Academic journal article Group Facilitation

It's a Jungle out There - the Biology of Facilitation

Academic journal article Group Facilitation

It's a Jungle out There - the Biology of Facilitation

Article excerpt


This paper presents potential applications of biological sciences and adaptive behaviors to group dynamics in a facilitated environment. Although traditional psychology or sociology may be thought of when dealing with groups, this paper goes beyond those fields to explore physiology, biorhythms, human ethology, herd instinct, group think, territoriality, cohesion, team work, learned helplessness, human nonverbal communication, decision fatigue, and media multitasking. Underlying biological principles dealing with phylogenetic and physiological behavioral adaptations are described, along with their potential influence on meeting participants in facilitated gatherings. Suggested strategies for recognizing and dealing with associated behaviors such as territoriality, learned helplessness, and decision fatigue are offered to give facilitation professionals some effective tools for improving meeting outcomes.


behavior, biology, biorhythms, bioteams, chronemics, conformity studies, decision fatigue, ethology, evolution, facilitation, group dynamics, groupthink, herd instinct, human nonverbal communication, learned helplessness, media multitasking, non-verbal communication, phylogenetic adaptations, team work, territoriality


Have you ever facilitated a session and observed some participants acting like a "bunch of animals"? Considering that humans are mammals, that is a reasonable observation. In fact, there are many underlying scientific principles, such as territoriality and decision fatigue, that may influence participant behavior in a facilitated gathering. While some professionals may think in terms of traditional psychology or sociology when facilitating, one should also be cognizant of some basic biological principles, evolutionary psychology and ethology as well.

Evolutionary psychology can be defined as the study of human cognition and behavior with respect to their evolutionary origins. The field was ushered in by Donald Symons' book The Evolution of Human Sexuality (1979). (See also Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby's 1992 book The Adapted Mind.)

Ethology is defined as: "1) a branch of knowledge dealing with human character, its formation and evolution, and 2) the scientific and objective study of animal behavior, especially under natural conditions" (Merriam Webster, 2012).

Ethology, Evolutionary Psychology and other sciences can provide some interesting insights into human group dynamics. The author has applied these sciences in her work as a Certified Wildlife Biologist and IAF Certified Professional Facilitator and hopes that sharing them will provide insights into participant behavior from these fields for fellow facilitators to consider in their own practice.


Facilitators may sometimes notice participants making a quick exit from a session 60-90 minutes after beginning, or becoming sleepy in the morning or after eating. This may result in some facilitator introspection such as, "Did I say something offensive?" or, "Am I boring them?" or "They were so focused and productive before lunch - where's that team energy and drive gone?" Estroff Maraño (2004) noted that "Many of the functions of your body and brain are set to operate in cycles of roughly 90 minutes each. And, going with the flow of biorhythms helps you maintain motivation and attention for whatever the task at hand." She added information from an interview with Dr. Roseanne Armitage "that every 90 minutes, we need to take a mental break because otherwise, our concentration, memory and learning ability start fading." This type of short cycle is referred to as an ultradian rhythm and it may range from 20 to 120 minutes in length (Rossi et. al., 1992). It is related to circadian rhythms that Pobojewski (2007) referred to as "changes in physical activity, metabolism, hormone production, cell activity, organ function and body temperature - that rise and fall at fixed intervals over roughly a 24-hour period. …

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