What has been your most positive group experience to date?
What has been your worst group experience to date?
What kind of elements in each group can you identify that contributed to these experiences?




EDP5285-01         SPRING 2009




Although virtually all of us belong to groups, how many and which groups we belong to show individual differences as well as differences by social location.

Most of the time when we study group processes, we are focused on the "social" aspects. However, there are times when individual differences or "personality variables" are examined. Leadership, of course, is one critical example. Another is who joins groups in the first place, the kinds of groups we join, and how many groups we join. Issues of personality versus situation surface repeatedly in the study of group processes. Which perspective you choose (or combination of perspectives) can determine how you will approach a particular group processes topic. For example, if you take a more personality approach, you might favor individual training to bring shy individuals "out of their shell." If you take a more situational approach, you might try to alter aspects of group interaction, or even redesign work or living spaces to bring about the results that you favor (e.g., more interpersonal interaction.)

Virtually every taxonomy of personality describes an "introversion-extroversion" dimension, or a "moving away from people" versus a "moving toward people" orientation. Other researchers have studied related concepts such as "shyness" or "social anxiety." Scholars such as Jerome Kagan believe these are basic, biologically influenced individual traits. The general theory goes that individuals with relatively high internal levels of neural stimulation seek quieter surroundings (introverts) to dampen down neural excitement, while those with relatively low internal levels of neural stimulation seek more exciting surroundings (extroverts) in order to maintain a comfortable internal equilibrium of neural stimulation. This, of course, is a predilection only, it is NOT "biology is destiny"! Very recent (2008) research indicates that whatever we wish to call these relatively stable methods of acting upon and responding to one's environment, they can be recognizably stable for decades.

Since we know from the social facilitation literature that the mere presence of other people is physically arousing (remember the social facilitation and co-action material), extroverts may seek out others to raise their levels of arousal. Thus, for extroverts, through experience, the presence of others is rewarding. For introverts, the increased arousal levels caused by the presence of others may lead to feelings of shyness, or an increase in social anxiety. Thus, the presence of others may become associated with discomfort and a desire for solitude among introverts. Introversion-extroversion is one of these trait constellations that is remarkably consistent, although introverts do become somewhat more sociable over time and extroverts become somewhat more subdued.

The type of experience counts too! People who have generally had supportive, positive experience with groups in the past will seek out others more often. The type of group may vary as well. Some people are drawn to task-oriented groups while others join groups that appear to support socio-emotional needs.

One's place in the social system or life cycle stage often determines the attractiveness of a group. Someone active in the business world may join a group to generate a network of professional contacts. A young parent may want assistance or social support. Teenagers look to their peers to provide information--and possible mates. Retirees may join hobby classes.

At least one source of the sex differences  that has been reported in some of the group dynamics literature thus becomes immediately apparent and that is life cycle issues. Women more often tend full-time to domestic labor, including childcare. Men are found more often at the top of business and professional echelons. Increasingly, retirees are disproportionately female because of current sex differences in longevity. Thus, at least part of the greater propensity some researchers find for women to join more "informal and intimate groups" is our location in structures and roles that make the "informal trading" of information and social support more likely, for example, as young mothers or elderly widows. Since men in the middle years are more often engaged full-time in the economic marketplace than women, they are more likely to join structured groups such as professional associations or business clubs (e.g., The Chamber of Commerce). Finally, let us not forget that nature and society may block membership in certain groups by gender. Most members of LaMaze breast-feeding classes are female for obvious reasons. Many business groups still exclude women from membership or use informal sanctions to make women uncomfortable in largely male groups. 


Obviously, individuals join groups for many reasons--and some of these reasons bear little surface relationship to the ostensible rationale for the group's existence. One might think, for example, that parishioners join a church or synagogue because its doctrine, theology or liturgy are consistent with the parishioner's own. Or because the individual finds the services spiritually uplifting. Yet I have found, as have other scholars in this field, some of the following reasons to join a congregation:

So...what makes a group attractive to an individual? ISSUES IN SIMILARITY

Why is similarity so important? First, similarity is "comfortable." We can immediately start a conversation with similar others, their behavior appears more predictable, and they may be able to give us useful advice based on similar circumstances. Thus, to interact with similar others is intrinsically rewarding.

