Anyone who has seen the film Into The Wild will be able to recall one particular scene towards the end the movie, very well. It goes as such; the camera opens with the main character (Christopher McCandless) lying on the floor of his soiled trailer. After 2 years of living a life of solitude ‘in the wild’ he lays painfully squirming around on the floor of his trailer, dying from starvation and having mistakenly eaten a poisonous berry. He grabs a pen and paper and then proceeds to shakily write on a piece of paper;
’the only true happiness is shared’
I’m not sure whether or not I agree with that statement, but I know for sure that nearly all people feel that way sometimes. At least during the awake hours anyway.
Maybe there are some enlightened Buddhist monks happy to be chillin’ up in the Himalayas by themselves, but for the majority of us, solitude is an unpleasant place to be.
So what does this have to do with drinking?
Over the past few weeks, have received a lot of interest from the blog that talked about how group dynamics operate in drinking environments (special shout out to Michael, Adam & Chris). Particularly about one of the things we saw at the Normanby last Sunday.
We noticed that people in a group of three or five would often split into sub-groups of 2 people for conversation and the odd one out would stand there next them, looking around awkwardly and drinking significantly more. It was observed that this ‘odd person out’ would end up drinking drink at least twice as much as the other two, twice as fast.
Why? The simple answer is.. ta-da ta-da… humans have this niggling little necessity inside us that makes us feel like we need to belong.
So where does this feeling come from?
If you study a group of spider monkeys (… and every one should at least once in their life), when you remove one of them from the pack the solo monkey will die extraordinarily quickly. Not because it can’t physically survive but because it psychologically can’t. It’s the same with children and many adults. We either die, or go crazy (alla Tom Hanks in Cast Away).
It seems that we are born with this internal software that says ‘IF LEFT ALONE: go ahead and self-destruct’.
So, back to our group of three at the Normanby… here we have a diagram of the two people, deep in convo, feeling like they belong. They know each other and are comfortable to be in that space, with far less drinking needed. The people at the Normanby are pretty skinny…
However, as can be seen in diagram 2, our third man is not in the circle of belonging of the other two. He is trying to belong to a much wider circle of people. This explains why he drinks a lot more and looks around awkwardly to belong to a larger population. The sad truth is that in order to build rapport with a crowd he barely knows, he feels that he needs to drink a significant amount more.
It’s not just drinking though. Examples of how we need to belong, at any cost, are all around us. Look at how a group of smokers gravitate to each other outside a building, belonging to their little minority club. Look at how Jewish people can’t even push an elevator button on Saturday, all belonging to their religion. My favourite example – Scientology. Even look how people will kill another human being in war, all for the sake of belonging to a country!
The truth is, belonging just as inevitable and inescapable as our Ego. You need to belong to groups, or you go crazy. Simple. However, one of the little messed up things about our society is that in order to belong to 90% of groups in Australia, drinking is a pre-requisite.
So I pose this question to you…
If drinking is the major pre-requisite in nearly all activities that involve your friends, your family and of course your work colleagues, what choice do you really have around drinking that has anything less than the gravity of choosing to belong or not belong?
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Hey Chris, I’m enjoying the read! Great to see you taking one for the team to understand our drinking culture, all in the name of research.
We pattern / copy behaviours from influencers around us (people we perceive as popular, charismatic, attractive etc) to better fit in with the group. It’s a learned behaviour – we can usually pick the freshly-minted 18yos out for their first night at the Regatta because they can look so out of place (clothes, behaviour, drinks, body language, etc etc).
I don’t see it so much as “belonging”; to me that implies that the individuals are looking to form an empathetic connection with the crowd (eg. I want to belong with my group of friends, but I don’t want to connect with the entire crowd – I just want to fit in). Small groups form as a defensive reaction – they norm so that they don’t stand out. The one guy with no social group, who wanders around talking to everyone, is more visible (and annoying?) than the group of men sitting down at the back table.
PS: Have you read Mark Earls work on herd-like social behaviour? He blogs @ herd.typepad.com, and this is a good summary article.
Cheers for the feedback. I checked out out the article. Interesting stuff!
Thats a good point about how we mimic people. So true. I guess the important thing is that we mimic the right person. Or maybe is it, we choose who to mimic (subconsciously) before we actually do?
The chicken and the egg…
Great thought Chris. Really like the concept of belonging – I notice myself when Iam at the pub, especailly if Iam at a party or with a group of people I barely know, I drink twice as hard and twice as fast.
Found your blog after seeing a story about you online (Sunshine Coast Daily). It’s a great read and an interesting project. I was wondering if you’ve noticed any physical effects since giving up alcohol – good or bad? If you have any cravings etc, or if mates still offer you drinks? You must be very strong to give cocktails away! I remember giving up drinking while pregnant/breastfeeding and the pain of having to say no to free quality champagne at social functions – oh the humanity!
Anyway good for you!
Physically, I have definitely noticed improvements. Just being able to go to the gym on the weekends has had a massive impact. I’m pretty strong with the cravings. I kind of like being the person in the corner with the clip-board, so I am enjoying it. haha.
Cheers for the support.
Thanks, chaps for the shout out.
A recent letter in New Scientist mag captures the emerging consensus: it proposed that we change the name of our curious species from Homo sapiens (the wise one) to Homo mimicus, given that we do copying so often and so much better than other species.
That said, your question about whom we copy is important and deserves a fuller answer than is possible here. The important thing is that for most of us most in modern contexts (i.e. beyond the small groups of our hunter-gatherer forefathers), there isn’t a ‘right’ person to copy; indeed, much of our work suggests much of the copying is effectively random.
Some studies (e.g. Ormerod http://www.brandrepublic.com/News/822583/Advertising-Association-reveals-binge-drinking-research/) suggest that the underlying structure of social networks through which e.g. binge drinking behaviour spreads is rather more clumped than this; that said, the typical “influential” structure that so many practitioners assume is far from the default setting
Hope this helps stimulate your thinking.
Great article! We have one of the researchers solely looking at group dynamics and even in the secondary research phase has uncovered some interesting findings including…
• Males in larger groups tended to consume more than males in smaller groups
• Multiple regression consistently showed that group size was +ve associated with alcohol consumption among males even when confounding variables held constant
• Males and females combined indicated that females in larger groups consumed more
• Group size +ve associated with drinking rate
• Members of same sex groups tended to consume more alcohol than members of mixed sex groups
Things that we probably are already aware of but not consciously noticing anyway…
It’s interesting you say that you receive an extra 1000 hits on this site each time you have a newspaper article published about your year of sobriety. Refer Sunshine Coast Daily 16 Feb p.8.
“…humans have this niggling little necessity inside us that makes us feel like we need to belong.”
Could it be that your group is gaining in popularity?
Pretty crazy, I know! Hopefully the increase in size will give us an increase in the diversity of perspectives on the issue.