“Isn’t it entropic, I really do think” – or “How Groups Zombify, and what, in theory, was to be done…” #HowGroupsZombify

If you are Really Damn Old you may recognise the song lyric reference in the first half of the title. “Whatever,” as the young people used to say.

“How Groups Zombify” – HGZ, as we will call it, (but which could also stand for Hypocrites Going Zealous?) is a key question. For me, anyway. Not clear to me that anyone else thinks it is. Maybe they don’t see it, or don’t think it can be solved.

In avoiding HGZ, people will go so far as to admit that groups go through an arc (you know, storming, norming, performing blah blah), and then settle down into a groove (or a rut, depending on your point of view). But they see that as natural/inevitable/unchangeable. Which it may be. But we should have tried (It is all past tense now, guys).

I haven’t done enough thinking (or if I ever did, I forgot and need to rethink/remember) about HGZ. Or I have and didn’t like my answers and am actively repressing. “Whatever.”

Let’s first describe the arc, in stages. Then the mechanisms. Then, if any of us can be bothered, I will talk about what, in theory, was to be done [to be clear, it won’t have been, in fact probably could NOT have been – but what else ya gonna do while waiting for the other shoe to drop? Oh, yeah, that’s right, the Cocker Protocol.)

The story arc

  1. “We can change the world/The only way is up”

People gather under a flag (a nicely graphically designed one, probs) of convenience. More people turn up. Wow, we are so strong together. The gosling pecks out of the egg, imprints on what it sees…

2. Plateaux and platitudes

After a while (3 months, 6 months, a year) the media switch from curiosity to active hostility, the repertoires get stale/predictable, the personality differences curdle into feuds and the number of people leaving begins to match the number of new folks coming through the door. But the sense of momentum is still lingering, so that isn’t quite noticed.

3. “Eh, Where did everyone go?

Like a fist when you open your palm, it’s gone. But the survivors are not necessarily those with the most skills, mental flexibility etc, but those who needed the group the most, or had positions within it that met their social needs. It’s important to remember that evolution by natural selection is not a guided/normative process…

Zombification mechanisms

Oh, here is a few. Whatever.


The founder(s) stick around and “hire”/recruit in their own image. If you want to get approval, you mimic what They Did. Regardless of efficacy (“nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” etc).

“In our wheelhouse”

The group develops a skillset, a set of things they (perceive that they) are good at. And this is of course related to

“We can/must deliver what others expect/want from us”

[This is distinct from what other groups, and indeed the broader field (or eco-system, if you like) might actually need. But to spot that requires a strategic overview, and who has time for that? What was that apocryphal Henry Ford line – “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.”]

“The [opportunity] cost to the old dog of learning new tricks”

“While we are learning this new thing, we are probably scaling back on other stuff, and getting fewer likes/less attention and our morale and profile suffers. So, you know, let’s stick to what we know, even if the field-affecting-value of it is now roughly zero….”

I suspect that there are heaps of other innovation studies concepts i should be raiding, but part of me can’t be bothered. Look, these stabilisation mechanisms (and others I’ve not mentioned/am unaware of) are simply too strong. I really don’t believe you’re strong enough…


You can recognise it, shambling around, perhaps even saying garbled versions of the key phrases, its clothing in tatters, its arms outstretched, hungry for the brains it once had with relish (or mayonnaise, whatever). But it is not really THERE, is it? It is basically like the passengers turned into (spoilers) zombies in Thomas Block’s airplane disaster novel “Mayday”, after the decompression…

And the worst thing is, of course, the zombie, if you let it get close, bites you, and then you become, well, one of it…

What was to be done?

To have created videos, cartoons, whatever – that explained HGZ and tried to get people thinking about their role, as individuals and as members of a group, in reducing the likelihood of it

To have rewarded innovation and to have celebrated it internally, even if it hadn’t really inspired a lotta other people.

To have skilled-up enough people so you didn’t have single points of failure blah blah.

To have invented a fricking time machine and interfered in human cognitive development when we were on the savannah, or in the trees. Whatever.

3 thoughts on ““Isn’t it entropic, I really do think” – or “How Groups Zombify, and what, in theory, was to be done…” #HowGroupsZombify

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  1. Probably groups never form as causal agents, but as symptoms of a more or less coalescing order of thinking (which is usually just a circularity of thinking). What the group ends up circling is their own presumed, shared identity. The individual latches on to this identity, and slowly circles the drain. But it’s also possible that a group Could form without any solid identity. It would not labor on building itself into a lasting organization with borders. It would merely be a symptom of a new mind emerging. Members of this group might not even realize they’re members. Members wouldn’t even consistently belong to this group. It would emerge in moments of shared realization, as for instance when a storm brings people together in a swelling of empathy and concern for each other. A group forms, and this group can do real work, but it has no intention of “lasting” — it’s a momentary flowering of ecstatic reunion, a kind of festival in the seasons of life. Sporadic and arising only when needs (when the mysterious world itself) calls the group to form. And then letting it die when it’s done. I suppose this would be an anarchist’s vision of group dynamics, but I would also call it an insight-driven dynamic, a non-literal dynamic (where the thing, the idea of ourselves, the identity of the group itself, is never confused with a real entity). Hey, I just wrote an essay using “zombie” in the title that is consistent with your usage — I assume you could find it by clicking on my “name.” Thank you, that was very enjoyable and insightful.

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