Is ‘clique’ behaviour an evolutionary weakness?

Most of us have experienced some form of social ‘clique’ in our lifetime. These groups consist of people who share similar interests and bond over them, such as the football team at school, the cheerleaders at college, or the ‘ladies-who-lunch-together’ in the office. They can be quite intimidating and cruel towards outsiders too. Despite the emotional effect such groups can have on individuals, there has been very little study into the science behind them. This blog entry will seek to investigate the science behind the ‘clique’ mentality, and introduce the idea that this behaviour is actually an evolutionary weakness.

The science of clique behaviour is fascinating to consider. Since the beginning of time, human beings have felt a natural affinity towards each other, and have clubbed together in order to survive. Groups of hunters were far more adept at finding food than lone huntsman, and groups of warriors were more able to protect their families from harm. Groups of people would travel together, and fight against outsider groups who may seek to steal provisions from them. Outsiders were a real threat, and therefore the targets for violence. This theory may seem difficult to apply to modern day situations, but it isn’t as far-fetched as you’d think. Sociologists argue that people form cliques because they need to feel a sense of belonging in order to survive in a world ruled by social interactions. Many academics argue that this need is equally as crucial as food and shelter, and stems back to our ancestors who survived in clans, or in a herd mentality. Lone outsiders were unlikely to survive in the wilderness, and are still viewed with suspicion and dislike in the modern day.  If a person doesn’t gravitate towards a certain group, or ‘clique,’ then they become a target for gossip, hearsay and bullying.

Being an outsider is not for the faint-hearted. I’ve never felt a sense of belonging to any particular social group, and that’s always been a difficult burden to bear. I never engaged in office politics, because I had no idea how to, and I was bullied continuously at school. I didn’t fit the ‘mould’ of other workers or pupils either, so was often left out when people went for ‘drinks’ after work or sleepovers at the weekend. This can leave a person feeling humiliated, and it absolutely crushes self-esteem. However, I have started to see that being an outsider is actually an advantage. Outsiders are more capable of being objective, and less social commitments result is far less stress. I am quite glad that I don’t feel obligated to go out with a certain group of people on a weekend, or have to deal with the stresses of trying to belong. I pride myself on being an outsider, and I would urge other people to do the same. Cliques are an outdated method of survival, and there is far more power and pride to be had in being an independent and lone entity in this day and age.

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The Introvert-Extrovert Spectrum

Our lives and experiences are vastly shaped by our personality types. The introvert-extrovert spectrum has been widely recognised as the two polar opposites of the human personality, and is often used as a defining feature when describing people in particular situations. In my experience, the loudly spoken and buoyant personality will always gain certain opportunities that the quiet, cerebral type does not. A shy and quiet child is often viewed as an enigma to teachers, and therefore is more easily overlooked and targeted for a lack of contribution in school reports. The loud and boisterous child holds the room’s attention, and is often more liked by his or her class. The latter grows in popularity, and the former easily blends into the background. Why is this? Why is introversion viewed as a second class personality that cannot be valued in our society?

The answer is simple. Scientific studies have revealed that talkative people are viewed as smarter, more attractive and conforming to a universal standard of psychological expectation. Fast talkers are considered more competent and likeable, and yet there is no correlation between speech velocity and intellect. As adults, we are expected to work in offices without walls, and to be at the beck and call of bosses who value ‘people skills’ above everything else, but I have never been wired that way. It is more difficult for an introvert to promote themselves in modern society, and they need to work harder for recognition, because quietness does not sell. It does not turn heads. Introverts however, have strong social skills, but they devote their energies to reflection rather than voice velocity and attention grabbing. They listen more than they talk. They think before they speak, and they feel more comfortable expressing themselves in writing rather than conversation. The word ‘introvert’ is not a synonym for social recluse, or hermit, but rather for a person that avoids the overstimulating and chaotic, and finds comfortable expression in more understated mediums.

