For Spring 2018: Totally online!

  • Group structure can strongly affect group influence on individuals.
  • Group structure includes the nature of tasks (e.g., interdependent), group size, composition (e.g., age; gender, SES).
  • Group size has mixed effects on performance and satisfaction.
  • Groups create social roles; a role is a social position, typically with assigned tasks and benefits.
  • Since most of us belong to several groups, we can occupy many social roles.
  • Often we create social identities centered around the groups we belong to and the roles we play within them.
  • Interrole conflict addresses incompatibilities across different roles; intrarole conflict addresses conflicting expectations (and rewards) for the same role.
  • Conformity (accepting influence through internal motivation) differs from  compliance (accepting influence because external forces require it).
    • Conformity has more benefits for groups and societies.
  • Group cohesion is frequently studied. Its decision making and group productivity effects are mixed and definitely not always positive.
  • Review some surprising possible consequences of group cohesion HERE.



SYP 5105-01           FALL 2017



Ultimately this guide is about social influence in groups. But first, let's look at the structure and roles in groups, because the degree of influence groups can have very often depend on these dimensions.

Group tasks can be unitary (i.e., co-active--the members simultaneously perform similar behaviors; by now you can see that I would NOT generally consider this a group task of co-actors, or even much of a group--this is more like social facilitation).

Tasks can be conjunctive (results or productivity are determined by the weakest member); disjunctive (results or productivity are determined by the strongest member); or additive (results are the sum of individual performances). Having used Team-Based Learning for several years, I believe that team results can actually be multiplicative--i.e., stronger than even the strongest member.

A key issue is whether group tasks are interdependent, i.e., some kind of division of labor exists whereby different members enact different, more specialized behaviors that interlock. Groups have more influence over their members when tasks are interdependent because members must rely upon each other more to achieve group goals.

A classic example of interdependence has been Eliot Aronson's jigsaw puzzle classroom, which has become more commonly known with several variations as "cooperative learning."  In a jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces must be present and in the right place to put the puzzle together. What happens if we form students into groups and see that each group member initially has a separate piece of information that is required if the group is to complete its project (and perhaps win a prize)? Students cooperate more with one another.

Aronson contrasts classrooms with groups that stress interdependence with those having a total reliance upon individual achievement. He asserts that jigsaw classrooms facilitate cooperation among students and lessen ethnic barriers. Largely positive evidence supports this assertion. Aronson's (and his son's) most recent application of the jigsaw classroom is to prevent bullying, which has been implicated in several instances of explosive school violence.

What's an instructor to do? We live in a world, often including "collective cultures," that applauds individual performances and their enactors as heroes. Picture sports or Olympics heroes, corporation chief executive officers, and prize-winning scientists. In each case, individuals could never achieve these heights without considerable teamwork. At the same time, corporations recognize the importance of teamwork and how well individuals work with one another. The military depends on teamwork.

For 'way more than twelve years of education in Western, industrialized countries, students are assigned individual projects and urged to excel and compete as individuals. Entrance into college and graduate school depends very heavily on individual grades and standardized test scores.  If they learn teamwork skills, students typically do so in extra-curricular activities such as sports. In fact, pundits in the 1970s and 1980s claimed that men succeeded more than women in corporate America because of team sports experience (conveniently overlooking how either women couldn't participate in sponsored team sports at that time or had, at best, limited opportunities and equipment--not to mention women's cooperative work in other "arenas". Many largely girls' games, e.g., "playing house," also rely on teamwork and switching social roles). 

Almost no one wants individuals in positions of authority solely because of their relatives, their friends in power, or because they talked someone into completing their assignments for them. Almost none of us want to encourage social loafing (see below) either.

So, how about a middle ground? Some teamwork assignments, some that are individual throughout the range of educational systems. So it doesn't take governments, organizations, or companies months or even years to start training someone about teamwork in their '20s.

A recent survey (see: by the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community College of 200 employers as well as one by staffing company Adecco (and more, see the link) find that employers want employees with "interpersonal skills" who can work as part of a team. I've seen this emphasis "float in" and "float out" over time and right now it appears to be back in.


Group size has mixed effects. Having a larger group can facilitate performance OR it can create a process loss  (members perform below their potential). Larger groups perform better with disjunctive tasks, relying on stronger members. Individual performance levels can decline with group size (the classic Ringelmann effect and the original social facilitation studies) perhaps due to social loafing.

