Basic Sociology - Group Behavior
Social groups have specific characteristics: (a) they consist of two or more people who (b) interact in an ordered fashion, (c) share specific values and norms, and (d) have at least some sense of unity and common goals.
Group conformity / obedience
One of the main influences that groups exercise over their members lies in their capacity to induce conformity – the process through which members modify their behavior to comply with the group’s norms or decisions. Research shows that group pressure does not have to be intense to produce conformity.
One such experiment was conducted by Solomon Asch (1956) to show the power of groups to influence behavior. Asch assembled 6 to 8 students, all accomplices except one, the subject of the experiment. The students were shown a line on card 1 and asked to pick the corresponding line on card 2 (see diagram).
It is obvious that the correct answer is A. At first, Asch’s accomplices answered correctly but in further rounds of the experiment they started answering incorrectly. Asch wanted to see what the subject would do: would he provide the correct answer despite the group’s incorrect consensus or would he go along with the group?
One third of the subjects went along and provided the wrong answer and later admitted they knew it but did not want to be singled out. In other words, they were willing to compromise their judgment for the sake of going along with the group’s (wrong) answer.
Here is a video to illustrate this dynamic further:
However, picking a line on a card is a rather trivial matter. What would people do in more serious situations? Would people engage in actions that are deemed immoral or would cause pain on others just to go along with the group? Those are some of the question that social psychologist Stanley Milgram (1963) tried to answer through his famous obedience experiment.
Milgram got interested in such questions after the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, a former high-ranking Nazi largely tried for his design of, and participation in, the extermination of Jews during World War II. At his trial, Eichmann repeatedly asserted that he was only following orders and therefore was not entirely responsible for the consequences. Milgram’s idea was to design an experiment that would show whether obedience to authority is such a powerful phenomenon that people can engage in mass murder or other behaviors that might go against their conscience.
Milgram designed his experiment with three actors, an “experimenter” (whose role was to oversee the experiment and become the authority figure, dressed with the white coat), a “teacher” (the actual subject of the experiment), and a “learner” (an accomplice of Milgram’s). The selected teachers-subjects were all men between the ages of 20 and 50 with different educational levels. They were paid a modest sum of money to participate, as they were told, in an experiment of the influence of punishment on learning. The experimenter would then tie the learner to what looked like an electric chair while explaining to the teacher that the shocks would be painful to the learner, but no permanent damage would be inflicted. The teacher would then sit at a console of what looked like an electro-shock generator that supposedly delivered shocks from 15 to 450 volts with indication of the strength of the shock (such as mild, severe, or XXX for the highest level).
The experimenter then explained the experiment: the teacher was to read pairs of words to the learner. Then, he would read one word to the learner who would provide the second word of the pair. If the learner answered correctly, the teacher would move on to the next pair; if he answered incorrectly, the teacher would inflict increasingly high electric shocks. No subject questioned the design of the experiment.
As it proceeded and the teachers inflicted the shocks, they would hear moans, poundings on the wall, screams and then silence from the learner. Two thirds of the subjects inflicted shocks up to the highest level of 450 volts (psychologists had estimated that 0.1% of subjects would do so). Although they showed signs of nervousness and agitation, reassurances from the experimenter (standardized statements provided in this exact order: “Please continue,” “The experiment requires you to continue, please go on,” “It is essential that you continue,” “You have no choice, you must continue”) were enough to get them to continue inflicting the shocks.
Milgram’s obedience experiment adds to Zimbardo’s prison experiment in showing how it is rather easy to get people to engage in violent behavior against others who have done nothing to them. As in Zimbardo’s example, one step in the process is to put individuals into roles (in Milgram’s case, teacher, learner, and experimenter). Such titles remove any traces of individual identification: it is the teacher imposing electric shocks on the learner on instructions from the “experimenter,” not John hurting Bill because Ted tells him to.
This separation of the individual from the role helps the teacher detach himself from moral responsibility for the action he engages in. This process also dehumanizes the learner as a part of the experiment and not a suffering fellow human being. In the context of the experiment, it then becomes possible for the subjects, when faced with the reality of their actions, to state, as the ordinary Germans who contributed to the Holocaust did, that they were just following orders.
If it is so easy for ordinary people to inflict pain to others that have done nothing to them, what happens when the victims belong to groups or categories of people one has been trained to hate and despise?