Many group dynamicists go further. Leon Festinger's theory of social comparison is now over 50 years old (it appeared in Human Relations 1954). Festinger and his contemporaries took a highly cognitive approach and believed that similar others are more informative for us than dissimilar others. Similar others tell us what is reasonable to hope for, how well we are doing compared with our peers, and make us less embarassed about anxiety-provoking situations. This is the form of informational influence that I referred to under reference groups in Guide 4.

Festinger's contemporary, Stanley Schacter, conducted experiments where students believed they were about to undergo painful or relatively trivial levels of electric shock. Those expecting severe shock preferred to wait with others rather than alone--at least when others were in the same experimental condition, thus spurring the phrase "misery loves miserable company." (Later research discovered that confederates who appeared warm and accepting were also preferred as companions in the severe shock condition.)

The notion of groups being rewarding for us spurred the development of exchange theories. Individuals receive benefits from groups, but also invest time, energy, money, and other resources in groups, thereby incurring costs. Further, groups differ in terms of how much they reward individuals and in what kind of rewards they bestow.


When joining a group, or participating in its activities, individuals may engage in a cost-benefit analysis, assessing the efforts they put in to the group and the rewards they receive in return.

Rewards include:

Costs include: George Homan's theory of exchange in groups emphasized "minimax" principles, i.e., minimal costs and maximum rewards. Groups with this constellation were highly attractive. Homans believed that if costs came to be greater than rewards, or even if rewards dropped or costs increased, individuals would leave the group.

But, the issue becomes, where do you go? What are your choices? After all, during bad economic times, people stay with the jobs they already have, fearing that another job may not become available. An individual of either sex may remain in an unrewarding "love" relationship, feeling that it is better than being alone or fearing that no one "as good" as the partner will come along. Thibaut and Kelley's interdependence theory directly addresses the issue of alternatives. Individuals have an established comparison level of expectations for their interactions, rewards and costs associated with groups. This CL comes from previous experiences, the experiences of similar others, cultural expectations, or perhaps the individual's level of self-esteem.

Thibaut and Kelley also postulate a comparison level for alternatives:

CLalt is the least satisfying alternative available to the individual. Individuals compare their CL with their CLalt to decide whether to leave or stay in a relationship or join a new group.

To take a very simplistic example, consider someone in a job paying $30,000 per year. She interviews on the job market and receives the following offers:

  • $35,000 per year
  • $40,000 per year
  • $45,000 per year
According to interdependence theory, her choice is clear. Our job-seeker's CL-alt ($35,000) is greater than her CL ($30,000) so she will take another job even if it is not the $45,000 job.

Of course, most situations are multi-dimensional and the prospective member of a group, or someone deciding to leave a group, typically considers a range of alternatives in each dimension. All together, Thibaut and Kelley believe that if:

CL > CLalt     the individual will remain in the current group
CL < CLalt     the individual will leave the current group

CL = CLalt     the choice cannot be predicted

It is important to recognize that not all researchers agree with minimax principles. Equity theory, for example, postulates that individuals try to achieve consistency between their costs and rewards in their interactions with others.

While all exchange theories assert that the underrewarded usually get angry, feeling cheated and deprived, equity theory directly addresses over reward. These researchers provide evidence that over rewarded individuals may increase their group inputs, for example, by working harder. The over rewarded may feel guilty and/or they may alter their perceptions of others--typically downward--to justify their higher rewards (aw...he wasn't so hot...he didn't contribute much to group productivity.)

Exchanges also occur across groups, contributing to the decisions of two or more groups to work together. We will address intragroup and intergroup cooperation versus competition later this semester. I will note here, however, that many groups engage in bargaining and mediation practices with each other to achieve satisfactory exchanges.


People enter groups in many ways. You may recall again the old cliché "you can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family." From darling Aunt Lil to eccentric Uncle Bill, family is an ascribed group. Prisoners, students in kindergarten through twelfth grade classrooms, drafted soldiers, workers in a bad labor market, all can find themselves in groups not of their own choosing.

