When we’re in a group other people have an incredibly powerful effect on us. Groups can kill our creativity, inspire us to work harder, allow us to slack off, skew our decision-making and make us clam up.
The keys to understanding human behaviour—our lives as citizens, as workers, as friends—are in the research on group psychology, which PsyBlog has been exploring over the past few months.
This post provides an overview and you can follow the links to explore the experiments that reveal the power groups hold over us.
Formation, influence and leadership
The seeds of group behaviour are sown even before its members meet. Just knowing that some people are on ‘our side’ and others are not begins to shape our social identity. Group affiliation soon grows even stronger, though, bending our behaviour further, if we undergo an initiation rite. A rite as simple as reading rude words out loud can produce a measurable effect (see 10 rules that govern groups, #1, #2).
Once we are in a group it starts to shape us through conformity, pulling our attitudes and behaviour in line with others, threatening us with ostracism if we dare to rebel and, when facing rival groups, firing our competitive spirit (see 10 rules that govern groups, #3, #4, #10).
We try to shape the group as well, perhaps by repeating our opinions. This helps to convince others we are voicing the majority view. Still, people are notoriously resistant to change. One way newcomers can influence groups is by displaying loyalty, toeing the line and by creating psychological distance from previous group affiliations.
A group takes its cue from a leader, but where do leaders come from? When leaders are allowed to emerge naturally from a group, they do so first by being the ultimate conformers, then later starting to lead in new directions (see 10 rules that govern groups, #6). Whether conforming or not, a sure sign of a leader is someone who talks first, and most often.
By the time groups are well-established chatter flows easily up and down the grapevine. This is not just rumour and suspicion, though, as research has found that grapevines are surprisingly accurate with up to 80% being true (see 10 rules that govern groups, #9, #6).
The amount and quality of the work we do (or don’t do) is regulated by the group. Sometimes groups have a social facilitation effect on performance, spurring us on to greater achievements. This is most likely to happen when our own contribution is obvious and when we are judged in comparison to others.
At other times groups encourage social loafing, resulting in a drop in our productivity—sometimes by as much as 50%, perhaps more. This is likely to happen when it’s easier to hide in the group, when we think the task isn’t important and when our individual performance isn’t being judged separately.
Psychologists have found that social loafing can be decreased by boosting group and task importance as well as decreasing the ‘sucker effect’: the feeling that others are slacking off.
One of the most important functions of modern groups is decision-making. The fates of our families, our corporations, even our nations, hang on our collective ability to make good decisions.
Unfortunately psychologists have found that groups suffer all kinds of biases and glitches that lead to poor choices. Happily, though, experiments have revealed some straightforward remedies for these failings.
Because group members are often very similar in background and values they are quick to adopt majority decisions. Psychologist call this groupthink. We can combat groupthink by nurturing authentic dissent. This is no mean feat as dissenters are often shunned because of the challenge they present. Support for dissenters needs to come from leaders.
It seems only natural that groups will average out the preferences of its members, but psychologists have shown this often isn’t true. In fact people are likely to display group polarization when together: initial preferences actually become exaggerated by group discussions. We can reduce this by avoiding homogeneity in group composition.
Finally, the most baffling of our behaviours in groups is our inability to share information effectively. Instead of revealing vital information known only to ourselves, time and again research has shown that we talk about things everyone already knows. We can reduce this counter-productive behaviour by recalling relevant information before meetings and ensuring each is aware of others’ expertise.
Creativity fosters economic growth, artistic innovation and technical breakthroughs, on all of which our society thrives. Groups, though, if badly organised, can stifle lofty ambitions.
Psychologists have long known that the practice of ‘brainstorming‘ is a sure road to fewer new ideas and less innovation than that produced when we work individually. In groups we loaf, feel anxious and our own ideas are soon forgotten while we listen to others.
It turns out that groups are better at evaluating ideas than they are at their generation. Despite its longevity, brainstorming is best avoided for its original purpose.
Even when we are physically distant from our groups they can still impede creativity through the unconscious standards they impose on their members. What psychologists call group norms can kill creativity by redefining it as mere conformity. It’s no accident that some of the greatest breakthroughs in science and the arts have come from those working outside the orthodoxy. Sometimes it really is better to go it alone.
The power of groups
Groups may impose unwritten norms on us, warp or exaggerate our decisions, even dull our creativity, but these effects are often the flip side of forces that make groups strong. Despite the modern trend towards fractured neighbourhoods, families and workplaces, humanity cannot survive without banding together. We draw our psychological identity and strength from belonging, and groups provide us support when times are hard (see the research on mutual support groups).
We just need to be careful that leaders are chosen for the right reasons, that conformity doesn’t trump reason, strangle creativity or limit our options. We must try to understand and respect the power that groups hold over us so that we can benefit from them rather than becoming their victims.
Published: 7 September 2009