Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

How Groups Work: A Study of Group Dynamics and its Possible Negative Implications

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

How Groups Work: A Study of Group Dynamics and its Possible Negative Implications

Evolutionary theory suggests that humans evolved into a species that is best equipped for survival when it functions in groups. Groups allow for critical support mechanisms that increase the chance of survival for all group members. For this reason it is only natural that humans today either unconsciously or consciously form or flock towards groups. Groups, however, do not possess these survival benefits without important costs such as inter and intra group competition, inter and intra group conflict, and social shielding from others outside of the group. Through this paper I will discuss the evolution of groups through how groups form, individuals’ roles within a group, inter-group relations and lastly, how groups can change. In doing so this paper will attempt to understand how some groups can sometimes commit great wrongs, while other groups achieve great goals. I will use my experiences with a specific diversity workshop group, Tri-Co Summer Institute, and explain some of its group dynamics to try and improve the program.

The study of group dynamics can shed light on how to increase diversity in a community and how to combat the negative aspects that arise from certain group dynamics of groups with strong similarities and goals. One diversity programs, Tri-Co Summer Institute, consist of creating leaders out of the minorities so that the minorities can educate their communities on issues of diversity. Diversity programs are extremely positive in many respects; however, based on group dynamics, it is possible for a group that is solely based on multi-culturalism and where individuals are immersed into the group creates strong group ties that can create a stronger divide between the in-group and out-group. It is possible that groups created to battle diversity issues might, in turn, depending on its group dynamics, create segregation. For example, the Tri-Co Summer Institute’s mission statement is to “giv[e] first year students of color the introductory knowledge and experience they need in order to excel in the curricular and co-curricular spheres of their home institution” (as cited in Sgobbo & Song, 2003). This mission statement already creates segregation between the students of color and assumes that students of color will not be able to succeed within their communities whereas students of the majority will. These goals of the group impact the group dynamics in either positive or negative ways. It is important for these diversity groups to be aware of the impact that the members will have on one another and the outside community.

For these groups, it is important to break down the group dynamics to further understand the negative things that can arise out of groups that have strong ties with each other and are fighting for an important cause. These groups are extremely important to communities such as Bryn Mawr College, but they would be more effective of achieving their goals if they were aware of how the group dynamics can interact. Looking at their group dynamics, in general, can help the group overcome the pitfalls of groups in general, therefore being able to successfully accomplish their goals.

The study of groups in a psychological manner was first founded by Kurt Lewin (1943), which consisted of explaining the way small groups and individuals act and react to different circumstances; he called this group dynamics. Group dynamics is based on group processes that develop within a group that is not present in a random collection of individuals. The processes develop through the interactions and influences between individuals and the group. A group is a special circumstance that consists of two or more individuals who are connected through common goals and a shared identity. These individuals interact with, and have strong social attractions to, one another; therefore, developing certain processes which, in turn, affect the group and its members. It is important to look at group dynamics of all groups to understand group behaviors. Why are some groups capable of accomplishing positive goals (Habitat For Humanity) and other groups capable of accomplishing negative goals (Nazi’s)? Looking at the different processes that develop within a group, the group dynamics, could help one understand how and why it is possible that, in certain situations, groups can evolve to act and behave immorally.

Groups consist of people interacting with one another and who are socially attracted to each other, most likely because they share common goals and have a shared identity. This shared identity is what distinguishes the group from other groups and contributes to the group dynamics. Individuals join groups for many different reasons. Some reasons might be that the individual feels: the group shares common goals, they need a purpose, there are rewards when being in a group, etc. The individuals role in a group is important to the group dynamics.

