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Groupthink and the Tragedy of Heaven’s Gate

June 26, 2013 1 comment

heavensgateHeaven’s Gate was an alternative religious group based in California in the 1990s.  Members lived together in a tightly organized community, and the group supported itself by building websites for businesses.  But in March of 1997 most of the members (21 women and 18 men) committed suicide on three successive days. The majority of the members who took part in this collective act were in their 40s, but the youngest was 26 and the oldest 72.  Several months later, two other members took their own lives as well. Analysis of the group’s records, including their website, suggested that they firmly believed that, by ending their lives, they would leave their physical bodies to travel to a nearby space craft.

Other people influence our thoughts, our emotions, and our behaviors. This assumption, axiomatic in social psychology and group dynamics, is inarguable. But does it explain why 41 people would make so permanent a decision of committing suicide?

A group-level analysis of the Heaven’s Gate incident requires (at least) three parts. First, why was the public, in general, so intrigued by the incident, and why did most people misunderstand it? Second, what group level processes operate in such groups? Are these processes so powerful that they could induce a sane person into taking what appears to be an insane action? Third, why would a group of people make such a horrific decision, with such drastic consequences?

Why Are People Fascinated by “Cults”?

The Heaven’s Gate group was a major news story for many months in 1997. Newspapers around the world showed the special morgue truck needed to carry the multiple suicides. The groups’ web page was flooded with Internet hits. The media flocked to the site. Other news–wars, weather, and the basketball playoffs–took a backseat to suicide.

Why are people intrigued by groups that commit mass suicide? The intrigue stems, in part, from their unusualness. But the intrigue also derives from misunderstanding.

First, we explain away the suicide of an individual by blaming illness, pain, and depression, but these explanations don’t work very well when a group takes its life. We can understand (although perhaps not condone the actions of) people who, suffering incredible pain with a fatal disease, ending their lives. We can also understand that people suffering from psychological problems– such as deep, unrelenting depression–may become so confused, so negative, so distressed over who they are that they escape their own existence. But the Heaven’s Gate group wasn’t fatally ill. The members weren’t depressed and confused. So the assumptions that we usually rely on to explain away a suicide don’t help us explain their actions. If they weren’t suffering, if they weren’t depressed, then why would they commit suicide? We are puzzled.

Second, we think of suicide as the most irrational of behavior. Except in cases of extreme pain when the person is terminally ill, we assume that the person is dazed, confused, not thinking clearly- -and, indeed, people who commit suicide often are dazed, confused, and not thinking clearly. But a group, by its very nature, cannot be as irrational as an individual. Thirty nine people had to discuss how they would die. They had make plans: How would they do it? Who would be in charge of removing the plastic bags and shrouding the bodies? Who would go first, who would go last? How could a group discuss such things? The very idea of group suicide is paradoxical, because we assume that suicide is irrational, and that groups are rational. We understand when groups make bad decisions or work ineffectively, but to commit suicide? Unlikely. We realize that individuals commit suicide regularly–so frequently that only a movie or rockstar’s self-immolation is newsworthy. But a suicidal group is a rarity.

Third, because suicide is such horrible outcome–the ending of a life and any opportunity for further development–we intuitively seek a dramatic explanation. Indeed, in 1978 a representative sample of Americans were asked “Why do you think people become involved in cults?” (Gallup, 1978, p. 275). Most people blamed the personality characteristics and flaws of the cult members. They were seeking a “father figure;” they were “unhappy” or “gullible” or “searching for a deeper meaning to life;” they were “mentally disturbed,” “escapists,” or addicted to drugs.” And now people are aruging that its the Internet that did it: The WEB is to blame for the spread of bizarre ideas about UFOs and Christianity.

These explanations are all simplistic ones– they demean the group members, blaming their personalities or their weaknesses since their actions make no sense to us. When we read about the individuals in Heaven’s Gate we assume they are weak, gullible people who are easily influenced by others. When we read that 39 people committed suicide, we immediately assume that some leader brainwashed them. That they were tortured, forced to watch indoctrination videos, injected with mind-altering drugs, or deprived of sleep for days. Yet they weren’t.