In-groups and Out-groups
One way that groups contribute to shaping members’ identities is through the establishing and maintenance of boundaries. Group boundaries can be marked in different, and more or less formal, ways. Boundaries can be marked visibly: group members can be made to wear uniforms (such as the military, law enforcement, or sports teams) or specific items (such as a membership card or windshield sticker). Such markers contribute to giving the individual a sense of belonging. Another way to accomplish this is to foster a strong sense of togetherness within the group along with strong loyalty to the group’s goals, norms, values and symbols. In sociological terms, groups foster cohesiveness through in-group/out-group distinctions.
Sociologist William Graham Sumner (1959) coined the concept of in-group to indicate a group to which one belongs and toward which one feels a sense of loyalty. An in-group always exists in relation to an out-group: a group to which one does not belong and toward which one feels hostility. An individual tends to have a positive view on members of his in-group whereas he will have a negative view of members of the out-group.
The basic in-group versus out-group dynamic is “us” versus “them.” Targeting an enemy is a very powerful way to unify a group. By focusing members’ attention toward “them” (and “them” can be anyone), group leaders are able to minimize issues internal to the group, such as conflicts and tensions: “we” have to stick together because “they” are a threat. In-group versus out-group distinction also helps limit disagreement within the group as every member is expected to fall in line and display his loyalty to the group.
It is easy to see how such distinction is rooted in ethnocentrism and is the basis for prejudice such as racism, sexism and homophobia as in-group members see themselves as superior to members of the out-group. Of course, Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s in Germany was based on the clear differentiation between “we” (the good, hard-working Germans, economically deprived by the Jews and humiliated by the sanctions imposed after World War I) and “them” (the Jews, the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the Communists and others).
The quasi-automatic consequence of drawing in-group / out-group distinctions is the dehumanization of members of the out-group. Once an entire category of people is seen as less than human, the door is open for its mistreatment without moral qualms. After all, if, as Milgram’s experiment shows, we can torture people who have done nothing to us, we can certainly mistreat people we despise even more easily.
In-group / out-group distinction is visible in our opening example. The phenomenon of hooliganism in European soccer is based on it. Hooligans are extremely rowdy and violent supporters who are so strongly loyal to their teams that they can engage in the most violent acts against supporters of other teams. Great Britain is usually considered the country where hooliganism is the most severe (more than one hundred dead in the 1980s); however, it is not a phenomenon unique to England.
In Serbia (a republic from the former Yugoslavia), the Red Star of Belgrade is the most successful team. It is also well-known for its brutal supporters, known for their violence. As Franklin Foer (2004) tells it, Red Star fans were known to dress in opposing team’s jerseys (a group boundary marker), befriends visiting fans, then lure them into cars, drive them to remote locations and beat them up. Red Star supporters call themselves the Ultra Bad Boys and do make clear in-group / out-group distinctions regarding other teams, such as the other Belgrade team, the Partizan.
As Foer indicated, the Ultra Bad Boys saw themselves as superior moral actors in the world of soccer supporters and they follow specific norms: no firearms, no beating of the enemy after he is knocked out. Foer quotes a Red Star supporter describing the Partizan supporters (the out-group) as violators of this moral code: “Partizan fans once killed a fifteen-year-old Red Star Supporter. He was sitting in the stadium, and they fired flares at his chest. Those monsters killed the boy. They observe no limits” (2004:11).
The Red Star fans were so extreme in their violence that when Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic wanted to create paramilitary groups to conduct ethnic cleansing against other ethnic groups (Croats and Bosnian Muslims), he turned to them. Under the training of a nationalist gangster named Arkan, the Ultra Bad Boys became Arkan’s Tigers and committed atrocities, including slaughtering more than 2,000 people. It was not hard for the Red Star fans to jump from one form of in-group / out-group distinction (Red Star versus any other soccer team) to another (Serbs versus Croats and Bosnians).
Local fanaticism turned into extreme nationalism but the mechanisms were the same: dehumanization, ethnocentrism and extreme loyalty toward one’s in-group accompanied by extreme hatred for the out-group.
Along with Zimbardo’s, Asch’s and Milgram’s experiments, in-group / out-group dynamics help explain how commonly certain categories of people come to be treated inhumanely, subjected to degrading treatment and tortured and how easily such fate is met with indifference. Although there has been controversy in the United States over pictures taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the prison-camp in Guantanamo Bay (Cuba) as well as the “dark sites” (undisclosed locations where the US transfers suspected terrorists without due process), the American public has not risen to vehemently oppose these practices.
This could also be the result of in-group / out-group distinction: the people subjected to these practices are considered an out-group; they are "Arabs", suspected terrorists, and mostly Muslim. In the context of the “War on Terror,” they have been labeled as enemies of civilization and freedom. Whether or not they are guilty of anything, simply being members of the out-group makes it justifiable to deny them humane treatment under international law.