Research suggest that an individual can be influenced by many different factors on many different levels. Individuals can be influenced by: a majority, a certain situation, a leader, persuasion, their own behaviors and attitudes, etc. Asch’s (1956) study of conformity suggests that individuals conform to the majority even when there is no social pressure to conform, no rewards for conforming, or no punishments for being the minority. Other research conducted by Milgram (1965) suggests that individuals can be influenced under certain immediate situations that make the individual feel they are emotionally distant, following orders, and/or part of a larger group. Research on leadership suggests that individuals can be influenced by leaders depending on the situation (Bales, 1958). If an individual is in a situation where they do not know what to do, they will look for a leader. In situations where a group is formed to accomplish a task, an individual is more likely to be influence by a task-oriented leader, and situations where a group is formed to increase social relations, an individual is more likely to be influenced by a socially-oriented leader. An individual, no matter the situation, is more likely to be influenced by a leader that possess both task and social leadership (Fiedler, 1971). Research on persuasion suggests that individuals are influenced by the credibility and trustworthiness of an individual (Cook & Flay, 1978 cited in Myers). Lastly, individuals can be influenced by their own attitudes and behaviors (Zimbardo, 1971; Pilner, 1974;Cialdini, 1978 all cited in Myers). Research suggests that individuals’ attitudes can influence their own behavior, and that behavior can also influence one’s attitudes (Waller, 2002; Zimbardo, 1971; Pilner, 1974;Cialdini, 1978 all cited in Myers). This research on what influences individuals plays an important role in group dynamics because it can influence the group cohesion and later inter-group dilemmas.

Whether a group works well together is multi-factorial. It depends on the members, the environment and the group tasks. The group’s cohesion depends on the extent that the individuals in the group want to accomplish the group’s common goals and group identity. The cohesion of a group is an important factor that could help explain the group’s behavior and its inter-group relations. The elements of cohesion are the members attraction to the group, normative influence, informational influence, and outside sources in the world (McCauley, Class notes). A cohesive group consists of having a common identity, a sense of shared purpose and a structured pattern of communication (Carron, 1980). Cohesion can be seen through many different factors such as the similarities of the group members, the satisfaction and support of other group members, and the size and stability of the group. These factors that affect cohesion, are also affected by the way members of the group interact with one another and the environment. Usually the attraction towards the group can consist of the individual having the same group goals and/or wanting social relations and support from people who are similar. The more similar the members (age, sex, race, attitudes) of the group are, the higher the cohesion. Similarity within a group gives the group a common identity in which the members can all relate and the more categories the members of the group have in common, the stronger the common identity. This common identity empowers the group to create group norms that all members of the group are expected to fulfill through their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. If members of the group are not fulfilling their duty to follow the group norms, then this can affect cohesion. (McCauley, Class notes & Handouts)

The extent at which members of a group feel pleased with each others contribution to the group, impacts cohesion. The group members compare each others’ contributions, goals, behaviors, etc. to the group norms to make sure everyone is behaving, performing and conforming to the group norms. If the group members are satisfied with each others’ abilities to follow the group norms, the cohesion of the group is high. A group consisting of members who conform to the group norms on every aspect increases the satisfaction of the group members on each other, therefore increasing cohesion. This is important because group members who do not follow the group norms could negatively impact the groups satisfaction-based cohesion. Group cohesion is also associated with the size, support and stability of the group.

A small group that has distinct leaders that have been around for a long time, can increase the cohesion of the group through members feeling stable and satisfied. The small group creates a closer bond between members because they are able to interact with every person within the group, even the leaders, which makes the members feel like they belong. The personal interactions with the leaders and the members of a small group with common goals, increases the cohesion of the group by making the members feel like they have positive support and a purpose within the group. Over time, if the members of the group remain the same, cohesion will also increase. A group that contains the majority of the original members have a strong bond and feeling of stability which is increases over time. The history of a group being together for a long time gives its members, old or new, a feeling of stability and security. Group members that have been in a group for a long time are considered leaders and are highly regarded because of their “knowledge” and past experience in the group. This creates a hierarchy of roles; seniority is at the top, that members of the group fulfill. This hierarchy creates a structured pattern of communication within the group that makes the members feel stable, therefore increasing cohesion. The feeling of stability comes from the group members treating the “older and wiser” leaders of the group as a “divine power” and feeling that the group will never disband because it has been around for so long and it has the wisdom of the “divine power”. Based on the cohesion of a group, groups can intensify decisions made within the group, cause deindividuation and shape an individuals attitudes and behaviors (Myers, 225, 345, 205-210, and 89-100).

