group-er ego

Ego has come along way since Freud. Here I will use it in the simplest definition as a “sense of self”. Many posts here have to do with contracting individual identity out of group affiliation. Seeing an individual as the sum total of their group identities allows us to view decision-making as not a single rational process of an individual agent, but a struggle for mindshare between competing ideologies associated with identity factions that are multiple group memberships.

Group membership is often described from the perspective of the agent. I will join a group if it benefits or interests “me”. This can be true in a utilitarian sense, but there are social, and as i will describe, “ego” benefits to membership that are very powerful.

I happened upon this idea when simply observing the language that an employee used to describe his company. this particular individual happened to work for St. Gobain – a very old french (now international) materials company. They started off making glass. In fact, the employee bragged – “we made the mirrors in Versailles”. This I found curious: “we”. clearly no employee living today could take credit for this achievement, however all employees were now able to claim this achievement almost as their own. Of course I’m not suggesting that this man actually believed that he had any part of the original project but we know how powerful saying something like this can be for our egos.

This practice – of personalizing the achievements of a group – I will call ego extension. It is actually a powerful (and empowering) tool that groups can used to bind themselves together. There is a group mythology, a set of values that are shared. Often groups will reinforce their membership with rhetoric saying: we are the smartest, we work hard, we come from greatness… You’ll hear all of these in any political speech or locker room pep talk.

The added piece that members get to walk away with is to say “we have held this post for the past 15 generations” (an allusion to ancestral achievement). Common nationalistic sentiments could be “we invented the atom bomb”, or “we saved your ass in WWII”. In conversation these allow the speaker to get away with a colloquial ego extension – which regardless of how devoid of truth the literal translation may be – allows the speaker to feel dominant.

This feeling of dominance can be backed by strength in sheer group membership, achievement, or just a sense of self. It doesn’t matter if it is religion, sports or politics you’ll find the same terminology of individuals projecting their sense of self through taking collective credit for achievements of the group.


About livingthememe

engineer and armchair philosopher
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