Groupthink is a term coined by sociologist William Whyte (1952) that he defined as “rationalized conformity,” that is, when members go along with the group even if they privately disagree with the group’s consensus. The concept was further developed by Irving Janis (1972) who studied the impact of groupthink on major US foreign policy blunders. Janis defines groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”
Symptoms of Groupthink
- Illusion of invulnerability
- Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group
- Collective rationalization of group's decision
- Shared stereotypes of out-group
- Illusion of unanimity
- Pressure on dissenters to conform
- Self-appointed "mindguards" protect the group and leader from negative information
Effects of Groupthink
- Incomplete survey of alternatives
- Incomplete survey of objectives
- Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
- Failure to re-evaluate rejected alternatives
- Poor information search
- Selectivity in reviewing information
- Failure to work out contingency plans
One of Janis’ well-known examples of groupthink is the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. In 1961, plans were drafted by the Kennedy administration to support an invasion of Cuba led by Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government. The invasion failed miserably and turned out to be a fiasco for Kennedy. Although at the time of the decision, the consensus was strong in favor of the planned invasion, some advisers later publicly acknowledged that they thought it was a misguided operation but kept quiet at the time because they thought the President had made up his mind. Also, the President and his advisers, almost without exception, shared similar social characteristics: they were upper-class, wealthy white men, highly-educated in the nation’s elite schools. Such similarities also created conditions where groupthink could emerge and dissent would be suppressed.
More recently, in 2004, the US Senate Intelligence Committee published a report blaming groupthink for the intelligence failures relating to the presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq prior to the US invasion. Subsequent reports and publications have confirmed that indeed, the administration’s decision on Iraq were guided by groupthink as that the eight symptoms were present.
There was no doubt in the administration that the US military would easily prevail (symptom 1), that the US would therefore remove an evil dictatorship and replace it with a democratic regime that would be a model for the rest of the Middle Eastern region (symptoms 2 and 4). When initial reasons for the invasion (presence of WMDs) were cast in doubt, others were provided (democracy, human rights – symptom 3). Dissenting views from the intelligence community on both the presence of WMDs and the “easy mission” view were promptly squashed (symptoms 5 and 7) so that a deep consensus was progressively formed where only pro-invasion voices were heard (symptom 6) and the President was given only information supporting the consensus (symptom 8) by limiting discussions – if any – at lower levels such as the office of the Vice-President or the Secretary of Defense.
As a result, decisions based on groupthink tend not to yield the expected results (the invasion of the Bay of Pigs failed and the Iraq war turned out not to be a short and easy mission).
Groupthink is also often related to another group process: risky shift. Risky shift takes place when groups make riskier or more extreme decisions than the members individually approve of. In such situations, group members with more moderate views tend to align themselves with members with more radical views, therefore producing a consensus on the most extreme views even if that consensus does not reflect individuals’ opinions. We all remember this:
We know that we develop a sense of self and identity through interactions with other people, through different processes such as the looking-glass, role-playing and anticipatory socialization. Groups have the ability to not only influence behavior but also our sense of self and identity as well as our attitudes.
A reference group is a group we use as standard to evaluate ourselves, our behavior and attitudes. Reference groups can be primary groups, such as family or friends, but they can also be secondary groups to which we do not belong. A reference group is the collective equivalent of a role model (who is always an individual). Whether a reference group is primary or secondary has no impact on the fact that it does exercise an influence on the individual.
For instance, in many countries torn by civil war (such as Sierra Leone in West Africa or Sri Lanka in Asia), the social structure is torn apart such that the main reference group for young boys are the warlords involved in the civil conflicts because they seem to be the only men who demand and get respect through fear and violence and, in a collapsed society, they are the only ones with wealth and prestige. Therefore, learning to use violence and getting close to a warlord appear the only viable social paths to many children who imitate the dressing style and “fashion” adopted by the warlord (wearing shades, smoking, etc.).
Of course, warlords use their status as individual role models and collective reference groups to recruit children into the ranks of their paramilitary groups and militias. In this case, warlords are reference groups rather than role models since boys do not really care which rebel group they join as long as the group puts a weapon in their hands and the group warlord lets them know they have become part of his “family.”
It is joining a group headed by a powerful warlord that is attractive. Which side of the war one joins is irrelevant (child soldiers actually easily change side).
Less tragically, reference groups are constantly used in marketing and advertising. Ads appeal not to our objective needs for new products but rather to our aspirations to belong to certain categories of people (wealthy, successful and happy). Ads then tell us that if we do not actually belong to such reference groups, we can at least get enjoy the same lifestyle and project the image of being a part of the wealthy, successful and happy class.