Have you ever been in a group of people and noticed changes in your attitudes or perspective that seem inconsistent with the way you usually are when alone? Do you find yourself becoming more like the people around you, as if your consciousness has merged with theirs? This tendency to unconsciously adopt the prevailing viewpoint of the group you are in was termed participation mystique by the French anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl, and was further developed from a psychological standpoint by Carl Jung.
Carl Jung describes participation mystique in this way:
“The further we go back in life, the more we see personality disappearing beneath the wrappings of collectivity. And if we go right back to primitive psychology, we find absolutely no trace of the concept of an individual. Instead of individuality, we find only collective relationship or what Levy-Bruhl calls participation mystique.” [Jung, Psychological Types, C.W. vol. 6, 1971, par. 12]
In a situation of participation mystique, the locus of the guiding will and consciousness is, in a way, outside and separate from the individual members of the group. Like a colony of ants or bees, each member is directed at an unconscious level by patterns of behavior that flow from the organizing structure of the colony itself, rather than the individuality of its members. In fact, in participation mystique each member becomes like an appendage, or cell, to the larger body of the group. This can create a mystical high for those who participate in it (hence the name). However, participation mystique is also the underlying mechanism of mob psychology. Its overall result is a decrease in the level of consciousness and autonomy among the group members. The individual’s perspective is suspended in favor of a group consciousness (or lack of consciousness, to be more exact).
A recent example of participation mystique involves a play in a football game between the Chicago Bears and the Greenbay Packers. In a game that would decide which team moved on to the playoffs, the Bear’s failed to pursue a ball fumbled by Greenbay quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, despite the fact that no whistle was blown signaling the end of the play. The ball was picked up by the Packer’s receiver, Jarrett Boykin, who returned it 15 yards for a touchdown, paving the way to Greenbay’s victory. As you watch the play, keep in mind that the Bears players are trained every day in practice to pursue the ball until the official’s whistle is blown. See video here.
Obviously unclear about whether the loose ball was an incomplete pass or a fumble, the players on both teams over-rode their training by looking to each other for guidance rather than trusting their instincts (no whistle = live ball = get that ball). On this play everyone except Boykin and Rodgers is hesitant to take a stand and go after the ball. The players sense that something is not right, yet they stand around looking to each other for direction.
This play illustrates a danger of groups and the phenomenon of the participation mystique. When we look too much to others to direct or confirm our thoughts, feelings, or intuition we abdicate our decision-making responsibilities. Our reliance on others to answer our questions results in a corresponding negation of our individuality, autonomy, and inner wisdom. We might even say that when we are too concerned with fitting in, we drop the ball of life.