to that pain today. Namely, we're endorsing a Neanderthink legacy: "I absolutely must be accepted by this group," a premise that for hundreds of generations promoted group cohesion.

Often such cohesion came at the expense of individuation. Today, our options are far more varied than those faced by ancestors who passed on their emotional apparatus to us. Speaking out in favor of the Iraq war or against your co-workers' accounting skills may earn you dirty looks. But chances are you've just uttered the rallying cry of another, rival group, one that will welcome you into the fold.

How to Deal with the Pain of Exclusion

Our Neanderthink desire to fit in can lead us to distort the consequences of rejection.

  • Whether confronted by "mean girls" or Machiavellian co-workers, beware of magnifying the effects of group exclusion. Our knee-jerk inner voice says, "I must belong or the effects will be catastrophic and global." Usually they are neither.
  • Telling yourself that your ouster is terrible will only reinforce your anxiety about the situation. Remind yourself that you don't need this group's approval to survive, and your anxiety will become appropriate concern.
  • The need for affiliation with a specific group at all costs blinds you to new opportunities and creates a global sense that you will always be rejected.
  • Monitor labels: Are you condensing your essence into a party, race, gender, or nationality? Remember that "groups" today are convenient monikers and ever-shifting alliances, not survival-focused entities like families or tribes.
  • When a group limits your options, you can leave for another group more easily than ever before.