Social loafing is a familiar and aggrevating phenomenon to most of us. Picture putting in a lot of work on a project that results in an excellent group grade, including a terrific grade for the member who never attended meetings and who did virtually no work at all. Social loafing makes people angry. It also results in disparaging comments about committees and teams.

However, little advance planning and last minute work marathons are what make the social loafer possible. By the time you realize that this individual will not do his or her share of the work but plans to share in the rewards, the project due date is at hand. Too late to complain effectively to the teacher or the boss or, really, to eject the recalcitrant member. Better coordination and individual feedback can minimize social loafing. Teamwork can produce such really great achievements, it's worth our while to outwit the social loafer.

Larger groups also tend to have less informal interaction and are viewed as "less friendly" by their members. In order to produce more friendly relations--or even to get something done, large groups may need to create smaller subgroups for many tasks. I found that large religious congregations were more likely to create "support groups" whose ostensible reason was to meet socio-emotional needs among congregants. However, congregations who created support groups also could better politically mobilize around goals that were important to them, such as lobbying on abortion or providing volunteers for a homeless shelter. This was because many of the bureaucratic skills required to create and maintain support groups could also be used for political organizing.

We have known for several decades that large aggregates (rather than groups) tend to fuel what is called "diffusion of responsibility." In emergencies, people are more willing to help if a few or even a single person is around than when several people are present. Partly this occurs because large groups foster a sense of "deindividualization."


Interdependent tasks in groups have several consequences. Oneof the most prominent consequences is the emergence of social roles. Social roles emerge from groups, from the specialized divisions of labor and interlocking positions that even the most rudimentary groups tend to create. In formal organizations, social roles can become positions and people are recruited to fill them. In informal groups, after a period of time, members may want to recruit for specialized role positions too.

In fact, in nearly all cases, if there were no groups, we would not have social roles. Because most of us belong to many different groups, we occupy many different roles. When roles are arranged in a hierarchy across individuals, we have what are called stratified social systems. When roles conflict in a variety of ways within the same person, we have role conflict.

Minimally, a role is a set of rights, duties, and scripts (prescriptives and prerogatives) attached to a specific social position. Roles transcend individuals: anyone who occupies a specific role is expected to display a minimal level of competence in its scripts and duties. Some role requirements are codified and formal, others are informal. Although latitude often exists in how to play a role, there are also usually minimal defining criteria.

Because we occupy so many roles, and because different people have different expectations for the same role, roles can create stress for several reasons.

First, roles become an important part of our self-identify. Many of our social roles reflect family, occupational (including student), national, and friendship roles. (Remember Kuhn's 20 Statements Test?)

Each role takes time, often considerable amounts of time. Each takes effort and there is always the possibility that the time and effort involved with one role will conflict with those required for other roles. This is the "soccer mom" plight, dashing from meeting to meeting, or from one set of duties to another. Or, if you prefer, "multitasking."

Different roles also provide different expectations for behavior. When people interact with family or friends, they are expected to embrace the "whole person," to do special things for family or friends (lend money, assist when ill) that they don't do for just anyone (particularism) and to share their emotions (affective behavior). What happens when a good friend at work is promoted to be your boss? Work relationships, especially those between role superiors and role subordinates are supposed to be affectively neutral  and universalistic ("fair," that is, everyone receives the same kind of responsive treatment).

We cope with interrole conflict in several ways:

We may segregate or compartmentalize roles (e.g., keep work away from your family; be an ogre at work, a loving parent at home--or vice-versa).

We may use role specialization (e.g., Daddy disciplines, Mommy hugs and kisses, at least according to research with three year olds).

We may negotiate role performance (I'll work more now for time off then).

We prioritize roles (very elderly Mom versus child--nearly impossible).

First, different people hold conflicting expectations about the same role. Think of the role of student. Your professor defines the student role in terms of your course performance or your milestones toward your advanced degree. Other faculty expect you to attend professional conferences--which may occur at the same time as an exam. Other students may define the student role as "party animal."

Second, the role itself may have conflicting expectations built-in to it.These conflicting expectations can even be held by the same person, including the role incumbent. Perfect dads are supportive and sensitive yet also must discipline their children. The good employee is loyal to boss and co-workers, yet is expected to become a "whistle blower" should illegal or unethical events occur. (See the Wells Fargo situation in 2016.)

Again, to cope with intrarole conflict, we may segregate or compartmentalize roles by breaking down a single role (e.g., professor) into subcomponents (teacher, researcher). We may avoid people whom we believe define a role in ways detrimental to us (avoid the "party animal" buddies the semester we are studying for comps). Alternatively, we can keep people who hold incompatible expectations about the same role apart (don't invite your grandmother to the fraternity party).