Depending on the group, some factors might be more important than other factors. For example, if a group is task oriented, then all that matters is accomplishing the task, whereas if a group is socially oriented, then all that matters is how everyone gets along with one another. However, most groups incorporate both these aspects into their groups. One would think that having a highly cohesive group would help the group accomplish their goals and make good decisions, however, previous research suggests that groups can intensify decisions by groupthink (Janis, 1972)and by group discussion creating group polarization (Myers, 225 & 345).

Group discussions usually strengthen the group members’ opinions creating group polarization. Group polarization is where the members of the group, after a group discussion, are more likely to have a stronger opinion towards their initial inclinations (Myers, 225). Group polarization is often explained using two theories, informational and normative influences (Myers, 219). Informational influences affect factual judgments because they are based on accepting evidence about reality from others. Normative influences affect value judgments and are based on an individual conforming to the group expectations because they want fit in. Another error made by groups in decision making is groupthink.

If high cohesion of a group is caused by the congeniality of the group, it can negatively impact the groups decision making and cause groupthink (McCauley, 1998). Groupthink occurs under three conditions: 1) Directive Leadership, 2) Homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology, and 3) Isolation of the group from outside sources (McCauley, 1998). Research suggests that in a group, if the high cohesion is based on how much the members like the group and get along with everyone, then the group members are less likely to speak up against the group norms and the group is more likely to make poor decisions (McCauley, 1998). This is the case because when individuals in a group are more concerned with their social relations than their tasks, they are less likely to cause conflict within a group because they want to keep the congeniality. These positive relations will diminish if a member of the group disagrees with the group’s goals, decision, attitudes or behaviors. These ideas that are instilled in a group are directly related to an individual or group of individuals. In groups, when one criticizes an idea, one criticizes an individual or group of individuals. Members of a group might not want to ruin positive relations within the group because it was their attraction towards the group; therefore, members of the group do not question the group even if they do not believe in what the group is doing. Groupthink occurs more often in groups with high cohesion based on the social relationships of the group, than groups with high cohesion based on the importance of the goal and the status of the group (McCauley, 1998). The latter is less likely to make poor decisions because individuals are not concerned with upsetting the in-group relationships. A group that is only concerned with accomplishing their goals and the status of their group, care about the decisions being made in the group. The members contribute their ideas and cause conflict for the better of the group.

Another negative aspect that arises from groups is deindividuation. Deindividuation occurs in certain situations where people abandon their normal restraints, loose there sense of individual identity and become responsive to group norms (Myers, 205-210; Festinger, Pepitone, & Newcomb, 1952). This usually happens when individuals are in a larger group where there is physical anonymity. Being in a larger group, where an individual feels anonymous, causes an individual to do things that they are less likely to do when alone and identified. The ability to be anonymous in a group increases deindiviuation. Deindividuated people are less restrained, less self-regulated, more responsive to the situation and more likely to act without thinking about their own values (Myers, 209; Festinger, Pepitone, & Newcomb, 1952). These deindividuated individuals completely diminished their self-awareness and do things with other group members that they would never do alone. This aspect of groups negatively influencing its members can cause many immoral acts. One other negative aspect of groups is its ability to shape its members’ views and behaviors.

