concept pages: copyright Robert Ellis 2010


"Individual" is perhaps the best term to use to refer to a given person. The idea of an individual needs to be clearly distinguished from the idea of self or ego, as egoism is only contingently related to a given individual or their desires. The individual is the locus of objective judgement, and can achieve objectivity of judgement to the extent that it can shake off group influence. Group influence does not necessarily depend on the physical presence or absence of a group (hermits can be groupies), but rather on how much the individual is motivated by the desire for group approval. For example, a lonely divorcee who spends the rest of her life feeling bitter about her husband's desertion, still wants the approval and support of others even if she spends all her time alone. Similarly, those who spend a lot of time with others can still be very independent in their judgements.

Individuality involves what psychologists refer to as 'intrinsic motivation'. A rational or imaginative model in our own minds provides the main basis for judgement now, however much that model may have owed to others in the past. To the extent that we use an intrinsic model like this, we can accept new experience and incorporate its implications into our mental model of the world - our provisional beliefs. We have nothing to lose by doing so, because we will not lose social status by changing our beliefs in a way that others might disapprove of. The same applies to the integration of new desires and meanings together with those we previously accepted. As individuals, we gain by doing this because we become better adapted to our environment, but group or 'extrinsic' motivation often provides a powerful disincentive against doing so.

However, group motivation can also be represented by individuals as individual motivation. This is what might be called 'individualism'. Here a more dominant or traditional group belief (or desire, or meaning) is rejected on grounds that appear to involve the assertion of individual judgement. However, these grounds are superficial, as it is largely through the influence of a minority or non-traditional group that they are accepted. The individual thus swaps the influence of one group for another. Thus youth culture, important in the maturity of many teenagers, involves the rejection of adult influence and its substitution by the peer group. For a few young people this is just a staging post on the way to greater individuality, but for others the apparently alternative culture becomes a new focus of influence, and rapidly becomes mainstream as they grow older.

If groups can be identified with dualism in general, eternalism can often be identified with traditional groups and nihilism with non-traditional groups that challenge the value-assumptions of tradition. However, just as eternalism and nihilism interact and merge into each other in unholy alliance, so do traditional and non-traditional groups. It is individuality, not superficial individualism, that is the basis for the Middle Way, and supports the integration of desire, meaning and belief.

Further discussion

Group (concept page)

The individual and the group (scroll down to section d)



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