The fear you have of leaving WhatsApp groups

Why stick around when you don't want to?

Why do people struggle to leave WhatsApp groups?

I could (and likely will at some point) write an extended essay describing my tendentious views on social media use and why I determine it to be a terrible use of time and mental resources.

However, in this shorter article, I thought I would consider the strange situation I have witnessed: many people allowing themselves to be held hostage to a WhatsApp group that they no longer wish to be part of. I think of it through an evolutionary psychology and anthropological lens (like most topics I write about).

It is well understood that we are a highly social species, and the vast majority of us care considerably about being in groups and liked. One of the greatest fears that many people hold is being ostracised from a group. Granted, it is a reasonable fear in many ways—arguably if you don't fear being left out of a group at all, you might be erring on the side of sociopathy.

The fear of being left out of the group and the social behaviour of conforming to group norms and dynamics has many benefits. It is a trait that has been strongly evolutionarily conserved for a reason—humans do not fare well on their own but are extremely powerful when cooperating in groups.

Alone, we are an animal of insignificance. We would wither away if banished to some desolate place. Granted, there are numerous stories of exceptional individuals who survived for long periods of time alone at sea or in the mountains; generally, most of us would not (are you one of the exceptional individuals who would, staunch, resilient, self-reliant and with fortitude?)

Not only do most people have a yearning to conform to the group, to fit in and to please, most people happily follow along, too. Very few people are innate leaders.

(We have a proliferation of "management" and "leadership" courses and degrees these days. It's one thing having a theoretical understanding of what leadership is, it's another thing being one. Then people graduate and think they’re a leader…I've met very, very, very few people who I deem to be true leaders. Very few. Even fewer that I would "follow"—in any sense of the word.)

This makes sense, of course, the way we have set up our societies (industries, militaries etc.) with "managers" managing other "managers" managing other "managers" is like some weird Russian doll situation that is not in tune and not at all suited to our innate social drives to exist in bands of up to 150 people, with few people genuinely leading. It makes sense that the majority of people have an inbuilt need to conform to enable these bands to function.

But we don't live in bands of 150 anymore, in which everyone depended on everyone else. We live in massive nations, in which we are part of dozens of other collections for numerous reasons; our workgroups, our fitness groups, our social media groups, our friendship groups...

We identify with flags, and sports teams, and companies, and brands, and political parties, and dietary fads, and fitness brands, and clothing fashions.

Here, conformity can have some pretty nefarious consequences. From small things like football hooligans having fights—this really is an excellent illustration of the primacy of our species isn’t it? We’ve had Shakespeare, Darwin, Plato, and Dawkins, and somehow in the same species, we’ve had The Kray Twins, Paul Sykes and…The Royal Family (same species???) and Tony Blair—to, what most would agree, pretty significant cases of malfunctioning conformity such as being a big fan of Hitler in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Here’s a famous photograph from that time.

I love this photograph. It’s probably one of my favourite historical images, along with “Tank Man”.

But back to the photo at hand. What we see here is courage. What we see here is the only man out of hundreds who possesses a moral compass that can not be disrupted. A conscience that can not be tarnished. A man who does not care for conformity.

Would you be that person?

It’s like the infamous Milgram experiment (which I’d expect most of my well-informed readers to be aware of) I suppose. Everyone says and thinks that they’d be one of the people to protest the evil around them, to not hurt somebody, to disregard convention if it inflicts cruelty, but if you really look at yourself, you know, unfortunately, that it isn’t true.

The masses conform.

So what does any of this have to do with not leaving WhatsApp groups?

Clearly, the strong desire to be in the clan, accepted, liked; and to conform, to be terrified of being ostracised or being disliked means that people struggle to leave groups on WhatsApp even when they serve no purpose or use and even when they don’t type comments or replies. They then exist in the group as some sort of virtual voyeur. Being distracted by a thread that they have no wish to be a part of.

We no longer live in bands of 150 people. Leaving a WhatsApp group does not mean you are exiled beyond the city walls.

The world does not need any more conformists. Trust me, we really, really have enough conformists. They don’t change the world; they carry things on as they are, they are scared of leaving WhatsApp groups that they don’t actually want to be a part of.

Naturally, you can replace “WhatsApp group” with many terms and situations. But I’ve chosen to look at unhelpful conformity via WhatsApp groups as they are used ubiquitously, and I’ve encountered many people who are in tens and tens of them, including many that they wish they were not, but they lack the courage to leave. You could swap out WhatsApp group for literally any other situation in which people conform to an almost servile degree to their own detriment (or the detriment of others…).

There’s a mass of problems with WhatsApp related to many of the ideas I’ve touched on in this article, such as conformity and tribalism. This article goes into that a lot more.

Do yourself a favour—conform a little less and, more importantly, stop craving conformity from others. Move to the beat of your own drum. Stop trying to please and appease. You might just find it a more joyous dance through life.