Much of the research on groups and how they have the power to shape members’ views and behaviors have focused on cult indoctrinations and thought reform techniques (Edwards, 1979; Lifton, 1963). Cult recruitment and thought reform have similar mechanisms behind them. Obviously, not all persuasion is bad, however, in groups with strong common identities fighting for a common goal, the persuasion of the group norms on an individual could be negative. Research uses individual and group mechanisms of persuasion to explain how individuals are persuaded by their groups, at times helping to increase the cohesion of the group. Some individual mechanism of persuasion consist of reward by contrast, consistency pressure, and reciprocity with group members and leaders (McCauley, Handout 10). In a group, individuals are persuaded towards the group’s point of view through giving the members rewards. These rewards most likely consist of something the group can offer that the individual did not have before and that other groups cannot offer. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that when an individual has two cognitions that are inconsistent, they have to relieve that inconsistency by rationalizing and changing their opinions(Festinger, 1957). Members of the group might be conflicted with the inconsistency of their attitudes and behaviors; therefore, they comply with the group and then internalize their beliefs and attitudes. Lastly, reciprocity with group members and leaders influences an individual. A member of the group would be more likely to changes his point of view to the groups point of view if the member received a reward from the leaders or other group members. These individual mechanisms interact with group mechanism to shape individuals’ views and behaviors in positive or negative ways.

Some group mechanisms of persuasion consist of group modeling, unanimous majority pressure, and group shift (McCauley, Handout 10). The group models the behavior and attitudes that it wants its members to fulfill. This modeling combined with the majority pressure (Asch, 1956; Deutch & Gerard, 1955) strongly influences and individual to change their attitudes and behavior. Lastly, a group shift (group polarization) is used to increase internalization in the individual. Having a group discussion about the groups viewpoint, increases the individuals internalization through social comparison (Festinger, 1954). The individual compares themselves to the other members of the group and their view points. These mechanisms of persuasion on the group and individual level, are important to group dynamics because if a group has strong cohesion based on these mechanism of persuasion, a group could eventually display negative behaviors, attitudes and goals.

These group dynamics can cause difficulties with inter-group relationships. For instance, some research suggest that if a group has high cohesion based on a strong common identity for the in-group, there can most likely become a strong hatred for the out-group(Naimark, 2001; Bauman, 1989; Kressel, 1996). This hatred develops over time and is influenced by many factors from within the group to factors from outside the group. This hatred can also be facilitated by a self-fulfilling prophecy where the group feels like the out-groups are out to get them. Many organizations use certain tactics of group dynamics to empower their group. Pape (2005) discussed the group dynamics of terrorists, however I would like to apply it to groups in general. Unlike other research, Pape states that an in-group’s love does not depend on the affect towards the out-group, it depends on the in-group competition value, the in-group mobilization and the in-group inspiration. Pape’s three characteristics that increase in-group love and cohesion are 1)Outbidding, 2) Mobilizing by Sacrifice and 3) Jujitsu Politics.

Pape suggests that the leaders of groups care about political power because it is what affects the in-group love. Outbidding has to do with the status of the group and its extremity. A group leader commits an act that could be committed by numerous different groups and the groups try to compete to represent the cause. The only way outbidding would increase in-group love is if there was broad base support, the majority of the members of the group supporting the act or cause. This increases sacrifice for the group, and increases political power for the group, however a group cannot get ahead by outbidding, it only gives the group a competitive advantage.

Mobilizing by sacrifice is an example of an in-group value. Sacrifice and martyrdom of group members increase the political power of the group, increase mobilization within the group and increases guilt. This mobilizing by sacrifice does not require killing other people, it only requires that a group member sacrifices themselves for the greater cause of the group. This sacrifice moves individuals within the group to more extreme sides and actions (group polarization). The members of the group feel guilty and feel the need to live up to their other members sacrifices and this is facilitated by the social comparison theory. Members of the group compare themselves to other members of the group and feel that it is their duty to be as self-sacrificing as the other members in the group. Lastly, groups are able to create strength through jujitsu politics.

