The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Group’

The Situational Effect of Groups

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2009

Silent Crowd (tochis)In his Guardian article, “Hands up if you’re an individual,” Stuart Jeffries offers a brief summary of some social psychology classics.  Below, we have included excerpts.  After reviewing Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience, Jeffries writes:

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This was one of the classic experiments of group psychology, though not all have involved duping volunteers into believing they had electrocuted victims. Group psychology has often involved experiments to explain how individuals’ behaviours, thoughts and feelings are changed by group pressures.

It is generally thought to have originated in 1898 when Indiana University psychologist Norman Triplett asked children to spin a fishing reel as fast as they could. He found that when the children were doing the task together they did so much faster than when alone. Triplett found a similar result when studying cyclists – they tended to record faster times when riding in groups rather than alone, a fact that he explained because the “bodily presence of another contestant participating simultaneously in the race serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available”.

More than a century later, social psychology explores how other people make us what we are; how unconscious, sometimes ugly, impulses make us compliant and irrational. Why, for example, do I smoke even though I know it could be fatal? How can there be such a gap between my self-image and my behaviour (this is known as cognitive dissonance)?

Why do high-level committees of supposed experts make disastrous decisions (for example, when a Nasa committee dismissed technical staff warnings that the space shuttle Challenger should not be launched, arguing that technical staff were just the kind of people to make such warnings – this is seen as a classic case of so-called “groupthink”)?

Why do we unconsciously obey others even when this undermines our self-images (this is known as social influence)? What makes us into apathetic bystanders when we see someone attacked in the street – and what makes us have-a-go-heroes? What makes peaceful crowds turn into rioting mobs?

Group psychological studies can have disturbing ramifications. Recently, Harvard psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Mahzarin Banaji used the so-called implicit association test to demonstrate how unconscious beliefs inform our behaviour. [Sh]e concluded from [her] research that the vast majority of white, and many black respondents recognised negative words such as “angry”, “criminal” or “poor” more quickly after briefly seeing a black face than a white one. . . .

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The nature of conformism has obsessed social psychologists for decades. In 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch did an experiment in which volunteers were asked to judge the correct length of a line by comparing it with three sample lines. The experiment was set up so that there was an obviously correct answer. But Asch had riddled a group with a majority of stooges who deliberately chose the wrong answer. The pressure of the majority told on Asch’s volunteers. He found that 74% conformed with the wrong answer at least once, and 32% did so all the time.

What impulses were behind such conformism? Social psychologists have long considered that we construct our identities on the basis of others’ attitudes towards us. Erving Goffman, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), analysed social encounters as if each person was engaged in a dramatic performance, and suggested that each such actor was a creation of its audience.

Through such performances of self we internalise role expectations and gain positive self-esteem. We cast other individuals and groups in certain roles. Such behaviour may make some of us unconscious racists, but it also lubricates the wheels of social life.

French psychologist Serge Moscovici developed what is called social representation theory, arguing that shared beliefs and explanations held by a group of society help people to communicate effectively with one another. He explored the notion of anchoring, whereby new ideas or events in social life are given comforting redescriptions (or social representations). For example, a group of protesters against a motorway might be described demeaningly by the road lobby as a “rent-a-mob,” while the protesters themselves might anchor themselves more falteringly as “eco-warriors”.

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Social psychologists have also been long-obsessed by the psychology of crowds. In 1895, French social psychologist Gustave le Bon described crowds as mobs in which individuals lost their personal consciences. His book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, influenced Hitler and led many later psychologists to take a dim view of crowds.

After the war, German critical theorist Theodor Adorno wrote of the destructive nature of “group psychology.” Even as late as 1969, Stanford psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Philip Zimbardo argued that a process of deindividuation makes participants in crowds less rational.

Most recent crowd psychology has not been content to brand crowds necessarily irrational. Instead, it has divided into contagion theory (whereby crowds cause people to act in a certain way), convergence theory (where crowds amount to a convergence of already like-minded individuals) and emergent norm theory (where crowd behaviour reflects the desires of participants, but it is also guided by norms that emerge as the situation unfolds). . . .

In the age of MySpace, Facebook and online dating, group psychologists are now trying to find out what goes on when we present ourselves to the world online, how we are judged for doing so and how groups are formed online. Other social psychology touches on such voguish areas of research as social physics (which contends that physical laws might explain group behaviour) and neuroeconomics (which looks at the role of the brain when we evaluate decisions and interact with each other), but the age-old concerns remain part of our zeitgeist.

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You can read the entire article here.   For a sample of Situationist posts examining the interaction of individuals and groups, see “The Situational Benefits of Outsiders,” Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” “‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “The Maverickiness Paradox,” “Four Failures of Deliberating Groups – Abstract,” “Team-Interested Decision Making,” “History of Groupthink,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” and “March Madness,” To read some of the previous Situationist posts describing or discussing classic experiments from soical psychology and related fields, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Classic Experiments, Conflict, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situational Benefits of Outsiders

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 31, 2009

Dwight Schrute Bobblehead - from Dan H on FlickrFrom BYUNews:

Nobody wants to share a cubicle with a new hire like Dwight Schrute. The beet-farming volunteer sheriff’s deputy/paper salesman creates many awkward moments because of his differences with co-workers on NBC’s “The Office.”

