I just finished reading Moby Dick, a great tale written in a wordy but interesting style. The story raises important psychological issues relating to the desire for revenge, for adventure, and for belonging. I am especially interested in the issue of conflict between freedom and belonging. Twenty or so men give up much of their freedom in order to join the ship crew. Giving up their freedom to make behavioral choices ultimately leads to their doom.
A loss of freedom occurs almost every time we join a group, whether by entering a marriage, taking a job, for instance in the military, or joining a religious, political, or social group. We give up freedom in exchange for various benefits, including a sense of belonging.
Some individuals, as Erick Fromm pointed out in “Escape from Freedom,” seek to reduce their level of freedom because freedom makes them anxious. Some individuals want to be told what to do, even what to think. So it is important that a group gives us as much freedom as we want (but no more).
I have tried various ways to solve the conflict between my desire for freedom and my desire to belong. For example, I have worked mostly at universities in teaching/research roles that give me wide freedom in what and how I teach and in what I study and how. This situation gives me a sense of freedom (autonomy), while I benefit from the support inherent in belonging to the organization. In exchange for this freedom, I work hard to carry out the goals of the university. This exchange of contribution to the group for freedom plays a similar positive role in romantic and other family relationships. One might say that we earn our freedom by using it responsibly.
The political effects of the unmet desire for freedom are obvious in the widespread rebellions occurring in nations with oppressive governments. On a smaller scale, the effects of the unmet desire for freedom are often obvious in failing romantic relationships.
The exchange of freedom for belonging can work out well if we choose a group that provides us with important benefits, including the amount of freedom we desire, and we give the group valuable contributions (including allowing others in the group to do what they think best).
Have you seen the exchange of freedom for belonging go bad? What were the causes? The solutions? What psychological methods have you seen help the exchange work out well for everyone?
John Malouff, PhD, JD
Associate Professor of Psychology