Mimicry and Membership

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

By Wray Herbert

I once attended an all-male college where the “Greek” system dominated residential and social life. Each year in the winter, most of the freshmen would “rush” a particular fraternity house, which was little more than a ritualistic way of declaring: "Take me please. I'm just like you.” The ones who were accepted would “pledge” themselves to the house. But many of the hopefuls were not accepted, and the rejects were often deeply disappointed.

The Greek system embodies much that is sad and unflattering about human nature, especially the cruelty of exclusion and the often desperate need to belong. Psychologists are very interested in these dynamics, because they apply way beyond the frat house. Why is inclusion in groups and clubs so important to us, and what cognitive and emotional resources do we have to avoid rejection? Or to deal with rejection?

Psychologist Jessica Lakin of Drew University suspected that affiliation is so essential to human functioning that we have deep-wired strategies for gaining entry to life’s groups and clubs. But what are these strategies? One possibility, she theorized, is that people threatened with social isolation resort to automatic mimicry--a primitive, pre-linguistic form of beseeching the in-group and pleading: I'm really am just like you. She and her colleagues decided to explore this idea in the laboratory.

Lakin had a group of student volunteers play Cyberball, an arcade game loosely based on American football. The volunteers thought they were playing with and against other volunteers, but in fact a computer was controlling much of the play. The computer was programmed to “include” some players—that is, give them the ball about as much as everyone got it—and to “exclude” others. So basically, the volunteers came away from the game feeling either accepted or rejected by their fellow students.

When the Cyberball game was over, the scientists devised another ruse, which they videotaped. They had the students sit alone in a room for a bit and videotaped their natural foot movements. Some people apparently fidget more than others. Then a young woman entered the room to ostensibly take part in a shared task, but the task was fake and the woman was part of the experiment. Her real purpose in the room was to deliberately move her foot around, back and forth, up and down.

The idea was to see if the volunteers increased their own foot movements once the woman entered the room and began her deliberate movements. They wanted to see if the students who were feeling rejected after Cyberball did more unconscious aping than those who felt included. And that’s precisely what they found. As described in the August issue of Psychological Science, people apparently “recover” from rejection by unconsciously attempting, through mimicry, to affiliate with someone new. Hey, I’m just like you!

But the “someone new” in this study was basically the first person to come along. She didn’t do the actual rejecting. Lakin and her colleagues wanted to see if this unconscious mimicry is indeed indiscriminate, or if people use these rudimentary attempts at affiliation more strategically when (as in most of real life)they know who is rejecting them. So in a second experiment, only female volunteers played the Cyberball game, and they were rejected by either men or women; other female volunteers did not play at all. Then they all took part in the foot movement study as before.

The psychologists predicted that the women would feel rejection more acutely if rejected by other women, their “in-group,” and that these rejects would subsequently make a greater and more selective effort to win over another woman rather than a man. And that’s what they found. Even though the mimicry and supplication were completely outside of conscious awareness, they were strategically targeted at those in the in-crowd. Put bluntly, rejects didn’t kiss up to just anyone simply because their feelings were bruised. They had a clear goal: to belong to the group that didn’t want them.

It’s perhaps not all that surprising that the need for belonging is so fundamental to our nature. The “clubs” of our primordial ancestors were basically survivalist groups, and rejects didn’t last out on the savannah alone. But rejection is not often life-threatening these days, so the desperation appears not nearly so adaptive as it does unseemly.

The fraternities of my day had this especially perverse ritual called “post-rush.” Sometimes a house would not get as many new pledges as it had hoped, so a couple weeks later they would host beer parties and such to let the rejects try again. Here’s where the real pathos played out. Already excluded once from membership in the club, the also-rans would do anything they could to show that their rejection had been a mistake and they really did belong: they would laugh unnaturally, drink inappropriately, and vigilantly scan the room for any clue to how a real fraternity man acts. Everything short of outright yelling: Hey, I’m just like you!

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. Selections from the blog now appear in the magazine Scientific American Mind and on the website http://www.sciam.com/.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 4:29 PM


At 6:26 PM , Blogger Thory said...

About 20 years ago, as it was just becoming fashionable to have undergraduates deconstruct their own experiences as part of their introductory writing courses, my fellow TAs in the English department were complaining about the poor quality of the papers they were receiving. "Why can't they see the sexist nature of the groups they are joining?" "Why does their grammar fall apart when they're writing about something as familiar as the fraternity where they are living?"

Eventually it dawned on me that while we were smart to ask students to work on material they were already familiar with, asking students to take apart the groups they had only recently joined was rather unfair -- these students were still in the identification phase, not a place where critique would come easily. Switching the target from "a social group you are in now" to "a social group you were in during high school", or "a social group you might join in the future" lets the students use the analytical tools from their classes.....but on targets they are better able to dissect. Lower the conflict level, decrease the stress, and you get students with more cognitive resources available to write a coherent essay!


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