Jujitsu politics consists of taking advantage of the out-groups strengths and using it against the out-group to increase the in-group cohesion. The in-group leaders profit from a big in-group response from the out-group. The in-group members want revenge, there is an increased identification with the in-group, and an increase in mobilization because the out-group put up walls against the in-group based on stereotypes. These politics work especially well for the in-group if the difference between the groups is an ethnic difference. The in-group leaders use the out-groups strengths against themselves, causing the in-group to gain more political power, to have in-group mobilization, and group polarization.

This research suggests that individuals are easily persuaded and influenced, but even more persuaded and influenced when they are in groups. This could be a positive aspect of groups, however, the research suggests that based on a group’s dynamics, these tactics of persuasion can be negative causing a greater divide between the group on the outside communities. As for diversity workshop groups, the group dynamics are very strong because of high cohesion. These groups have high cohesion in relationship, high cohesion in similarities, high cohesion in common task and high cohesion in the status of the group. Based on research this suggests that the group members are more likely to “go along to get along”, influence each others’ behaviors and attitudes, and at times create deindividuation, group polarization and groupthink. It is important for diversity groups to be aware of these pitfalls of group dynamics of a high cohesion group. These group dynamics also affect how the group interacts with other groups.

For example, the Tri-Co institute group has high cohesion at every level and the mission statement above seems to suggest that this group could be prone to negative inter-group relations. This is the case because the group is extremely exclusive, primarily based on ethnicity, and its leaders are projecting to these minority students that they need extra help to fit-in to their communities, implying that the communities are not considerate of minority students. This sort of created group dynamics is a recipe for the group members to increase their in-group love based on their “self-fulfilling prophecy” that the out-group is against them, eventually creating out-group hate. Therefore, it is a vicious cycle and could create a stronger divide between the majority and minorities within the community. Looking at the group dynamics of a group can help groups overcome these group dynamics that suggest groups easily influence its members and that instill negativity towards out-groups.

There are many other explanations and factors that play a role in group dynamic. It is important to understand that any group today, in certain situations, could be influenced by negative group dynamics causing negative outcomes. The Tri-Co summer institute group which consists of student who are minorities, could potentially create group dynamics that are not conducive to their overall goal, which is to increase diversity by encouraging and increasing interactions across all groups. This could occur for many different reasons listed and not listed above, but most importantly, groups should be aware of the negative impacts a group can have on a member within the group and individuals in the out-group. I have presented many examples of how group dynamics can influence groups to become more segregated from other groups. There are some possible ways for a community such as, a college campus, can decrease the negative aspects of group dynamics that causes segregation. I will suggest some changes that might affect the relationship cohesion of the group, therefore making it less possible for the group to segregate.

The first task to improving the Tri-Co Institute would be to change its mission statement. Maybe saying that the summer institute is aimed at all incoming freshman students to increase diversity by educating, encouraging and increasing interaction across group boundaries defined by race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, etc. The next most important aspect of group dynamics that should be improved within this group is the high cohesion of relationships with members who have many common similarities. The cohesion of relationships is a hard task to reduce because members of the group do have there own time and choose who they spend time with, however, I suggest including all the members of the freshman class and constantly mixing up the groups and making them as diverse as possible. This should reduce any of the relational cohesion to people that are extremely similar to you. If the groups are continually mixed up, and diverse in all respects, then the students will be exposed to many different ideas and opinions, hopefully not allowing the group to have polarization or groupthink.

Lastly, I would suggest instilling checks and balances for the goals of the group. If the goal is to increase diversity at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore colleges, then one way to make sure this group is making progress on their goals and not creating a stronger divide between the majority and minority, would be to measure the inter-group contact using the Exposure Index (McCauley, Plummer, Moskalenko, 2001). The exposure index is a direct measure of inter-group behavior and can be used to measure the impact of Tri-Co summer institute on inter-group relations over time. It is important to educate groups and make them aware of the negative repercussions of being in a group, such as group polarizations, groupthink, deindividuation, the negative affects of persuasion, etc. Just being aware of how groups can form exclusive dynamics is a first step towards creating an ideal group that is morally successful.