Similarly, you may have little choice about leaving. If your violation of group norms is severe enough, you can be expelled. In certain kinds of routinized aggregates, such as college cohorts, the only way to stay a member is to fail. Graduation, retirement, widowhood, even promotions, are socially validated rites of passage to commemorate role and group loss.

But let's assume you at least had some choice about affiliation. Bruce Tuckman has one theory of group growth and dispersion that assumes members enter, make adjustments, encounter conflict along the way in establishing one's position in the group, and that eventually the group dissolves. Using the terminology in this course, we would suspect that Tuckman envisioned an informal group because many groups (as well as formal organizations) survive even several turnovers of membership.

Stormin' normin' or conformin'? Only Bruce Tuckman knows for sure!

Moreland and Levine see a continuing sequence of group socialization and resocialization. Potential members investigate and groups recruit. Members undergo initiation rituals and a period of adjustment. In return, the group may accomodate member preferences. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, many American places of employment offered help with childcare, flexible hours, and even job sharing to accomodate changing norms among women and men about family care. Once an established member, individuals may engage in role negotiation  and maintenance. Resocialization may occur in response to changes in the member (e.g., physical changes associated with aging), changes in the organization (the introduction of new technology) or changes in the environment (e.g., an increase in school age children due to "baby booms"). The member may need to learn new skills (e.g., Blackboard) or increase productivity. Eventually, due to incompatibilities, aging, or joining another group, membership is at an end. Both the individual and the group may "create accounts" of this disjuncture ("I wasn't fired, I quit.").

In families I find the "he said, she said" accounts fascinating. The two partners appear to create two totally different stories or accounts of "how we met," "how we wed," "what was right," "what went wrong," and "how we parted" (in cases of divorce). Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, for example, delights in telling about how his mother met his father on a bus to Jacksonville. His mother got on the bus at DeFuniak Springs and his father joined the journey in Tallahassee. According to his father, the bus was packed and the only available seat was next to the future Mrs. Graham. According to his mother, the bus was nearly empty and this guy insisted on sitting down next to her!

Sometimes parting amounts to literal social obliteration. For example, I originally contracted with both my accountant and my internist when both worked for other agencies. On two separate occasions, when I called to make an appointment, I was told the individual had left the organization. In both cases the receptionist refused to tell me where each had gone. In one instance I was told to look at the Yellow Pages. In the second, I was given a telephone number, and was told that this was the physician's voice mail, and that I should listen to her message. I was flabbergasted at the levels of subterfuge I encountered!

A voluntary exit from many groups is seen as tantamont to disloyalty. Even though the individual may have been treated poorly in the group, either individually or collectively, at some primitive level, they are expected to remain and "take it." If, instead, the individual leaves (perhaps especially if it is for something better), the action is not only seen as betrayal, but possibly a cause for imitation. If one member leaves, why not others? If too many members leave, word may get around and the group begins to have problems recruiting. If the situation becomes too extreme, the group may collapse.


This section is adapted from Losh, "Promoting Togetherness: Fostering Group Cohesion in Religious Congregations".


Cohesiveness is central to the study of groups. It is considered vital in group decision-making, group performance, goal attainment, identity, and member satisfaction. Yet cohesion, “studied more than any other aspect of group structure” (Levine and Moreland) has also been labeled a “spectacular embarrassment” and “inexcusably sloppy” because of problems with its conceptualization, measurement, and consequences. Often cohesion has been implied in scholarship rather than explicitly defined or measured. Indeed, many definitions of cohesion confound it with its antecedents or consequences. And, is group cohesion a part of group structure or a group property?

Typically, "cohesion" implies an esprit de corps, solidarity, or group “we-feeling”. It is not always clear whether scholars mean the aggregated feelings, beliefs or actions of individuals toward each other, toward their group, or whether cohesion is a total group property. Those who focus on individual members include Dorwin Cartwright who defined it as “the degree to which members of the group desire to remain in the group” or Bernice Lott who defined it as “the number and strength of mutual positive attitudes among the members of a group." Leon Festinger’s definition of cohesion as “the resultant of all the forces acting on the member to remain in the group” appeared to address the total group, although he suggested what cohesiveness resulted from, but never what it was. The thousands of published cohesiveness reports define these "forces" in idiosyncratic and unsystematic ways.

