Me and my gang

Me and my gang.

Throughout my life I have noticed that I act differently around different groups of people.  Around my old fraternity friends I am swear and talk about beer and women, but around my fellow teachers I talk about curriculum and differentiating instruction.  In other words, the people around us affect the way we behave.

How Groups influence an Individual’s Behavior

Last week I went bowling and took my wife to watch me.  She pretty much hates bowling, but she went to support me because she knew how hard I have been practicing.  Now I usually bowl around a 150 and have a few games upwards of 180 (rare-but sometimes).  When my wife was watching, I bowled a 101, 100 and a 98 on my final game.  It was mortifying (but she loves me anyway).

There is a theory in psychology called social facilitation and it is the ideas that when one is very skilled at a task, or it is a very easy task, they will perform better when others are watching than if they were alone.  Take Michael Jordan.  He is incredible skilled at basketball.

When he is practicing alone I am sure he looks pretty good.  But because he is so skilled, he actually performs better in front of a group of people. Now when a task is very hard or one is not skilled (like my bowling), one performs worse in front of a group than if they were alone.  This is called social impairment.


Conformity is the tendency of people to go along with the views or actions of others.  People tend to conform in the presence of groups.  The big guy in this field is Solomon Asch (and yes, this guy you have to know).

In Asch’s most famous experiment he brought subjects into a room full of confederates (a confederate is someone who the subject thinks is just another subject, but really have been given instruction on what to do by the experimenter) and asked them to make a series of simple judgments.  Asch showed the subjects three vertical lines of varying sizes and asked them to indicate which one was the same length as a different target line.

All the members of the group gave their answers aloud, and the subject was always the last person to speak.  All of the trails had a clear, correct answer.  However, on some of them, all the confederates gave the same, obviously incorrect judgment.  Like in the diagram above, all the confederates would give the answer of line 3, when obviously line 2 matches the standard line.  Asch was interested in what the subjects would do.  Would they conform to the group and give an answer they knew was wrong or go against the group?

Asch found that approximately 1/3 of the times the confederates gave the wrong answer, the subject conformed.  Furthermore, about 70% of the subjects conformed to the wrong answer at least once in the trials.  The subject was most likely to conform when the group’s opinion was unanimous.  Surprisingly, the size of the group did not matter that much, only that they were unanimous.


A controversial extension on Ash’s research occurred in 1974 by Stanley Milgram at Yale University.

Milgram was curious how German citizens during the second world war would not only conform to the Nazi party’s atrocities, but also be completely obedient to those around them.

In Milgram’s obedience studies the subjects were told that they were taking part in a study about teaching and learning, and they were assigned to play the part of the teacher.  The learner, of course, was a confederate.  As teacher, each subject’s job was to give the learner an electric shock for every incorrect response.  The subject sat behind a panel of buttons each labeled with the number of volts, beginning at 15 and increasing by increments of 15 up to 450.  The levels of shock were described in words from mild up to XXX.  In reality, no shocks were delivered; the confederate pretended to be shocked.  As the levels of shock increased, the confederate screamed in pain, said he suffered from a heart condition, and eventually fell silent.

Milgram was interested in how far the subjects would go before refusing to deliver any more shocks.  The experimenter watched the subject and, if questioned, gave only a few stock answers. such as “Please continue.”  Contrary to the predictions of psychologists who Milgram polled prior to the experiment, over 60% of the subjects obeyed the experimenter and delivered all the possible shocks.

Milgram tried the experiment many different times with various twists.  He discovered that the closer the confederate was to the subject (like if they could see each other) less shocks were delivered.  The studies done at Yale University went farther than if he did them in different buildings around New Haven (the appearance of a legitimate authority figure from Yale increased the amount of shocks).  When another confederate was present in the room and objected to the experiment out loud, the subjects became MUCH more likely to stop the shocks (Asch taught us without unanimous consent- conformity decreases).  The key aspect of Milgram’s obedience studies is that they show us that under the right conditions, we will ALL be obedient and do things we think we would otherwise not do.

It should be noted that Milgram’s studies have been severely criticized on ethical grounds.  Very often the subjects, even after they learned that the confederates were not really shocked, suffered great emotional distress with the knowledge of the insight that they would kill in the right circumstance.

Group Dynamics

We are all part of many different groups.  Whether it is you click in school, your tennis team, math club, camp friends or family, you live your life as part of various groups.  Each group has norms or rules about how group members should act.  For example, as a teacher in a school I cannot wear just my underwear to school and talk like Anthony Dice Clay (that would be breaking school norms).  Within groups, people often have roles to play.  For example, in a family I have to make decisions, act and say certain things to help my sons mature.  As a teacher, I have to maintain a certain level of decorum, cultivate young minds and create a safe environment through my actions.

Sometimes people take advantage of being part of a group by social loafingSocial loafing is a phenomenon when individuals do not put in as much effort when acting as part of a group as they do when acting alone.  One explanation for social loafing is that when alone, an individuals efforts are more easily discernible than when in a group.  Think about the last group project you were in in class.  Many of you worked less, because if the group did badly it was not a direct reflection of your skills, but the group as a whole.

Group polarization is the tendency of a group to make more extreme decisions than the group members would make individually.  Studies about group polarization usually have participants give their opinions individually, then group them to discuss their decisions, and then have the group make a decision.  For example, pretend that you are pro death penalty and had to make a decision about a rapist.  As an individual you may waiver about whether to give the rapist the death penalty.  If you got together with a group of pro death penalty people, as a group you would more likely give the rapist the death penalty.

Just remember that there are no moderate middle of the line groups.  Groups are usually extreme and see issues as black and white.  Only as an individual can you see gray areas.

Picture this, in class your teacher picks up a desk and throws it through the window yelling, “Let’s trash this place!!!!”  A couple of kids follow the teacher and begin trashing the school.  Many more students would start rioting in the school, not because they really care about the riot but because they are experiencing what psychologists call deindividuation. Deindividuation is the loss of less restraint when group members feel anonymous and aroused.  They do not think of the individual consequences of their actions.  Looting and rioting behaviors can be partially explained by deindividuation.

I remember while pledging Beta Theta Pi in college we were sent out to steal all the doors of another fraternity’s house (while they were at their annual formal).  I knew what was doing was wrong and I really did not want to do it (it was 10 degrees and snowy outside).  But I cared more about maintaining strong relationships with my pledge class than I did about stealing doors.  The idea that group members may suppress their reservations about a group decision is called groupthink.  Highly cohesive groups (football teams, inner city gangs, current white house administration etc…) involved in making risky decisions see to be at particular risk for groupthink.