Asch, S. E. Studies of independence and conformity: A minority of one against a unanimous majority, Psychol. Monogr., 1956, 70, No. 9.


Bales, R. F. Task roles and social roles in problem-solving groups. In E. E. Maccoby, T. M. Newcomb, & E. L. Hartley (Eds.), Readings in Social Psychology, 3rd ed., 1958.


Bauman, Z. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cornell University Press, 1989.

Carron, A. V. (1980). Social Psychology of Sport. Ithaca, NY: Movement.

Deutsch, M. & Gerard, H. A study of normative and informational social influence upon individual judgment. JASP, 1955, 51, 629-636.


Edwards, C. Crazy for God. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

Festinger, L. Informal social communication. Psychological Review, 1950, 57, 271-282.


Festinger, Pepitone, & Newcomb. Some consequences of deindividuation in a group. JPSP, 1952, 47, 382-398.


Festinger, L. A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 1954, 7, 114-140.


Fiedler, F. E. (1970). Leadership experience and leader performance-- another hypothesis shot

to hell. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 5, 1-14.


Fiedler, F. E. (1971). Validation and extension of the contingency model of leadership

effectiveness: a review of empirical findings. Psychological Bulletin, 76, 128-148.


Janis, I. L. Victims of Groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.


Kressel, N. Mass Hate: The Global Rise of Genocide and Terror. Plenum Press, 1996.

Lewin, K. "sweetbread study". Bulletin of the National Research Council, 1943.

Lifton, R. J. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. New York: Norton, 1963.

McCauley, C. (1989). The nature of social influence on Groupthink: compliance and internalization. JPSP, 57, 250-260.


McCauley, C. (1998). Group dynamics in Janis’s theory of groupthink: backward and forward.


McCauley, C., Plummer, M, Moskalenko, S. (2001). The exposure index: A measure of intergroup conflict. Journal of Peace Psychology, 7(4), 321-336.

Myers, D.G. Exploring Social Psychology. Fourth edition. New York: The McGraw-Hill

Companies, 2007.

Naimark, N. Fires of Hatred: Ethnic cleansing in twentieth-century Europe.

Harvard University Press, 2001.

Pape, R. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Random house, 2005.

Sgobbo, R, & Song, R. (2003) TriCo Institute Raises Questions, Concerns. The Bi-College

News. Accessed May 10, 2007 from

Zimbardo, P. G. The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus

deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. In Nebraska Symposium on Motivation,



Idris Yusuf's picture

It does not matter, knowledge passed!

Spelling, grammatical and structure error does not reduce the substance of he paper. The cardinal objective is that knowledge has been passed! Thanks a lot

jena's picture

lots of thanks and a question

my dear friend/s. I simply want to know if there is a differance between the behavior of a man and a woman in conformity to the disscussions and decision makings of the group and if possible the best valid and recent sources concerning this subject. many thanks again

Abass Mohammed Alhaji's picture

Citation of the Paper

May I have the permission to Cite and Reference your paper in my dissertation for the partial award of Bsc degree. Abass Mohammed Alhaji

Abass Mohammed Alhaji's picture

Studies on Group Dynamics and Public Relations

The submission by Sarah has contributed immensely to the understanding of Group development and Its dynamics. I wish the topic can be linked to Public Relations study as a lecture material. Thank you Abass Mohammed Alhaji University of Cape Coast, Ghana

Wilmington Student's picture

A failing paper

This paper is so full of grammatical, syntax, spelling, and sentence structure errors that any professor would fail it. It would be a decent rough first draft.

Serendip Visitor's picture

I completely agree. I was

I completely agree. I was given this article to read and annotate for my English class as a sophomore in high school and the amount of mistakes is surprising to me.

Anonymous's picture

Great paper!

Great paper!

Serendip Visitor's picture