For most individuals who participate in group rituals and initiations, heroic self-sacrifice is not a common outcome. This is true even in extreme circumstances such as wars and economic or natural disasters. Not all Japanese flyers ended up kamikaze, and only a few soccer fans become hooligans. Group defections in war are probably as frequent, if not more so, compared with extreme self-sacrifice. Heroic acts and other altruistic self-sacrifices, such as extreme acts of self-preservation, are the exception, not the rule. What they share is extremism. As aberrant propensities, these extreme behaviors by a few individuals certainly illuminate the “dark” limits of human social psychology, but do they illuminate what might be arguably the main question of the social sciences: What makes typical individuals across societies bind with others? The extent to which such extreme behaviors represent a valid paradigm for the understanding of social fusion is questionable.
Acts such as suicide bombings by individuals or whole families (see the recent Surabaya Indonesia incident [Wikipedia 2018]), recurrent “lone wolf” mass shootings followed by individual suicide, and the intentional 2015 Germanwings plane crash that killed 144 innocent travelers need to be better understood for obvious preventive reasons, but they are anomalies. Looking at babies and young children in their typical development is probably a better way of trying to capture the origins and mechanisms of human social fusion. Typical development is indeed replete with relevant, more generalizable, and primordial facts compared with those used by Whitehouse in his extreme account. Developmental research tends to show that the first signs of identity fusion and the explicit sense of oneness with the group begins to become evident during preschool years (3–5 years), with the emergence of gender and racial biases and minimal group affiliation, including the early detection of and preference for higher economic status, as well as first evidence of strong and strategic conformity, from both a first-person and a third-person perspective (Cordonier et al. 2017; Haun & Tomasello 2011; Nesdale 2008; Nesdale et al. 2005; Shutts 2015; Shutts et al. 2016). Resonating with Whitehouse's model of extreme self-sacrifice, children's early signs of identity fusion are compounded by an early propensity toward essentialism (Gelman 2003). Essentialism is indeed a trademark of human cognition, expressed very early on. From the second year, it accompanies the rapid development of symbolic and linguistic competence.
Bullying and ostracism are also typical by-products of the explicit identity fusion that begins to emerge in the preschool years (Aboud 2003). They play a central role in all children's socialization processes as the child enters school and their social experience expands beyond the family/close kin circle. Both illuminate what fundamentally drives human socialization and group fusion at a more proximal level: a basic affiliation need (BAN) (Rochat 2009; 2014/2015). Inseparable from BAN, like two sides of the same coin, there is the universal fear of being rejected and ostracized from the group – in other words, the fear of not being recognized by others. Being human means to care about reputation, constantly gauging self-worth through the evaluative eyes of others (Rochat 2018). This is a universal human propensity that children express from the second year. At a proximal level, identity fusion should be first understood in the light of such basic psychological mechanisms, including the tragic instances of extreme self-sacrifice (suicide missions) by child soldiers, who, by the thousands and from the tender age of 8, continue to participate in armed conflicts around the world (https://www.child-soldiers.org).
Such extreme instances might just represent epiphenomena of a much deeper and shared proximal mechanism driving children's socialization and cooperation across the contrasted cultural circumstances of their birth. Through this proximal developmental lens, dying for the group is nothing more than the extreme, uncanny expression of the developing human need to affiliate and the deep fear of being rejected by those who provide basic support. Both are universally exploited in the practice of group indoctrination, such as hazing, which provides measure to the merit of belonging to the group (i.e., not being rejected from it). It is also what underlies the generalized practice of social exclusion, brandished as threat (i.e., jails and solitary confinement within jails, capital punishment as absolute social severance). The human need to affiliate is insatiable and a source of blind comfort that can lead, in some instances, to extreme hooliganism and self-sacrifice. People do need people.
In children, peer pressure begins in the preschool years, with the emergence of strong and strategic conformity (Cordonier et al. 2017). If strong and strategic conformity consists of the sophisticated expressions of the need to fuse with the group (BAN), infancy research shows that its source is located way upstream, namely, in the innate propensity to imitate and newborns’ inclination to be emotionally contaminated by others (Rochat 2001). It takes only 6 weeks postpartum for infants to be attuned to the affective mirroring of others, with the universal emergence of socially elicited smiling in face-to-face protoconversations. From this point on, infants become active agents of their own social affiliation. From 2 months of age, infants start manifesting social expectations and assess the relative value of their encounters with others. They become selective in their affiliation with strangers, preferring those interacting at a contingency ratio that maps onto their biological mother (Bigelow & Rochat 2006). By 5 months, infants attend preferentially to strangers talking to them with no foreign accent (Kinzler et al. 2007).
It is by researching the developmental roots of social affinity that we might capture what drives social fusion, including social outcomes, like dying for the group. From this proximal perspective, the remaining question is what led some individuals to be more susceptible than others to manifesting extreme self-sacrifice and falling prey to group pressures? What does it take for some individuals to question group authority? Why do some individuals resist the undeniable extreme “crowd” pleasures of getting lifted up by group fusion? Why can camaraderie elevate some, but not the vast majority, to die for the group? These are central questions that remain unanswered. As social scientists, if our ultimate goal is to understand the dynamic of how we bind, a developmental approach is indispensable.