What happens to morality when people work collaboratively in a large group?
I was prompted to do a little research on DPD and Amazon recently, following a repeated failure to deliver a parcel. For several years, there have been intermittent problems with deliveries to our home because the DPD satnav system contains an error for our rural location, which they seem unable to correct. Royal Mail and most other carriers can find us (except when snow blocks the roads). Amazon compound the problem by refusing to redirect all our parcels through Royal Mail as a default.
The question of morality arises because, when a driver can’t find us, or the depot can’t find a driver prepared to make the trip, DPD tell lies to hide the fact and shift the blame. For example, they say the customer was out (untrue), or the customer requested delivery on a later date (untrue). Amazon keep saying that they have spoken to DPD and promise delivery the next day, and they also sometimes tell lies to try and get rid of the problem. My problems paled into insignificance, however, when I discovered that a DPD driver had recently because of DPD’s policies:
Don Lane, 53, from Christchurch in Dorset, missed appointments with specialists because he felt under pressure to cover his round and faced DPD’s £150 daily penalties if he did not find cover, his widow has told the Guardian.
DPD delivers parcels for Marks & Spencer, Amazon and John Lewis but only pays couriers per parcel delivered. It treats them as self-employed franchisees and they receive no sick or holiday pay…
Lane had collapsed twice, including once into a diabetic coma while at the wheel of his DPD van during deliveries, when the company fined him in July after he went to see a specialist about eye damage caused by diabetes. He collapsed again in September and finally in late December having worked through illness during the Christmas rush. He died at the Royal Bournemouth hospital on 4 January… He had worked for DPD for 19 years.
It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like to work under such a punitive regime. It seems like a modern form of protection racket, extorting money from vulnerable people who are trying their best to make a living. However, the people who run companies such as DPD are not gangsters. So, what makes them behave in this way?
The difference between individual and group behaviour has been studied extensively in mainstream psychology. For example, more than half a century ago, research showed that people tend to conform to group views even when they recognise it to be false (Asch 1951). Before 1961 (coincidentally, the year of Jung’s death), the prevailing theory was that the collective group view tended to reflect the average of individual members’ views.
However, a piece of research in 1961 found that group behaviour can often be very different from the average of the individuals. In an experiment that measured risk, groups ‘tended to advocate significantly more risky courses of action’ (Stoner 1961). Subsequent research has shown this ‘risky shift’ principle to be part of a more generic principle. Groups tend to take more polarised and extreme actions than if they were acting alone (Myers & Lamm 1976).
Groups and analytical psychology
Jung developed his views on groups in the early part of the 20th century, before the empirical and scientific psychological discoveries referred to above. However, his insights are still valid when considered in the light of that research. They even help reconcile the two principles – the normalisation that takes place in groups, and the tendency for groups to become more extreme.
Jung often wrote about the potentially dysfunctional relationship between the individual and the group. He saw it dominated by the relationship between the conscious mind and the unconscious. The conscious mind is aware and rational. The unconscious operates outside our awareness, is irrational, and contains a lot of primitive instincts and impulses.
One of the most powerful forces in a group context is participation mystique. Jung used this term to describe the unconscious aspect of identifying with a group; it leads us to imitate the group behaviours and attitudes without realising it. Because this imitation is unconscious, the behaviours we tend to imitate are also unconscious. That is, participation mystique not only drags us sideways – into holding the same attitudes and beliefs as others in the group – but it also drags us downwards, into using more primitive instincts and impulses. We become more violent, more extreme, and more suggestible (Jung 1936, pp. 570-71). Jung expressed it pithily with phrases such as:
A hundred Great Brains makes one big fathead
(Jung 1934, p. 500).
The larger an organization the lower its morality… a hundred intelligent people together make one hydrocephalus
(Jung 1936, p. 571)
However, as the case of the DPD driver illustrates, the consequences can be very serious. And the impact of participation mystique can go even further, in cause violent conflict between religions, cultures, and nations. A rational and moral person can become a barbarian when operating within a group. This drop in morality is due to their ability to think or act according to their personal conscience being trumped by the much more basal collective conscience that is driven by return on investment. Telling lies or bullying staff can, in that context, easily become seen as the norm and of no consequence.
Jung’s solution to a wide variety of problems – whether individual, interpersonal, or group dysfunction – is usually individuation, which is his process of personal development. It involves developing greater awareness of our unconscious mind and the impact it has on our relationships. For example, instead of seeing ourselves as moral and projecting immorality into other people or groups, we recognise that there is morality and immorality on all sides.
There is a level of dishonesty in all of us. It is not something that afflicts some people and not others. Nor is dishonesty only manifest in large organisations. However, when we work within the context of a large group, there can be a downward pressure on our level of morality that makes it easier for us to act dishonestly.
By withdrawing projections, we integrate the previously unconscious side of ourselves into our conscious life. This process of individuation is relevant to group dysfunction because it involves developing more of unique and individual psychology that enables us to separate ourselves and recognise the unconscious group problems. Individuation does not make us immune from participation mystique, but it does help us recognise it more. In turn, this empowers us to resist it, when it is appropriate to do so.
One key aspect of individuation is learning to recognise the influence of collective culture on our individual actions and thoughts. We need to separate the two so that we don’t simply conform to the expectations of the groups in which we participate.
There are many ways that an organisation can maintain ethical behaviour. Governments can develop legislation that constrains how companies treat their employees and suppliers. Unions can draw attention to abuses and protect the rights and interests of their members. Senior management can implement programs that develop and monitor ethical values throughout the organisation. Many of these solutions are already in place, though they are not universal.
Jung’s approach offers another solution that could be complementary to all of these. If individuation were to be promoted throughout an organisation, it would enable management to recognise and mitigate the impact of participation mystique that drags their morality in a downwards direction.
Booth, R. (2018). ‘DPD courier who was fined for day off to see doctor dies from diabetes’. In The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/feb/05/courier-who-was-fined-for-day-off-to-see-doctor-dies-from-diabetes , downloaded 25th March 2018.
Asch, S.E. (1951). ‘Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgement’. In H. Guetzow (ed.), Groups, leadership, and men. Pittsburgh: Carnegie.
Jung, C.G. (1934). ‘La Révolution Mondiale’. In Civilization in Transition, second edition, translated by R.F.C. Hull (CW10). London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.
______ (1936). ‘Psychology and national problems’. In The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings, translated by R.F.C. Hull (CW18). London: Routledge, 1977.
Myers, D., Lamm, H. (1976). ‘The group polarization phenomenon’. In Psychological Bulletin, vol 4, pp. 602-3.
Stoner, J.A.F. (1961). A Comparison of Individual and Group Decisions Involving Risk (M.Sc. thesis). Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. https://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/11330/33120544-MIT.pdf, downloaded 26th March 2018.
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