What are group processes?

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Cooperation, competition, and negotiation are social processes central to the functioning of a group. They influence the effectiveness of a group in making decisions, completing tasks, and resolving differences, and they have a major impact on interpersonal relationships among group members.
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The terms “cooperation,” “competition,” and “negotiation” are fairly common words used to describe frequent interpersonal experiences. Most people can immediately draw to mind experiences of each type. These processes are of particular importance in the functioning of a group. Because a group is commonly defined by social scientists as two or more people exerting influence on one another, discussion of each term can be understood as describing a process among informal groups, such as friends, spouses, business partners, coworkers, and classmates, as well as more formally established groups, such as appointed or elected committees, boards of directors, faculty, and members of an organization.

When people cooperate with one another, it is assumed that members of the group have similar goals; when they compete with one another, it is assumed they have different (and often conflicting) goals. This distinction is illustrated in definitions offered by Morton Deutsch, a leading researcher in group processes. Deutsch suggested that in cooperative situations, goals are “contriently interdependent,” which means simply that goal achievement by one group member facilitates goal achievement by other members. In competitive situations, goal achievement by one group member hinders goal achievement by other members. It is often under conditions of competition that the process of negotiation enters. Cooperation and competition (with resulting negotiation) are central factors influencing group characteristics such as cohesiveness, effectiveness, and interpersonal relationships.

Self-Interest and Social Dilemmas

Researchers have been interested in studying behavior when long-term interests are served by cooperation but short-term interests are served by looking out for oneself. In fact, these dilemmas are frequently involved with issues threatening the future of society, such as waste recycling, pollution control, and the depletion of natural resources. The question left to answer is how one reconciles self-interest (for example, not spending money to fix the damaged pollution-control device on one’s automobile) with societal well-being (the necessity of reducing pollutants).

Psychologists have used laboratory games to study such social dilemmas. Perhaps the most frequently used game is called the prisoner’s dilemma. In this game, a subject (here named John) is one of two criminal suspects who have been working in tandem. The two subjects are being questioned separately by a district attorney (DA) about a crime that has been committed; both are guilty. The DA, however, has only enough evidence to convict both of a lesser crime. The DA offers each suspect a chance to confess. If John confesses and his cohort does not, John will be granted immunity and the DA will have enough evidence to convict his partner of the more serious offense. This is the best scenario for John but the worst for his partner. If the partner confesses and John does not, the partner is granted immunity and John receives the heavier sentence. This is the worst scenario for John but the best for his cohort. If neither confesses, each will receive a light sentence for the lesser crime; this is the second-best scenario for each individual but the best scenario for the overall partnership. Finally, if both confess, each will receive a moderate sentence for the lesser offense. This is the third-best scenario for each individual but a bad option for the partnership.

It has been found that, in the prisoner’s dilemma, most people will confess, although not confessing is the most cooperative approach with one’s partner; confession is considering self-interest first, even at the expense of one’s partner. If John adopts only an individualistic perspective and does not worry about the collective good, confessing is the better strategy; after all, if his partner does not confess, then he is free. If the partner does confess, John will receive a moderate sentence rather than risking a severe sentence by not confessing.

There is, however, a catch in this situation: Both prisoners will think the same way; hence, both will receive a moderate sentence. If both had not confessed and, in a sense, cooperated with each other, both would receive a light sentence. By looking out for self-interest, both partners lose.

Variations of this dilemma have been developed around themes more relevant to the typical citizen, especially the college student (such as negotiation for bonus points in a course). Each variant of the game is structured so that each party is better off individually by not cooperating. However, if both parties do not cooperate, they end up worse off than if they had cooperated.

Strategic Negotiation

There are ways for people or groups to avoid such social traps, or situations in which, by both not cooperating, conflicting parties end up worse off than if they had cooperated.

One approach is to employ strategic negotiation, a reciprocal communication process in which parties with conflicting interests can examine specific issues and make, as well as consider, offers and counteroffers. Negotiation involves the ability to communicate, which may not always be available in situations of conflict (including some of the laboratory games employed by psychologists).

Sometimes negotiation is viewed solely as a process of protecting self-interests. Some people, often called hard bargainers, talk tough, even employing threatening tactics. The person who threatens to sue or claims that there is nothing to be negotiated would be an example of a hard bargainer. Soft bargainers, on the other hand, are willing to bend, even to the point of sacrificing self-interests. Such individuals often believe that their good-faith approach is a model for the other negotiator, thereby promoting reconciliation while still hoping for important concessions. In group settings, soft bargainers may be concerned about group cohesion and make concessions contrary to self-interest. The extent to which hard versus soft bargaining is effective is a complex matter, depending on many factors present in the negotiation process. Thus, it is neither easy nor necessarily accurate to claim that one technique is better than the other.

