Yang: Conceptual Foundation For Understanding Power Differentials: Social Comparison And Dynamic Conservatism – Part II

Los Alamos

Action, interaction, reaction, and inaction are all important factors to weigh in understanding the dynamics of interactions among individuals and groups. Characters and qualities of personality acquire meanings through all those (___) actions. 

When I first moved to this part of the world, I was more or less an unknown to others. Gradually, friends and colleagues built a store of descriptors of me, some probably are always true; others are couched in certain contexts, and a few I probably would never know about. In our social being, we often rely on others as our looking glass for cues about our behavior.

This is true for groups as well; they need others to help define group identity and boundary; without boundary, there wouldn’t be identity. However, there is a paradox of boundary: It provides comfort but also constraints. The constraining force is what Kenwyn Smith refers to as the “psychological prison.” 

The “prison” metaphor maybe a bit harsh, but the image fits. The walls separating inmates from non-prisoners are not viewed equally; the inmates feel being closed-in but the outsiders have the luxury of not (always) feeling closed-in. So, when a group adopts certain ideas, principles, postures, etc, they are drawing the boundary, essentially by erecting walls, and are then compelled to, like, be bounded by them. How this comes about is through social comparison process in which the group uses (and needs) other groups as a looking glass to examine and define itself. And when there are several groups jostling with and against each other, the system in which these groups reside absorbs all these dynamic powers and produces its own meta-power that contributes to the encasement, the dynamic conservatism

Using “looking glass” as a metaphor is useful for understanding intergroup dynamics in several aspects. Just as we use a mirror, purpose and distance are important factors. If I want to see whether there is foreign object in my eye, I move close to the mirror; when I want to see how I look with the ensemble of clothes I threw on, I step back, and if I am in a hurry but want to make sure that I look decent, I just take a quick look. But it’s much more complicated for groups. Really. 

I invite you to think of your own experiences at work, at home, or in society as you read along.

If group A gets too close to group B and sees in B reflections of the internal conflicts, fragmentation, struggles, or vulnerability that they experience themselves in group A, it’d be uncomfortable at the very least. Most likely, group A wants to reject these images, hide from their own “reality,” and distance itself from the other group. But if group A gets too far from group B, what it receives is likely to be trivial or superficial images which offer little to inform group A’s identity. 

On Distance In one of the experiential learning settings (illustrated in Smith’s book), the “bottom” group went to the “top/elite” group for more clarification for some proposal, but was told to go away and come back with a new proposal. The bottom group did go away but indulged itself in recreational activities instead of working on the “proposal.” The distance between these two groups was so great that the top felt that “see, we are the powerful ones; we are in control; we sent them away to carry out our command.” So the top group basked in the sunshine of their own power while ignorant of its consequences, and the bottom group went away maintaining the integrity of their own power by expressing indifference and disdain.

On Reasons One example: What the “bottom” group feared most, in their relatively powerless position in the system, was their own disunity. Instead of looking at their own disagreements and schisms – which is always uncomfortable – they much preferred to look at groups with whom they had natural animosity (click here). It is when the group is alone that its internal disagreements are most glaring. So, in the face of conflicts with external groups, the bottom group experienced its greatest unity. Indeed, the bottom group, in their perpetual need to gain more power, would at times orchestrate conflicts with others, just so they could experience that ephemeral feeling of power brought on by unity. 

To explore further the complexity of intergroup dynamics in a system, Smith adds another layer to the “looking glass/mirror” metaphor, the “stage performance” where subtle interactions between performing group and audience group help shed more light. 

1.  As I mentioned before, group members want both to be part of the group and apart from the group. Such ambivalence and tension are natural but are also confusing and frightening, and as a result, consume much of the group energy. Groups, too, have public and private personae, and by definition, they don’t really want the private “stuff” revealed too much, if at all. Pretty soon, they move toward covering up their own private struggles with certain public images that win back from the audience group(s) what they want to see and hear. In other words, they trade information for confirmation

2. So, when the group doesn’t like what the audience reflects back, the group can either change the audience or change their act. In the above-mentioned experiential learning setting, the “middle” group told the top group that they couldn’t really implement the top’s decision about the bottom group. The top group told the middle group that this was the middle’s incompetence in the implementation, and not the top’s inability to make an informed decision. “The upper group used the power to reject any feedback about their own competence or incompetence as a group and chose to only listen to the responses of the audience group that confirmed their own desires to be seen as powerful and in control.” Sound familiar?

3. At times, a group performs without an external audience group and serves as its own audience group. As Smith says, “the potential for self-delusion is very high.” In the same learning setting, the top group devised a plan for the bottom to work on, without any input from either the bottom or the middle groups who were supposed to implement the plan. When the middle went along – because they were exhausted by now – the top thought their idea was good. When the bottom refused to go along, and the middle reported back to the top that the idea had failed, we saw the response, “[the middle] is incompetent.”

4. Performing for imaginary audience creates yet another kind of dynamics.

5. Or, performing the “sham.”  When a group pre-orchestrates its public image, the members all know it’s a sham and they can’t hide this from each other, but they have to from the public. This eventually erodes the group’s unity and internal conflicts are the inevitable outcomes. 

6. And the group assumes other groups are also performing their versions of sham. 

So, before you know it, distrust runs deep and no one seems to be able to unravel all the hardening layers of encasement. 

When one group is performing, the audience group wants to get closer to peak behind the façade, and vice versa. At the same time the performing group wants to keep a safe distance from the audience group to protect itself, and vice versa. Compounding it all is the undisputable reality that the actions, inaction, reactions, and interactions among groups happen constantly and often simultaneously. The need to be both distant and close at the same time thus creates intense struggles and discomfort for groups, which in turn evoke groups’ need of power to control the distance. 

Since groups rarely, if ever, have the same amount of power in a system, the more powerful one will always have more influence on both the distance and the ground rules. Guess what? The less powerful group will always be defensive and resistant to the more powerful’s demands and rules and will try to change them whenever and however they can. This then brings about the powerful’s defenses and resistance. And off we go.

So, instead of spending energy to get ahead of others (all groups seem to want more power), most groups tend to use the energy to preserve their current position, the status quo, to keep things from getting worse.  While the less powerful groups may want to gain more power, their immediate concern is to not lose any more. For all intent and purpose, all the groups focus their effort in opposing changes because changes would shift the power dynamics. Better to deal with the devil you know, right? When faced with “real changes,” (click here) groups are riddled with fears and/or suspicion, which provoke their defense and resistance mechanisms. This whole process of bringing down standards and hardening values is the essence of dynamic conservatism.

In the following posts, I will try to shed some spotlight on one group at a time, in this experiential learning setting, in which Smith played the role of an anthropologist. And, anticipating the conclusions in his book, I will demonstrate that intelligent people in “real” life do behave in irrational, bizarre, or unreasonable ways, while all the time thinking that they are being perfectly sensible. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.