Introverts may feel alone in their approach, but they are far from it. In 1955, Rosa Parks stood up for what she believed in when approached with racist segregation laws, and stood firm against confrontation. It would be very easy to assume that she was a bold and outspoken woman, but she was not. When she died in 2005, her obituaries praised her for being ‘timid’ and ‘shy,’ but with the ‘courage of a lion.’ Some of mankind’s greatest achievements and ideas have come from introverts. Van Gogh and T.S. Eliot were famously private souls, and Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were known to be great thinkers who achieved great productivity in solitude. Einstein himself described himself as a ‘horse built for a single harness,’ and Charles Darwin famously stated that a man could be shy but ‘as bold as a hero in battle.’ Introversion is not a curse; it is a powerful personality type that is simply misunderstood in present society.

Confessions

‘Men make mess,’ my Great Grandma used to say. ‘They come to you when everything is tidy. They mess everything up, and then they leave again.’

They were strong words to say to an eleven year old girl, and finally, thirteen years later, I think I understand what she meant. The ‘mess’ she was referring to was not the domestic image of unwashed dishes that I had previously assumed. She meant an emotional mess, and being in the shadow of your former ‘tidy’ self. She was referring to the great and sometimes painful process of falling in love, and what happens when it’s over.

My Great Grandma had always been a strong woman. She drove a tank during World War II, and did supply runs in armoured trucks over live minefields. She met my great grandfather during a raid, and she took great delight in telling us how he talked far too much. He was a skinny fellow, she said, who wore shabby shoes, and he was lucky he didn’t get his toes blown off. She said it was love at first sight, and when my Grandma fell pregnant, she came home to England and began building a home for her new family. She chose a quiet little village in Surrey, where the most exciting occurrence was Sunday Mass. It was a million miles away from war. It was perfect.

Sadly, my Grandma never saw her lover again. She explained to everyone that he had died in action, and that his body had never been recovered. When we asked her how, her eyes would gloss over and grow distant. She didn’t want to talk about it, and no-one pressured my Grandma into doing anything. This woman was a soldier.

It always made me sad to think of her, alone with a child. She was a resilient woman, who prided herself on being able to handle anything life threw at her. Rather than cry in front of people, and feel sorry for herself, she got on with life. She juggled three jobs at once. She was a nurse during the day, a barmaid during the night and a milkman in the middle of the night. People who knew her said she hardly slept at all. She didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself. She moved on, and gave my Grandad the best childhood imaginable.

When my Grandad was twenty-five years old, he died in a car accident. I remember sitting with my Great Grandma at the time, eating stew and watching her do the crossword. She didn’t react to the phone-call. She put the receiver down and shuffled back into the kitchen, putting all the plates away and starting the washing up. No-one really understood what was going on, and although everyone offered her support, she merely shrugged it off. At the funeral, she sat in the front row in silence, fingering the embroidered daisies on her dress. She cried one single tear, and it dribbled down her wrinkled skin silently. She spoke to no-one.

To say that my Grandma suffered a great loss is an understatement. She lost the man she loved and she outlived her son. I would spend most weekends with her, and she taught me everything she knew. We’d plant potatoes together, knit little blankets and do the crosswords. She told me to work hard in life, and always be mindful of other people. She said I had to go to school, because school would give me a life. She was the smartest person in the world, and I did everything she said. There were times when I grew bored and restless, but then I remembered her wise words and carried on.

My Grandma passed away last year, and she made a shocking confession on her deathbed. My Great Grandad hadn’t died in the war. He had already been married, but had failed to mention it until after she fell pregnant. He returned home to his wife and three children, and my Grandma never saw him again. Most people would have crumbled, but she coped. She accepted that she would never have her lover in her life, and so she focused on bringing up my Grandad alone. Maybe my Grandad should have been given the chance to find his father? When my Mum asked her this, my Grandma simply smiled and said, ‘It would have made a terrible mess.’