Perhaps the most difficult task is to create role integration, by redefining or reconstructing the meaning and duties of a role so that it no longer seems internally contradictory. For example, I may decide that "being a good mother" means paying more individualized attention to my son and laughing at his jokes, rather than preparing gourmet meals or ironing his shirts.

Roles are major contributions to our sense of self. Role stability promotes a stable sense of self. Discarding roles or role loss often can create a sense of personal upheaval. Within reason, a variety of roles and competent role performances make us happy. Roles--can often keep us sane!


One of the most important distinctions is social psychology is the difference between conformity and compliance. Conformity may be described here differently from how you have previously seen it used.

We accept influence from others because we want to. As you might expect, when people accept influence because they feel it is their choice, the attitudes and behaviors are more likely to generalize and do not require surveillance. The results from conforming could be instrumental (rewarding), contribute to our self-identity (value-expressive), or they could make life more meaningful (accepting religious doctorines or political ideologies, for example). Generally people who hold leadership roles in organizations are more likely to conform to that organization's norms. We accept influence from others because we feel that we must. Compliance is often fueled by punishment and may require surveillance. (Milgram's "shocking obedience study" is actually a study of compliance rather than conformity since almost no one wanted to continue and many did not.) One of the most important aspects of Milgram's series of studies is that it shows that people may comply with directives that appear to come from an apparent legitimate authority even if they are acutely uncomfortable about doing so.

It is very costly for a society to use compliance to achieve the desired behaviors from its members instead of conformity. Therefore, it is not usually a good idea. Compliance often means a large, expensive, internal army or police force, and constant rewards or punishments must be dangled in front of members to make them behave. If a society can get its members to accept influence because they want to, then it will have resources to use for many other purposes, not just "enforcement." The difficulty, of course, is that many things that are required just aren't fun. One possibility is to hold out the promise of individual or collective reward (e.g., family honor). Another is to stress  legitimate authority, wherein individuals conform because they ought to or they should (rather than "want to").

EVERYBODY conforms at times, no matter how "individualistic" we may think we are: try driving without it! Cultures and subcultures vary in terms of how much conformity they expect from their members in which areas of life, and how much they expect members to live in groups rather than apart. These expectations may be age- or gender-graded.

Group "deviants" often receive much initial pressure to conform. However, if individuals stay deviant after persuasion attempts, other members will isolate them. Deviants may also be expelled if group rules and norms allow this. Groups can create conformity norms (the autokinetic effect).

Informational influence occurs through comparative reference groups who provide social standards. Similarity among group members is important here and issues of self-identity with the group are also important. (This relates to the social comparison processes discussed in earlier class sessions.)

Conformity effects increase with a large proportional majority, an unfamiliar task (e.g., the Asch experiment), spontaneous or confrontational situations, cross-pressures, high cohesiveness and a commitment to future interaction. However, remember: just one dissident is often all it takes to reduce conformity (remember the Obedience film or the Asch line experiment). And, a minority can influence the group and introduce innovation, especially if the minority has something special to offer or bargain with or minority members are able to create coalitions.


Group cohesion, or a sense or spirit of group unity collectively held by the membership, is one of the most important constructs in group dynamics. Although we know better, and we have known better for over 60 years, there is a tendency to see the effects of group cohesion as largely positive. It is not clear why such a positive bias occurs. Perhaps our personal experiences in cohesive groups blur our professional judgement. Perhaps when positive effects occur, they are so positive that we overlook the negative effects of cohesiveness.

There is no denying that experiencing group cohesion has many beneficial consquences for members and for the group as a whole.

On the average, members are more satisfied in cohesive groups.

Members remain in cohesive groups longer when a choice is available.

Cohesive groups appear to provide a buffer against stress and thus may benefit individual mental and physical health.

Members of cohesive groups less often report feeling lonely or isolated.

Identity with the group is stronger in more cohesive groups.

Some cohesive groups are more productive.

With a lineup like this, what can there possibly be to criticize?

Despite the positive blinkers, negative effects of cohesion are plentiful. Not only that, when the negative effects of group cohesiveness occur, they tend to be spectacularly bad. Almost certainly the identical dynamics that produce "good" outcomes in groups also produce the "bad" outcomes in groups. The major culprit is the desire among group members to remain in the group and to please other group members. This is what gives groups an enhanced ability to influence members. A secondary villain is a structure that discourages--or at least that fails to actively encourage--interaction between the group and its outside environment.

