God said, “It’s not good for the Man to be alone; I’ll make him … a companion.” (Gen 2:18 The Message). Human beings are made to live in relationships. Although people vary in their degree of sociability, the presence of others in our lives is indispensable. Growing up, we learn by watching and imitating role models. The company of a loved person allows us to share intimacy and sexual fulfillment. We thrive by exchanging ideas, collaborating, and competing with one another. In times of crisis the encouragement and support of others can be crucial for our survival. Groups are sources of identity providing social norms and a sense of belonging.
Especially in unclear or complex situations people will automatically look to others around them for guidance on how to behave. Savage and Boyd Macmillan (2007, pg. 13) share an anecdote about some Christians in Kenya who brought a group of prostitutes to their church service on Sunday. Their dresses were revealing, and their makeup was flashy, but people in the church did not act offended and no one made any critical remarks. They just welcomed them warmly and even invited them to lunch after the service. Next week, they came back. This time, their dresses were not as short and their makeup much more subtle. Without anybody saying a word, they had adjusted to the environment.
This is an example of social contagion, a very powerful phenomenon that happens quite automatically. It can manifest in complex adaptive processes but also in very simple behaviors. Have you ever noticed how you feel compelled to start yawning yourself when you see someone else yawn? One person laughing uncontrollably in an audience will cause a chain reaction that other people in the room find almost impossible to resist. Emotional states spread from person to person, as do attitudes, motivations, and behaviors from simple itches to fashion trends. Some have spread like wildfire through communities, like the WWJD bracelets or preferences for certain smartphone apps. The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” the disturbing account of a teenager’s suicide became highly controversial because increases in suicide attempts among young people were observed in several countries after the series started airing.
How can phenomena like this be explained? The human brain is hardwired to produce an empathic response. A certain type of cells in our brains, called “mirror neurons” help us identify expressions we perceive in other people by mimicking them in our own experience. Advertisements take advantage of this. When you see someone enjoying an ice-cold soda on a hot summer day you may begin to feel saliva gathering in your mouth because mirror neurons simulate a stimulation of the same areas in your own brain that would be activated if you would drink the cold soda yourself.
Understanding humans as social beings is the domain of several scientific disciplines: Anthropology seeks to understand how humans live, form cultures, and change over long periods of time. Sociology focuses on groups as a whole at various levels from couples to society. Social psychology looks at individuals within the larger context of groups. In this chapter, we will look at social processes through the lenses of sociology and social psychology. We will consider different types of groups, how groups form, and how being in a group influences its members. We will also briefly examine communication, conflict, and conflict resolution.