Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
In any newspaper, one is likely to find several captivating stories that highlight the powerful negative influence that groups can exert on individuals. For example, one may recall the tragic violence exhibited by British sports fans at the international soccer matches in Belgium in the spring of 1985. One may also consider the one-man crime wave of Fred Postlewaite. For twenty years, Postlewaite engaged in a cross-country vandalism spree against the Sigma Alpha Epsilon college fraternity, which had rejected him in his youth.
There are equally dramatic instances of the powerful positive influences of groups. When the Spy Run Creek in Fort Wayne, Indiana, began to flood its banks in 1982, a group of the community’s youths voluntarily participated in efforts to hold back its rising waters. There was also the rescue of four-year-old Michelle de Jesus, who had fallen from a subway platform into the path of an onrushing train. Everett Sanderson, a bystander, leapt down onto the tracks and flung the child into the crowd above. After he failed in his attempt to jump back to the platform, he was pulled up to safety at the last instant by bystanders.
These real-life events are noteworthy because they illustrate the universality of groups and the various ways that groups influence individual behavior. Although everyone can attest the prevalence of groups and the power that they can wield over individuals, several characteristics...
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Definition and Formation of Groups (Psychology and Mental Health)
The members of Congress who compose the House of Representatives of the United States are a group. The urban committee deciding how to allocate budgetary resources for unwed mothers in a particular city is a group. The members of a carpool sharing a ride to the train station every day are a group. The family seated around the dinner table at home in the evening is a group. The acting troupe performing a Shakespearean play is a group. There are other examples of groups, however, that may be a little less obvious. All the unwed mothers in an urban area might be considered a group. A line of people waiting to buy tickets to a Broadway show might be thought of as a group. People eating dinner at the same time in a diner might even be considered a group. The people in the audience who are watching an acting troupe perform could behave as a group.
There are several ways in which people come to join the groups to which they belong. People are born into some groups. Several types of groupings are influenced in large part by birth: family, socioeconomic status, class, race, and religion. Other groups are formed largely by happenstance: for example, a line of the same people waiting for the 8:05 ferry every day. Some groups, however, are determined more clearly by intentional, goal-oriented factors. For example, a group of people at work who share a common concern for well-being, health, and fitness may decide to...
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Stages of Group Development (Psychology and Mental Health)
Although there are countless underlying reasons for someone’s membership in a given group, the work of Bruce Tuckman suggests that groups progress through a relatively consistent series of stages or phases—forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning—in their development. Forming refers to a phase of coming together and orientation. Group members become acquainted with one another and define the requirements of group membership as well as the tasks to be performed. Storming refers to a phase of polarization and conflict. During this phase, group members deal with disagreements, compete for attractive positions within the group, and may become dissatisfied with other group members or with the group as a whole. Norming refers to a phase when conflicts are solved and group members arrive at agreements regarding definitions of tasks and the requirements of group membership. Performing refers to the phase when group members concentrate on achieving their major task and strive toward shared goals. Finally, for some groups, adjourning refers to the disbanding or dissolution of the group after task completion.
For example, consider a special task force created to search for a missing child. During the forming stage, the members of this group will volunteer for, or be appointed to, the group. Although the general goals and definition of the group may have been established with the decision to implement such...
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Group Topography (Psychology and Mental Health)
The topography of a group refers to its physical features. This includes such elements as the size of the group, the composition of the group, and the relationships among the various members of the group. These topographical features of groups have been the focus of countless studies.
One obvious physical feature that could vary from one group to another is size. Some scholars have categorized group types in terms of size. For example, some researchers have found it useful to distinguish between small primary groups (from two to twenty group members), small nonprimary groups (from three to a hundred members), large groups (one thousand to ten thousand members), and largest groups (ten thousand-plus members). While such classifications may be interesting, the realities of everyday groups are typically more modest than such grand schemes would suggest. In a large number of settings, naturally occurring, free-forming groups typically range in size from two to seven persons, with a mean of about three. There are certainly exceptions to this rule of thumb; for example, most audiences watching theater troupes are considerably larger than three people. Nevertheless, most of the groups in which people interact on a day-to-day basis are relatively small. The size of a group tends to set the stage for many other topographical features of group life.