The affective perspective (how you feel) appears to be the most common, either as interpersonal attraction among members or to the group. However, this view truncates other facets of cohesion, especially more collective structural or interactional dimensions. Concentrating on interpersonal relations accentuates individuals and the characteristics they possess that induce liking. Despite some disagreement, Bernice Lott's definition of cohesion as positive affect among group members is currently the most common. Yet, this definition can be the most problematic and the most applicable to informal groups only. Members can be attracted and remain because of the rewards the groups offers, not because of affinity toward the members (see below).

Cohesion has also been conceived as an individual’s attraction to the total group, preserving an affective orientation (Kenneth Bollen at University of North Carolina takes this approach). Envisioning cohesion as attraction to a collectivity can target why people join or maintain membership in groups that bestow status or other impersonal rewards even when they do not particularly like other group members. Bollen’s research on group identity has helped move “cohesion” beyond simple interpersonal liking.

A more communal perspective redirects focus to group properties, e.g., a “common fate,” or collective empowerment, or to structures that encourage total group unity. Terms such as group solidarity or esprit de corps invoke a communal sentiment, although as Mudrack (1989) points out, reliance on individual attitude surveys has made correspondence between more collective definitions of cohesion and its measurement difficult and confusing.

The inconsistent consequences of cohesion prevalent in the research literature may result in part from trying to squeeze a complex, continuous, and clearly multidimensional phenomenon into a restrictive conceptual container. At times, the literature resembles a ludicrous struggle over the “right” dimension of cohesion--as though there were only one. A casual friendship group, after all, differs from a coordinated sports team performance. Once we look past friendship groups or laboratory dyads to large or complex organizations and the groups embedded within them, structural, affective, interactional, and other forms of cohesion will operate, some simultaneously. I think it is a very good idea to get used to multiple dimensions of group cohesion.

Thus, I define group cohesion as the degree to which a group exists or operates as a unified entity. This descriptive definition is meant to introduce sufficient flexibility to encompass individual and collective properties and processes. “Group unity” can include variation along individual affect, interpersonal relations, and structural continua. (See also recent work by Kenneth Dion.)


Defining, predicting or measuring cohesion can all be confounded. Indeed, some have defined any variable that increases cohesion as “cohesiveness” itself. Instead of directly measuring cohesiveness, an experimenter may simply assume its presence by manipulating perceived member similarity or attraction.  In many cases, researchers have assigned group prestige, emotionally aroused the membership, or designed cooperative tasks, yet never directly assessed which dimension of cohesion was created.

To study cohesiveness mainly as casual face to face interaction has implications for measurement and operationalizations; it is one reason why the modal measures of cohesiveness have been self-reports, sociometric individual choices, or sociograms showing the geographic proximity of members. A collective concept thus becomes  measured as the sum, average or variance of individual scores. Yet by manipulating group prestige, group identity, or setting arousal, social scientists have paid at least token attention to communal properties.

Producing group cohesiveness in experimental groups can result from:

simply telling members that they will like each other (yes, it can be that easy)

manipulating group prestige

providing an emotionally arousing experience such as electric shock

assigning group tasks that require cooperation (e.g., jigsaw classrooms) or

a group enemy

Because so much research describes experiments on college students, the manipulations of arousal, prestige or threats to the group are often weak or artificial, the research period brief, and group "members" are strangers. Even when existing groups are studied, structural aspects of the organization itself that could affect cohesiveness are neglected.

I think it is long past time to re-emphasize more communal measures of cohesion. In his book Donelson Forsyth mentions several: the length of a group hug, the percent of members who show up for each meeting, or how attractive individuals find the group itself. In the religious congregation study, I examined how long it took for 50 percent of the congregants to leave the premises, whether an informal mentor spontaneously emerged from the congregation, and the number and types of support groups that a congregation created.




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Susan Carol Losh February 1 2009