Elements of Effective Negotiation

Despite the hard-bargaining tone of the title Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In (1981; 3rd ed. 1991), the authors, Roger Fisher and William Ury, drawing on research as part of the Harvard Negotiation Project (a project dealing with all levels of conflict resolution, ranging from marital relationships to global disputes), promote what they call principled negotiation. Their approach identifies four basic elements of effective negotiation and problem solving. First, they recommend that negotiators separate the people from the problem. By focusing on the problem rather than the intentions or motives of the people involved, participants are more likely to see themselves as working together, attacking the problem rather than each other. Second, the authors recommend that negotiators focus on interests by identifying underlying issues rather than by negotiating specific positions. They claim that position taking often obscures what the participants really want. Third, before trying to reach agreement, the negotiators should individually and collectively generate a variety of options, especially identifying options that may produce mutual gain. By adopting this strategy, the negotiation is transformed into a group problem-solving process. Finally, negotiators should insist that the eventual resolution be based on some objective criteria considered fair by both parties. The principled negotiator is thus neither hard nor soft, but is able to reach agreement without, as the title of the book says, giving in.

One of the key elements of Fisher and Ury’s approach is the process of getting people to attack problems rather than each other, thus fostering a sense of cooperative teamwork. What is implied is that working cooperatively makes the task at hand more manageable and the negotiating process more enjoyable, with a more effective outcome resulting.


A series of studies conducted by Deutsch during the 1940s and 1950s generally supports these assertions. Small groups of five people met over a five-week period, some working in cooperative situations, others in competitive situations. Members of the cooperative groups, where all group members would be equally rewarded for a combined effort, indicated that they liked their group and its individual members better, reacted more favorably to other members’ contributions, and generally rated the overall experience higher than did members of competitive groups (in which group members were told that the amount and quality of their individual contributions to the task at hand would be rank ordered).

Later studies provide additional support demonstrating the superiority of cooperation. In one study, members of cooperative groups found the atmosphere more relaxing and felt greater freedom to contribute to the group process than did members of competitive groups. In general, it can be said without equivocation that interpersonal relationships are more positive in cooperative than in competitive group situations.

The question remains, however, whether cooperative groups are more effective in achieving goals or in making good decisions than are competitive groups. Results of several studies generally support, as expected, the notion that when group members coordinate their efforts, the outcome is more successful than when group members compete with one another. One study compared two groups of interviewers in a public employment agency. Interviewers in a cooperative atmosphere, in which interviewers worked together to place applicants in job settings, were more successful than interviewers in a more competitive atmosphere.

Is competition ever healthy in a group setting? Most of the research that stresses the advantages of a cooperative atmosphere has involved highly interdependent tasks. That is, to reach a goal, group members must rely on one another for success. Thus, it should not be surprising that teams in a sport that requires considerable teamwork (for example, basketball or volleyball) should perform better when players get along with one another. For sports in which teamwork is less important (for example, cross-country running or skiing), however, a sense of harmony among team members may be less beneficial, especially if recognition is provided on an individual basis. Therefore, although research has rarely documented advantages of a competitive atmosphere, there appear to be some conditions in which a sense of competition among group members is not particularly disruptive. The key is whether the task requires a highly interdependent effort among group members.

Some surprising sex differences have been found with regard to individual cooperation and competition, especially in laboratory studies involving games such as the prisoner’s dilemma. While the traditional gender-role stereotype for women is to be cooperative and accommodating in an attempt to maintain harmony, research seems to indicate that women sometimes demonstrate a more competitive nature than men. One explanation of this finding is that women are more likely to make choices that are consistent with the interpersonal setting. If the interpersonal setting suggests competition (as it does in the prisoner’s dilemma game), women compete at least as hard as men; if it suggests cooperation, women cooperate at least as much as men.

Contributions of Deutsch and Sherif

Much of the work on cooperation and competition must be credited to Deutsch’s classic studies of the 1940s and 1950s. Deutsch’s mentor was the respected social psychologist Kurt Lewin at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The relationship between Lewin and Deutsch was more than that of teacher and student. Lewin later founded the Commission on Community Interrelations. As a member of that commission, Deutsch was one of the first researchers to employ scientific methodology in studying societal effects of racially integrated housing. Undoubtedly, Lewin’s work on leadership had a major impact on Deutsch. Just as Lewin’s research suggested that leaders who facilitate a cooperative climate among group members in decision-making processes maximize group productivity and member satisfaction, Deutsch’s research clearly stresses the superiority of a cooperative versus competitive intragroup atmosphere.

In the late 1950s, Muzafer Sherif also studied the comparative processes of competition and cooperation by creating such conditions in real-life settings. Sherif discovered that the social dynamics of preadolescent boys in a camp setting were very similar to patterns of group behavior among adults. Groups functioned well in a cooperative atmosphere, especially under conditions of intergroup competition. The most striking finding in Sherif’s research was how the conflicting groups could overcome their differences when presented superordinate goals—that is, goals that were compelling for both groups but that could not be attained without the help of the other group.

Real-Life Applications

Cooperation is not always easily attained. Much of the research discussed, particularly regarding negotiation, suggests that the unbridled pursuit of self-interest is detrimental to the collective good. This may help explain why history is replete with examples of military escalation between opposing countries and why mutual disarmament is so difficult. One-sided disarmament leaves that side vulnerable to exploitation, which, from that side’s perspective, is the worst predicament in which to be.

Research conducted on group processes, including research on cooperation, competition, and negotiation, may help people further understand such important real-life issues as how a board of directors can most efficiently run a corporation or what atmosphere is most conducive to good decision making—whether that decision is about a family vacation, a neighborhood plan to fight crime, or an international dispute. In an age of international tensions, interracial conflicts, labor-management disputes, and domestic friction, the study of group processes is crucial.


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