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  • Brendan Stec

Your Group Doesn't Define You

Regina: Ok, you should just know that we don't do this a lot, so this is like, a really huge deal.

Gretchen: We want to invite you to have lunch with us every day for the rest of week.

Cady: Oh it's ok–

Regina: Coolness! So we'll see you tomorrow.

Karen: On Wednesdays, we wear pink.

Mean Girls (2004)


Are you a cat person or a dog person? Are you Mac or PC? Hilton or Marriott? American, Russian, Brazilian or Korean? Democrat or Republican?

... Eagles or Cowboys?

The countless groups by which we identify ourselves: some of them are a bit silly or contrived, some of them are foundations to our core culture and beliefs, some of them may be fairly or unfairly considered good or bad or better or worse. But all of them are crucial to how we perceive ourselves, others, and the world – often in ways beyond our own conscious awareness.

The need to belong to a group is one of the most powerful in human nature. It's the need that draws people to continually support their college's football team decades after they were once students. It's what urges people to join exclusive country clubs or fraternities, even if they can't really afford them. It's also the need that once compelled our ancestors to form tribal bands and massacre the neighboring tribe for their supply of gazelle meat.

At the end of the day, we form groups for two reasons: they make us feel validated and they help us survive.

So you could say they're pretty damn important...

But groups only supplement our identity; they don't define it.

We are not our job title, the brand of car we drive, the country stamped on our passport, or the type of sports team we root for on Sundays. We are not better or worse because we happened to go to a certain school or vote for a certain candidate or grow up in a certain part of town.

But some people are damned sure that these minor group distinctions are in fact major individual differentiators. You have met these people at parties: they love to name drop other important people they hang out with, what prestigious company they work for, or what trendy neighborhood they live in. They need these group affiliations to feed their attitude of superiority or nourish their underdeveloped sense of self. In reality, groups are just artificial constructs of human culture, a byproduct of a brain that is more efficient when it categorizes things instead of analyzing each individually (1).

If we're not careful, we can let membership in a group define too rigidly who we are, what we believe, how we act, and most hideously, our value to society. If we're not careful, we can let the powerful human forces pushing us into groups emphasize how much we are different, in our little groups, than how much we are alike.

Rich or poor: we all can get sick. Liberal or conservative: we can all enjoy Tiger King. Waiter or doctor: we all do important work.

Do we let the groups we're associated with define who we are?

Or do we define that for ourselves?



(1) Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow (pp. 145-148)

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