Group Psychology

A few years ago, Dan Pink gave a TED talk about the puzzle of human motivation.

His argument was that financial incentives can work against employee performance and that leaders should try a different approach – like giving the work their employees do ‘meaning’, and allowing them to improve their skills (mastery).

Needless to say, the talk exploded online. It was a radical idea. But it’s just one of a long list of psychological phenomena that are counter-intuitive.

In this article, I’d like to explore 10 more group psychology theories that are counter-intuitive.

Let’s start with the most common one:

1. Beware of Groupthink

Groupthink is a phenomenon in which a group takes on a mind on its own. This happens because groups are a potent influence on our behaviour. In groups, people do things they don’t normally do on their own.

Individuals often don’t know that they are influenced by groupthink.

This is why some experts believe certain practices we hold dear in the corporate world aren’t effective at all. One such questioned practice is brainstorming. It sounds great in theory: you gather as many ideas as possible from a group without censoring, then weed out the losing ideas later. The assumption is, two heads are always better than one.

However, researchers have found that the most charismatic individual tends to take over, and even when the sessions are conducted by the most seasoned professional, people can’t help but ape others. Their influence is subconscious.

You can’t come up with a truly innovative idea if you’re placed consistently in a group because innovation is, by definition, radical. Radical solutions are always questioned by the group – and killed before they can take flight. This is especially true when that idea threatens the standing of other members of the group. Or the group itself.

2. Social Pressure

Unlike groupthink, social pressure is a conscious influence. It’s not only the group’s way to keep its members and ensure its own survival, it’s also the way groups grow.

Here’s an example. Imagine a large group of peaceful demonstrators. It takes one person – the spark that lights the fire – to influence the second person (often a family member or friend) to conduct violent behaviour. The third person then see two people destroying properties and he too joins in on the chaos.

That’s how a violent riot grows. People justify their behaviour because a group of people are doing it. The word “pressure” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s uncomfortable.

It’s a conscious decision.

So how does this apply in organizations? Well, this is what organizational behaviour professionals call “company culture”. If the majority of your group members think doing just enough to “do their job” is perfectly fine, then that’s how new members will behave. Changing company culture is out of the scope of the article, but check out this great guide to get started.

3. Belonging

So why do groups have such a hold on us? Well, because we have an innate need to belong to one – an individual would have struggled to survive in the wild 100,000 years ago.

In the absence of a united group, people create one. Psychologists call this the “minimal groups paradigm”. In an organization, these spontaneous groups are called “cliques”. You can also see this in schools. Cliques, as you can imagine, can create certain challenges for a leader because each clique has its own culture.

This is why it’s crucial for organizational leaders to hold team building activities. For more information on team building, check out this great article on company culture.

Zappos Organizational Culture

4. Individuality

It’s a human paradox that we yearn to belong to a group, yet we also desire to be unique. For groups to be effective, leaders have to allow for individuals to add their own individuality into the process.

For example, if you’re told exactly what to do and when, and you’re told to do that every hour of every day as long as you work for the company, you’re not going to feel fulfilled by doing that task. We want to feel like we are irreplaceable.

A study by Max Ringelmann back in the 1890s, found that people put in 50% less effort when playing tug-o-war in a team of 8 compared to playing it alone. It seems that when our effort is difficult to distinguish from other members, we’ll slack off. It’s called social loafing.

5. Curse of Knowledge

Ever tried to teach a group of new recruits how to do things but just couldn’t… get… through?

Ever consider the possibility that maybe the issue lies with you, not them? It might be the Curse of Knowledge at play. What seems glaringly obvious to you might not be so to a beginner. So what can you do about the curse of knowledge?

Well, ask for feedback from your target audience. This happens less than you think, in the both the office and the classroom. The speaker just assumes the audience understands what he or she is talking about, which can be presumptuous.

Related:  Shortcomings of “Quick Fix” Corporate Leadership

6. Self-Identity

Each member in the group has roles to play for that group to function efficiently. This much you probably already know.

But here’s something you might not know: people conform to roles assigned to them. In a now-famous experiment called “The Stanford Prison Experiment”, psychologists assigned guard and prisoner roles to young volunteers in a simulated prison. To their surprise, by just 6 days, their subjects conformed to their roles perfectly – the prison guards became abusive and the prisoners became submissive.

So take a good look at yourself. Have you conformed to a “role” that is not yourself?

7. Groups Reject Outsiders

Have you ever had a new manager come into the office and announced, “All right, ‘team’. Here’s how we are going to do things now.”

Did you end up doing what he said?

Groups reject outsiders and any attempts to change their unwritten rules – even if that person is its appointed “leader”. Leaders, then, don’t make the group. On the contrary, it’s the group that makes the leader.

This was observed by psychologist Merei in 1949, when he saw that children new to the group who jumped in with new ideas were usually rejected by their peers. Those who became successful leaders, on the other hand, first conformed to group norms then slowly suggested new ideas.

Merei’s observations were later replicated by other studies – with adults.

8. Gossips

Gossips are a part of tribal life. Contrary to popular belief, a gossip is actually good for a group.

If you saw your friend John eating more than his fair share of food in a time of scarce resource, and you had no way to gossip, the confrontation between you and John would probably result in at least one death or severe altercation. By gossiping to other members of the group, you can avoid the confrontation, and the group will pressure him to change his greedy ways by using subtle cues (like refusing to share food with him).

There is no doubt that gossip can be used to harm others, but it can also be used positively. If you talk about John behind his back positively, that message becomes stronger to other members of the group because it is perceived as more authentic.

Considering this, when word travels back to John, your relationship with him will skyrocket more than a simple face-to-face praise can ever achieve.

9. Competition

Point three revealed how cliques can form and how these can pose certain challenges to a leader. This is one of those challenges.

Have you ever had an experience where you find someone as a “good person” individually but that the group he belongs to is anything but a good force in the world? For example, you might find that as an individual, your neighbour is a great person – until you found out that she belongs to a different political party.

In other words, groups breed adversity.

When in groups, we can’t help but compete with opposing groups. A 2001 study by psychologist Insko et al used the classic game “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” to measure competitiveness in group vs alone. What he found was that, alone, people were competitive 37% of the time. When in groups, they were competitive 54% of the time – more than a 50% increase.

Competition between cliques in a company can be extremely destructive. Each department makes another’s job difficult to do. Some experts believe this is how Enron collapsed. Enron, the former poster child of organizational management, encouraged competition between its own departments to the extreme.

10. The Halo Effect

If I say physical attractiveness influences who you hire, you’d probably deny it. But study after study has found that we prefer attractive individuals over their less-attractive counterparts – even when their intended job has nothing to do with beauty. This is because we perceive beautiful people as smarter, more hardworking, honest and organized.

This is called the “Halo Effect”. The halo effect is a psychological phenomenon in which we extrapolate one good trait to determine other traits. This means that good looking people are also honest; “organic” must mean it’s healthy; and “premium” products must somehow be better than their regular competition.

As you can imagine, the halo effect can have a big impact on your decision making – and thus on your team. So how do you overcome it? Well, two steps: be aware of it and make data-driven decisions.

Which Group Psychology Theories Should You Be Aware Of?

If you have ideas you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Andre Pinantoan
Andrianes Pinantoan is the head of inbound marketing at Open Colleges. He is a psychology-nut who can be found reading when not writing or spending time with his family. Connect with @andreispsyched and +Andrianes.
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