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Variations in Group Composition (Psychology and Mental Health)
The number of relationships possible in a group, according to James H. S. Bosard, is a direct consequence of the size of the group: the larger the group, the larger the number of possible relationships the individual might find within the group. It is possible to express the precise mathematical function relating the number of possible relationships between individuals in a group and group size (N): This function is represented by the formula (N2 − N)/2. For example, if the group is made of Tom and Dick, there is only one possible relationship between members of the group (Tom-Dick). If the group is made up of the three people Tom, Dick, and Harry, there are three possible relationships (Tom-Dick, Tom-Harry, and Dick-Harry). If the group is made up of seven people, there are twenty-one possible relationships between individuals; if there are ten people in the group, there are forty-five possible relationships between individuals.
Thus, groups have the potential to become increasingly complex as the number of people in the group increases. There are many possible consequences of this increasing complexity. For one thing, it becomes increasingly harder to pay an equal amount of attention to everyone in the group as it increases in size. Brian Mullen and colleagues state that the person in the group who talks the most is paid the most attention and in turn is most likely to emerge as the...
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Simplifying Group Complexity (Psychology and Mental Health)
People in groups may tend toward a convenient simplification of this inevitable complexity. Scholars have long recognized the tendency for group members to divide other group members into groups of “us” and “them” rather than to perceive each person as a distinct entity. Groups can often be divided into perceptually distinct, smaller groups. For example, a committee might be composed predominantly of elderly members, with only one or a few young members. The general tendency is for people to focus their attention on the smaller group. The reason for this is that the smaller group seems to “stand out” as a perceptual figure against the background of the larger group. Thus, the youthful member of an otherwise elderly committee is likely to attract a disproportionate amount of attention from the committee members.
Not only will the members of the larger group pay more attention to the smaller group, but the members of the smaller group will do so as well. Thus, the members of the smaller group will become more self-attentive, more aware of themselves and their behavior. On the other hand, the members of the larger group become less self-attentive, or, as Ed Diener contends, more deindividuated—less aware of themselves and their behavior. For example, the single female in a group of mechanical engineers that is otherwise male will quickly stand out. The male mechanical engineers may tend to think of...
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Thus, group composition has been demonstrated to predict the extent to which people pay attention to, and are aware of, themselves and specific facets of themselves, and to predict a variety of social behaviors, including participation in religious groups, bystander intervention in emergencies, worker productivity, stuttering in front of an audience, and conformity.
For example, an analysis of the participation of congregation members in their religious groups documented the powerful effect of group composition on behavior of group members. As the size of the congregation increased relative to the number of ministers, the congregation members were less likely to participate in the group (in terms of activities such as attending worship services, becoming lay ministers, or “inquiring for Christ”). In this instance, becoming “lost in the crowd” impaired the normal self-regulation behaviors necessary for participation. Alternatively, analysis of the behavior of stutterers in front of an audience also documented the powerful effects of group composition on the behavior of group members. As the size of the audience increased relative to the number of stutterers speaking, the verbal disfluencies (stuttering and stammering) of the speakers increased. In this instance, becoming the center of attention exaggerated the normal self-regulation behaviors necessary for speech, to the point of interfering with those...
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Group Density (Psychology and Mental Health)
Another facet of the topography of the group that is related to group size is density. Density refers to the amount of space per person in the group (the less space per person, the higher the density). Doubling the number of people in the group meeting in a room of a given size will decrease by one-half the amount of space available for each member of the group. Alternatively, halving the number of people in the group will double the amount of space available per person. Thus, in a room of a given size, density is directly linked to the size of the group. This particular approach to density is called social density, because it involves a change in density by manipulation of the social dimension (group size). One could also manipulate the physical dimension (room size), rendering a change in what is called spatial density. Thus, halving the size of the room will halve the amount of space available to each group member.
Density has been demonstrated to influence a variety of social behaviors. People have been found to report feeling more anxious, more aggressive, more unpleasant, and, understandably, more crowded as a function of density. An analysis of the effects of “tripling” in college dormitories illustrates these types of effects. As a cost-cutting measure, colleges and universities will often house three students in a dormitory room that was initially constructed for two (hence, tripling). Tripling has been...
