Is collective efficacy a human need?

19.56, Thursday 8 Apr 2021

Do we have a deep-seated need to feel part of a empowered group?

I ran across this concept in an profile of Greta Thunberg in the FT.

Sabherwal’s paper found that people who had heard of Thunberg were likely to feel a stronger sense of “collective efficacy”, the belief that they could make a difference by acting together.

That’s an interesting feeling to stick a pin in: the sense that you are part of a group with strength.

Having named the feeling, I think we can ask and immediately answer two follow-up questions:

  1. Does it feel good to feel strong collective efficacy? Yes it does.
  2. Do people want to feel good? Yes they do.

Which implies! Amongst all the groups a person encounters, they will move up the gradient towards stronger collective efficacy. i.e. if there are two groups, A and B, which are otherwise entirely equal but group B has a lever to choose the colour of the bike shed, people will move to group B.

Or if people feel alienated in society, the “containing” group, but some political group, or radical organisation, or whatever, promises the ability to change how things work then, by osmosis, those groups will grow in popularity.

Way too simplistic conclusion: the answer to radicalisation is to increase the collective efficacy of society - to increase people’s ability to be part of meaningful change - reducing the osmotic pressure that drives people into fringe groups.

It seems obvious written down like this, but I hadn’t thought of it from quite that angle before.

Practically, if we assume that “collective efficacy tropism” is a thing that humans have, we can ask questions about limits: How small can collective efficacy be, and still modify behaviour?

Like, do the follow qualify as teeny-weeny collective efficacy ocean floor thermal vents:

  • Posting a book review on Amazon – does the simple existence of the text box create a feeling of “oh I could leave a mark here” and therefore an almost indiscernible nano tribalism to the “Amazon” group?
  • Sharing highlights on a website, cf my shared social attention experiment the other week – does this femto-togetherness create any kind of measurable gravity?

Clearly at a larger scale, it’s incredibly powerful to feel part of something. Remember reddit’s amazing Place project of 2017.

But if it’s really an honest-to-goodness human need, even if imperceptible in many cases, what strategies are there to design for collective efficacy, from micro to macro?

And if a software product is designed without any such possibility (I pick on software because with physical spaces you get it for free) then will it always feel, in some nameless way, hollow?

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