But according to new research co-authored by a Brigham Young University business professor, better decisions come from teams that include a “socially distinct newcomer.”  That’s psychology-speak for someone who is different enough to bump other team members out of their comfort zones.

Researchers noticed this effect after conducting a traditional group problem-solving experiment. The twist was that a newcomer was added to each group about five minutes into their deliberations. And when the newcomer was a social outsider, teams were more likely to solve the problem successfully.

The research is published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“One of the most-cited benefits of diversity is the infusion of new ideas and perspectives,” said study co-author Katie Liljenquist, assistant professor of organizational leadership at BYU’s Marriott School of Management. “And while that very often is true, we found the mere presence of a newcomer who is socially distinct can really shake up the group dynamic. That leads to discomfort, but also to a better process that ultimately yields superior outcomes.”

The key factor is simply whether newcomers are distinct in some way from the other group members.

“Remember, socially ‘distinct’ doesn’t necessarily mean socially ‘inept,'” says Liljenquist, whose co-authors on the paper are Northwestern’s Katherine Phillips and Stanford’s Margaret Neale. “Dwight’s upbringing and past work history – in addition to his bobblehead doll collection – all contribute to the measure of diversity he brings to ‘The Office’ melting pot.”

The paper adds a new wrinkle to the wealth of research on teams, says Melissa Thomas-Hunt, associate professor at Cornell’s Johnson School of Management.

“[This research] is groundbreaking in that it highlights that the benefits of disparate knowledge in a team can be unleashed when newcomers actually share opinions of knowledge with old-timers but are socially different,” Thomas-Hunt says. “It is the tension between social dissimilarity and opinion similarity that prompts heightened effectiveness in diverse teams.”

What explains the results?

According to Liljenquist, newcomers in the experiment didn’t necessarily ask tougher questions, possess novel information, or doggedly maintain a conflicting point of view. Just being there was enough to change the dynamic among old-timers who shared a common identity.

When a member of the group discovered that he agreed with the new outsider, he felt alienated from his fellow old-timers – consequently, he was very motivated to explain his point of view on its merits so that his peers wouldn’t lump him in with the outsider.

The person who found himself disagreeing with the in-group – and instead agreeing with an outsider – felt very uncomfortable. An opinion alliance with an outsider put his social ties with other team members at risk.

“Socially, that can be very threatening,” Liljenquist says. “These folks are driven to say, ‘Wait, the fact that I disagree with this outsider doesn’t make me weird. Something more is going on here; let’s figure out what’s at the root of our disagreement.’ The group then tends to analyze differing opinions and critical information much more thoroughly, and that facilitates much better decision-making results.”

Another revelation

The experiment also revealed a fallacy in the assumptions we make about our own effectiveness in groups. The subjects in the experiment were members of different fraternities and sororities. In general, when the newcomer was from the same sorority or fraternity as the other team members, the group reported that it worked well together, but was less likely to correctly solve the problem.

In contrast, when the newcomer was a member of a rival sorority or fraternity, the opposite was true – these groups felt they worked together less effectively, yet they significantly outperformed socially homogenous groups.

“What’s really distinct about this research is that, from a self-reporting perspective, what people perceive to be beneficial turns out to be dead wrong,” Liljenquist says. “The teams that felt they worked least effectively together were ironically the top performers!”

In the workplace

Common “social distinctions” in today’s workplace, Liljenquist says, would include:

  • One employee from accounting working on a team in which everyone else is from sales
  • An employee of a company that had just been bought out finding herself on a team of people from the acquiring firm
  • An out-of-stater finding himself on a team full of natives of the company’s home state

To help employees in those situations cope, managers would be wise to explain that such conflict can actually generate better results.

“Without that information people just assume, ‘This is really uncomfortable. My team obviously must not be working effectively,'” Liljenquist says. “The experience in diverse teams may not always be a feel-good session, but if employees know that from the outset, they can better deal with inevitable conflicts and recognize the potential benefits – that the affective pains can translate to real performance gains.”

Although Liljenquist acknowledges many other cases for diversity in the workplace, she contends that “reaping the benefits of diverse workgroups doesn’t necessarily require that newcomers bring unique perspectives or expertise to the table. Simply having people around us who differ on some dimension ­- whether it is functional background, education, race or even a different fraternity – drives a very different decision-making process at a group level because of the social and emotional conflict we experience in their presence.”

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Read the rest of the summary here.   For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” “‘Us’ and ‘Them,'” “The Maverickiness Paradox,” “Four Failures of Deliberating Groups – Abstract,” “Team-Interested Decision Making,” “History of Groupthink,” and “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I.”

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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