Basic Theories on Groups: What Happens When People Come Together?

Though a person might not realize it, groups have a very powerful and dramatic effect on human behavior. Everyone acts differently when they are around people versus than when they are alone.

The most basic theory regarding social psychology is that when a person is alone, he or she is more relaxed and not concerned about the appearance of their behavior. By adding just one other person to the equation, behaviors begin to change and people become more aware of what is going on around them. As a result, studies have shown that a person will be able to perform tasks that are simple or well-learned with a greater performance level. However, when attempting to do something that is new or difficult around another person, performance level will decrease. This is known as social facilitation: due to the presence of other people, we try harder and our performance level actually declines in new or difficult tasks.

Take basketball as an example. If you are just beginning to learn basketball, you will feel more relaxed practicing alone than practicing around other people, because the presence of others will make you feel self-conscious and you will make more mistakes. If you are a professional basketball player, however, you are already skilled in the task, and the presence of other people will make you better as you strive to demonstrate your ability.

When groups make decisions, one of two things generally happens: “groupthink” or “group polarization.”

When a group agrees on most issues, there is a tendency to stifle any dissent. The group anticipates harmony. If everyone agrees and is content, they do not appreciate hearing opposing arguments. Groupthink can be disastrous because it leads to a failure to listen to or identify all sides of an argument and can result in impulsive decisions. Examples of groupthink gone wrong include mass riots and lynch mobs. To combat groupthink, authentic dissent should be nurtured.

This takes root when a group begins to create extreme positions that are fueled by the group and would not have occurred if any of the individuals were alone. For example, at the beginning of a decision-making process, perhaps members of the group were only slightly opposed to something. By the end of the discussion together, however, the entire group is now dramatically opposed to the issue and has taken this opposition to an extreme level. To reduce group polarization, homogeneity should be avoided.

The bystander effect is perhaps the most tragic phenomenon to occur within groups. It has been found that as a group gets larger, the internal drive to help other people in need actually decreases. Though this is similar to social loafing, the bystander effect occurs because people become followers and will only help someone if they see another individual helping in the first place. Note: this is strictly a group phenomenon. If there is no one else present but one individual and the victim, that individual will usually help the victim.

On March 13th, 1964, at 3:20 A.M., twenty-eight-year-old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was coming home from work and was approached by a man in her apartment entrance. The man attacked and stabbed Genovese. Genovese repeatedly called for help, but not a single one of the close to forty eyewitnesses who had heard her cries for help and watched the events unfold called the police. Instead, they all believed that someone else was doing it. It wasn’t until 3:50 A.M. that the police were finally contacted. 

No matter what type of group it is, whether it be a band, a group of friends, a work meeting, a sports team, or something else, all groups share similar psychological processes and follow certain rules.

  1. Groups can come from nearly nothing: Groups contribute to our sense of ourselves; because of this, it is in our nature to want to form and build groups.
  2. There usually is some form of initiation rite: If someone is joining an already existing group, there is usually some form of initiation rite. This could be intellectual, monetary, physical, or based on similar experiences. Groups want to test individuals entering, and they want the membership to the group to be valued.
  3. Groups create conformity: Groups have certain norms that members follow and these norms can bend an individual’s behavior, making them go against their better judgment (for one of the greatest examples, see Asch’s Conformity Study).
  4. You must learn the norms of the group: If you break the rules established by the group, the other members of the group will be sure to let you know.
  5. People take on roles within groups: While there are rules that apply to everyone within a group, individuals will also begin taking on specific roles and follow a set of rules associated with those roles.
  6. Most of the time, leaders emerge from the group slowly: Though leaders can be appointed and imposed upon, most of the time leaders emerge by first conforming to the group; and then after gaining trust, they become more confident and eventually others will follow them.
  7. Groups create improved performance: The presence of other people can make an individual perform better. This is more likely when the task at hand is separate from other people’s tasks and the individual can be judged on his or her own merits.
  8. There will be rumors and, most of the time, they will be true: In 1985, a study took place in a work environment and found that people talked of rumors and gossip 80 percent of the time, and that an astounding 80 percent of this information was true. Other studies have shown very similar results.
  9. Groups create competition: People in groups can become suspicious and wary of the people in rivaling groups. This creates an “us vs. them” type of situation, and even if an individual from a rival group is thought of as cooperative, the group as a whole is deemed untrustworthy or bad. 

Groups play an incredibly important role in everyday life and dramatically impact the decisions we make. A group can be anything from a meeting of coworkers responsible for making important financial decisions to a group of friends deciding on where they would like to eat their next meal. The mere presence of other people has a remarkable effect on our behavior. A group can occur from nothing, make some perform better, make others choose not to perform, and create roles and norms that group members follow.