Psychology of Groups

People spend a large part of their lives in groups. Groups are formed practically everywhere and with various purposes: at home; at school; at work; while having fun; when joining for a particular cause. Groups may differ by their purpose or environment, however, they have certain psychological characteristics in common.

Groups can arise from anything, as people's will to join social groups is very strong and innate. One of the reasons for that phenomenon is that groups provide people with social identity and help them realize who they are. In 1970, Henri Tajfel (1919-1982), the Polish-born British psychologist, together with others, conducted an experiment known as the "minimal group paradigm." They brought same-age boys into the lab and showed them pictures of two artists. The boys were told that they would be divided into groups depending on their picture preferences. The participants had no further knowledge of the rest of the members of their group or about the final goal. Once groups had been formed, the researchers carried out a series of tests in which the participants demonstrated a favor towards members of their own team.

Groups generate conformity. Joining a group, a new member needs to realize what is the expected behavior within the group and what are its rules. The group norms can have a particularly strong grasp over people's actions, as demonstrated by a test carried out in the mid-20th century. A participant had to compare the lengths of lines, while other participants were told to lie about how long each line was. The study showed that 76 percent of participants distrusted their own senses just to conform with the rest of the group.

If a member does not conform with the group's norms, he or she may be isolated or even excluded from the group. Each person has a specific role in the group. The Stanford Prison Experiment, which has served as a theme for a couple of movies and a number of TV shows, demonstrated how people embrace their roles within a group and stick to the individual norms referring to their particular position.

The experiment gathered healthy "normal" people in order to observe their reaction to a cardinal change in their social status. Half of the men were made guards and the rest — prisoners. The experiment re-created a regular arrest situation in order to keep the experience as realistic as possible. Prisoners were put behind bars in a prison setting in a Stanford University basement after their heads had been shaved and their clothes taken off. Prisoners had to wear only prisoner uniforms, while guards were given guard uniforms and clubs. Researchers did not have to wait long until prisoners initiated a rebellion, which was severely crushed by guards, who placed the prisoners' leader into isolation and started abusing the rest of the prisoners. As violence breeds violence, prisoners brutally reacted to the harassment of guards. Just in a few days participants reported they felt as if their old identities had disappeared. The experiment was prematurely ended as things had begun to get out of control.

Another typical characteristic of groups is that they always have leaders. Sometimes leaders emerge from the inside of the group and sometimes they are placed in charge from the outside. A study carried out at a Hungarian nursery school demonstrated that a successful leader is one who initially conforms with group rules and then gradually starts to suggest new ideas. A leader should first be trusted and then followed.

Groups have a powerful influence on each member and it can help people improve their performance thanks to the effect of competition. However, competition between groups tends to be adverse as people start feeling they are in a "us-and-them," situation. On the other hand, when being part of group sometimes people tend to rely on the efforts of the rest and start acting idly. Further researches have shown that gossip and rumours make up a great deal of a group's communication. A study on workplace communication found that 80 percent of the time people were talking about work and 80 percent of the information was accurate.

Psychology of Groups: Selected full-text books and articles

Groups at Work: Theory and Research By Marlene E. Turner Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001
Groupthink: Deciding with the Leader and the Devil By Chen, Zenglo; Lawson, Robert B.; Gordon, Lawrence R.; McIntosh, Barbara The Psychological Record, Vol. 46, No. 4, Fall 1996
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Koinonia: From Hate, through Dialogue, to Culture in the Large Group By Patrick De Maré; Robin Piper; Sheila Thompson Karnac Books, 1991
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