In terms of process, here's what's going on:

Highly cohesive groups can enforce group norms--whatever they are--much more effectively than less cohesive groups. Pressures to conform (internal pressures) are greater in cohesive groups, that's one reason why the difference between conformity and compliance can be so important. Because people value their membership in cohesive groups, they are willing to adjust their behavior to group standards. Even if there is initial "storming" and conflict, if the group "gels," a "norming" period follows and members conform.

However, compliance pressures are greater too. Cohesive groups put more pressure on deviants to accept group norms than less cohesive groups do. As a result, cohesive groups tend toward high surface--sometimes superficial--harmony. To avoid confrontation and other forms of ill-will members will publicly agree even when they privately disagree. Even if a brave member speaks up in opposition, cohesive groups can be very cruel toward "deviants." If they remain in the group, deviants tend to become isolates and possibly even scapegoats. When group members are aware of these sanctions, they engage in self-censorship either avoiding contentious topics or carefully monitoring their verbal responses.

Superficial harmony combined with perceived group enemies can contribute to group insularity or insulation, the tendency of group members to interact primarily with each other and to avoid cross-group contacts. Once an imposed group homogeneity emerges, the group has closed itself off from cross-fertilization of ideas or from corrective input for its mistakes. Further, since members largely interact with one another, they may begin to feel invulnerable and superior to those who are not group members. There aren't any discrepant voices at that point to provide a different opinion.

Given such self-protective strategies, members can propose extreme ideas and face neither challenges nor corrections from other group members or from outsiders. Problems may be ignored or glossed over. The group is now on a one-way trip to bad decision-making. Group failures become interpreted as enmity from the outside environment and the cycle continues.

Sound familiar? How many current examples can you envision, from poor football plays to terrorist planning to political elections? Most of Jim Jones' commune in Guyana years ago (although apparently not all) willingly drank poisoned fruit punch. The Webmasters at California's "Heaven's Gate" apparently believed that space ships would arrive for them after they, too, drank poison. Suicide bombers throughout the Middle East are told a spot in Paradise is reserved for them.

But we don't have to think of such dramatic instances. Teenagers often make poor decisions to be accepted by their peers and reject criticism of their actions. Spouses set aside their own notions of right and wrong to please someone they love, even if it sometimes means illegal actions.

Irving Janis coined the term "Groupthink" to decribe one type of process and cycle of "bad decision-making." Bad decisions occur because group members are only exposed to limited and asymmetric information, typically information that supports the group's decisions. Opposition from within is effectively stifled. Opposition from without is never even referenced. Disaster occurs, leaving group members to shake their heads, wondering what went wrong. Group leaders are overly directive.

The first sign that something has gone wrong (aside from dramatic disasters such as the Challenger explosion or finding the suicidal bodies) may be that cohesion breaks down and members begin to leave the group without signifying their intentions or even giving an explanation. Members may leave because they privately disagree but believe that they cannot voice their dissent aloud. Or, members may agree with group goals overall, but disagree with the stifling of diverse opinions.

Group productivity may drop precipitously and outside authorities are called in (e.g., department heads or higher level bosses), while the remaining members refuse to even acknowledge that there are any problems at all. One of the congregations I studied several years ago was affiliated with a major African-American, highly centralized denomination. By the time the observer was in the field, that church was down to 35 people, most of them relatives of the elderly pastor. The Sunday School was so small that all grades were held in one room. The pastor and members refused to acknowledge that any problems even existed and the pastor consistently rejected any invitations to participate in events with other churches. Ultimately, the pastor was retired by the denomination, which sent down a young, energetic pastor who revitalized the church.

Some other consequences of high cohesion that many would call negative include:

Thus, the valences of group cohesion outcomes become heavily dependent on just what the group norms are. Fifty years ago while studying group productivity in natural pre-existing groups, researchers realized to their considerable surprise that productivity outcomes for cohesive groups tended to be polarized, either very productive or very unproductive. They found that the average productivity of cohesive groups was quite close to the average productivity of less cohesive groups.

What was the conflict? Highly cohesive groups who valued social interaction spent their time on that, not on the group task imposed by the experimenter. Everyone got along great, everyone liked everyone else. Group task productivity was terrible.

This is a large field! More research on cohesion, group structure, leadership, communication, group productivity, inter-group processes, cooperation, competitition and teamwork, and other, more collective topics will be available in our EDP 5285, GROUP PROCESSES course.

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Susan Carol Losh December 2 2017