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Role in Behavior and Identity (Psychology and Mental Health)
Groups exert sometimes dramatic, sometimes subtle influences on behavior. These influences are sometimes beneficial and sometimes detrimental. An understanding of the effect of groups on the individual sets the stage for a deeper understanding of many facets of social life. One of the reasons for the formation or joining of groups is the definition of the self. On a commonly used questionnaire that requires a person to respond twenty times to the question “Who am I?,” people tend to respond with references to some sort of group membership, be it family, occupation, hobby, school, ethnic, religious, or neighborhood. Groups help establish one’s identity, both for one’s own benefit and for the benefit of others with whom one interacts.
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Costs of Group Membership (Psychology and Mental Health)
Belonging to groups has its price, however; as discussed at length by Christian Buys, one’s very membership in a group may carry with it hidden costs, risks, or sacrifices. A more complete understanding of groups requires a consideration of this aspect of membership in a group. Attaining certain types of rewards may be incompatible with belonging to a group. For example, the goal of completing a difficult and complicated task may be facilitated by belonging to a group of coworkers who bring the varied skills and knowledge required for successful task completion. Yet one group member’s goal of always being the center of attention, or of needing to feel special and unique, may have to be subverted if the group is to perform the task for which it formed. What the individual wants or needs may sometimes be displaced by what the group needs.
Moreover, the deindividuation (an individual’s loss of self-awareness, resulting in a breakdown in the capacity to self-regulate) fostered by groups breaks down the individual’s ability to self-regulate. Research has demonstrated the state of deindividuation to increase the (simulated) electric shocks people will deliver to other people in experiments, to increase the use of profanity, and to increase stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. The paradigmatic illustration of the negative effects of deindividuation is the lynch mob. An analysis of newspaper accounts,...
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Group Membership Benefits (Psychology and Mental Health)
Yet, as discussed by Lynn Anderson, just as there are costs involved in belonging to a group, there are also benefits that accrue from group membership. Although the negative aspects of group membership may capture one’s attention more forcefully, the positive aspects are no less common or important. A complete understanding of the purpose of groups requires a consideration of the positive side of belonging to a group. A considerable amount of evidence has documented the physiological, attitudinal, and health effects of social support systems. For example, people who belong to a varied and tight social support network have been found to be in better physical health and to be better able to resist stress than those lacking such support. As examples, one might consider the effects of such popular support groups as Alcoholics Anonymous and Mothers Against Drunk Driving as well as less popular support groups that deal with specific issues such as loss and bereavement. These groups provide the imperative psychological function of allowing their members a new avenue for coping with their problems.
Perhaps the most notable effects of the group on self-definition and identity are observed when these taken-for-granted benefits are taken away. The woman who has defined herself in terms of her marital status can find her identity cast adrift after a divorce. Similarly, foreign-exchange students often report dislocation or...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Brown, Rupert, ed. Group Processes: Dynamics Within and Between Groups. 2d rev. ed. New York: Basil Blackwell, 2007. This is a very readable treatment of theories and research on group processes, with a particular emphasis on British and European contributions. A variety of compelling and relevant social issues are covered, such as social conformity, crowd behavior, group productivity, and ethnic prejudice.
Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. Translated by Carol Stewart. 1962. Reprint. New York: Noonday Press, 1998. This is a classic historical discussion of the effects of crowds on individuals and societies. Avenues of group behavior described are open and closed crowds, invisible crowds, baiting crowds, and feast crowds.
Forsyth, Donalson R. Group Dynamics. 4th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2006. This thorough volume provides access to a wide-ranging review of evidence regarding all aspects of group processes.
Kirst-Ashman, Karen K. Human Behavior, Communities, Organizations, and Groups in the Macro Social Environment: An Empowerment Approach. 2d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Thomson/Brooks/Cole, 2008. This resource describes the nature of human behavior in macro settings and how to build on the strength of the group to create positive change.
Mullen, Brian, and George R. Goethals, eds. Theories of Group Behavior. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1987. This...
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