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Sociocentric Thinking as Pathology

Sociocentric thinking, as we intend this expression, is egocentric thinking raised to the level of the group. It is as destructive as egocentric thinking, if not more so, as it carries with it the sanction of a social group. In both cases, we find a native and uncritical dogmatism implicit in its principles. And therein lies its pathology. Like egocentric thinking, it is absurd at the level of conscious expression. If sociocentric thinking is made explicit in the mind of the thinker, its unreasonableness will be obvious.

Note the parallels in Table 11.1 for egocentric and sociocentric patterns of thought.

Table 11.1
Egocentric and Sociocentric Patterns of Thought

Egocentric Standard

Related Sociocentric Standard

"It's true because I believe it."

"It's true because we believe it."

"It's true because I want to believe it."

"It's true because we want to believe it."

"It's true because it's in my vested interest to believe it."

"It's true because it's in our vested interest to believe it."

"It's true because I have always believed it."

"It's true because we have always believed it."

Just as individuals deceive themselves through egocentric thinking, groups deceive themselves through sociocentric thinking. Just as egocentric thinking functions to serve one's selfish interest, sociocentric thinking functions to serve the selfish interests of the group. Just as egocentric thinking operates to validate the uncritical thinking of the individual, sociocentric thinking operates to validate the uncritical thinking of the group.

Test the Idea
Thinking About the Groups You Belong To

Make a list of the groups you belong to. Then choose the group you think has influenced you the most in your beliefs, values, and behavior. Complete the following statements:

  1. The group that has influenced me the most is probably…

  2. This group's main function or agenda is…

  3. Comment on as many of the following variables as you can identify with, with respect to the group you have chosen to analyze. To what extent does your membership in this group involve:
    • A name that defines who and what they are;

    • A way of talking;

    • A set of friends and enemies;

    • Group rituals in which you must participate;

    • Expected behaviors involving fellow members;

    • Expected behaviors when around the "enemies" of the group;

    • A hierarchy of power within the group;

    • A way of dressing and speaking;

    • Social requirements to which you must conform;

    • A set of taboos—forbidden acts, whose violation is punished.

  4. One of the key "requirements" of this group is…

  5. One of the key "taboos" (what I am forbidden to do) is…

  6. A group that my group would look down upon is … We think of this group as beneath us because…

The idea of sociocentric thinking is not new. Under one label or another, many books have been written on the subject. And it has been the focus of important sociological studies. Almost a hundred years ago, in his seminal book Folkways, originally published in 1902, William Graham Sumner wrote extensively about social expectations and taboos. One of the founders of the discipline of sociology, Sumner documented the manner in which group thought penetrates virtually every dimension of human life. He introduced the concept of ethnocentrism in this way:

Ethnocentrism is the technical name for this view of thinking in which one's own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it.… Each group nourishes its own pride and vanity, boasts itself superior, exacts its own divines, and looks with contempt on outsiders. Each group thinks its own folkways the only right ones, and if it observes that other groups have other folkways, these excite its scorn. (p. 13)

Sumner describes folkways as the socially perceived "right" ways to satisfy all interests according to group norms and standards. He says that in every society:

There is a right way to catch game, to win a wife, to make one's self appear… to treat comrades or strangers, to behave when a child is born… The "right" way is the way which ancestors used and which has been handed down. The tradition is its own warrant. It is not held subject to verification by experience.… In the folkways, whatever is, is right. (p. 28)

In regard to expectations of group members, Sumner states:

Every group of any kind whatsoever demands that each of its members shall help defend group interests. The group force is also employed to enforce the obligations of devotion to group interests. It follows that judgments are precluded and criticism silenced.… The patriotic bias is a recognized perversion of thought and judgment against which our education should guard us. (p. 15)

Even young children exhibit sociocentric thinking and behavior. Consider this passage from Piaget's study for UNESCO (Campbell, 1976), which is a dialogue between an interviewer and three children regarding the causes of war:

Michael M. (9 years, 6 months old): Have you heard of such people as foreigners? Yes, the French, the Americans, the Russians, the English… Quite right. Are there differences between all these people? Oh, yes, they don't speak the same language. And what else? I don't know. What do you think of the French, for instance? The French are very serious, they don't worry about anything, an' it's dirty there. And what do you think of the Russians? They're bad, they're always wanting to make war. And what's your opinion of the English? I don't know… they're nice… Now look, how did you come to know all you've told me? I don't know… I've heard it… that's what people say.

Maurice D. (8 years, 3 months old): If you didn't have any nationality and you were given a free choice of nationality, which would you choose? Swiss nationality. Why? Because I was born in Switzerland. Now look, do you think the French and Swiss are equally nice, or the one nicer or less nice than the other? The Swiss are nicer. Why? The French are always nasty. Who is more intelligent, the Swiss or the French, or do you think they're just the same? The Swiss are more intelligent. Why? Because they learn French quickly. If I asked a French boy to choose any nationality he liked, what country do you thinking he'd choose? He'd choose France. Why? Because he was born in France. And what would he say about who's the nicer? Would he think the Swiss and French equally nice, or one better than the other? He'd say the French are nicer. Why? Because he was born in France. And who would he think more intelligent? The French. Why? He'd say the French want to learn quicker than the Swiss. Now you and the French boy don't really give the same answer. Who do you think answered best? I did. Why? Because Switzerland is always better.

Marina T. (7 years, 9 months old): If you were born without any nationality and you were given a free choice, what nationality would you choose? Italian. Why? Because it's my country. I like it better than Argentina where my father works, because Argentina isn't my country. Are Italians just the same, or more, or less intelligent than the Argentineans? What do you think? The Italians are more intelligent. Why? I can see people I live with, they're Italians. If I were to give a child from Argentina a free choice of nationality, what do you think he would choose? He'd want to stay an Argentinean. Why? Because that's his country. And if I were to ask him who is more intelligent, the Argentineans or the Italians, what do you think he would answer? He'd say Argentineans. Why? Because there wasn't any war. Now who was really right in the choice he made and what he said, the Argentinean child, you, or both? I was right. Why? Because I chose Italy.

It is clear that these children are thinking sociocentrically. They have been indoctrinated into the belief systems, with accompanying ideologies, of their nation and culture. They cannot articulate why they think their country is better than others, but they have no doubt that it is. Seeing one's group as superior to other groups is both natural to the human mind and propagated by the cultures within which we live.

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