These three factors explain the macabre fascination for the Heaven’s Gate group. First, we can’t explain their behavior with our usual stockpile of beliefs about suicide: they weren’t suffering, they weren’t crazy. Second, group suicide is always a paradox, because we believe that groups are more rational than individuals, and suicide is irrational. Third, we follow the unfolding story searching for clues that some dramatic, bizarre forces–a charismatic leader, drugs, the WEB–caused the behavior. Only by finding a powerful–and incorrect–explanation can we feel comfortable.

Why Do People Let Groups Influence Them?

Picture in your mind a member of Heaven’s Gate. Who do you see? A brainwashed devotee mumbling her prayers mindlessly. A weak- kneed follower who blindly follows Elder Jonathan’s orders? A truthseeker who is so desperate to understand the meaning of life that she will accept an odd version replete with allusions to spaceships and UFOs?

These images of people who take part in nontraditional religious and social groups are unfair exaggerations. Although the word cult summons up thoughts of brainwashed automatons so intimidated by a charismatic leader that they can’t stand up for their rights, this stereotype is naive and incomplete. Everyone’s actions are controlled, in part, by social factors, and the actions of members of so-called cults require no reference to the “magical powers” of a leader or the “twisted” personalities of the followers.

What are these group-level processes? Informational influence occurs when other people provide us with information that we then use to make decisions and form opinions. If we spend years and years in the company of people who explain things in terms of UFOs and out-of-the-body experiences, we will in time begin to explain things in that way as well. Normative influence occurs when we tailor our actions to fit the social norms of the situation. We take such norms as “Do not tell lies” and “Help other people when they are in need” for granted, but some societies and some groups have different norms which are equally powerful and taken-for-granted. Normative influence accounts for the transmission of religious, economic, moral, political, and interpersonal beliefs across generations. Interpersonal influence is used in those rare instances when someone violates the group’s norms. The individual who publicly violates a group’s norm will likely meet with reproach or even be ostracized from the group.

These three factors–informational, normative, and interpersonal influence–explain nearly all social behaviors, including those exhibited by people in atypical religious groups. First, informational influence: Studies of cult members find that they typically rely on the group for answers to personally important questions. One member of a religious group describes his first meeting with a cult as: It was strange, but the intensity of the two days left me much clearer about why I had been so uncertain, and where I might head for the future; it was as if a haze had been lifted. I began to understand things that had made no sense before, why most people rushed around for no reason, without any lasting sense of purpose. I had a sense that I could look for direction to my friends in the One-World Crusade. (quoted in M. Gallanter, 1989, p. 61, Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion, Oxford University Press).

Second, normative influence: Members feel obligated to conform to group norms that encouraged friendliness, cooperation, and total acceptance of the principles of the group. Self- reports of conversions are very similar in that people begin as skeptics, recognizing that the ideas are possibly bizarre and “kooky.” But over time they accept them as the their own. One writes: I “went along in all the activities because they were sincere people doing things for a good cause, even though sometimes it seemed silly.” Eventually, though, he internalized the group’s norms.

Third, interpersonal influence: Cult members won’t take no for an answers. Such groups are often isolated, intensely cohesive, and led by an individual who brooks no disagreement. Nearly everyone recognizes that there is danger in “falling in” with the members of cult, for even though we believe that we are individualists who make up our own minds, we intuitively realize that such a group could change us from who were are now into one of “them.” Studies of radical religious groups describe very similar dynamics across all the groups: intense cohesiveness, public statements of principles, pressure placed on anyone who dissents, ostracism from the group for disagreement, strong rewards for agreement with the group’s ideals.

I am the first to admit that an explanation that stresses normal, everyday sorts of determinants of behavior seems inadequate to explain such abnormal, unusual behavior as mass suicide. Yet the law of parsimony requires nothing more if this basic account is sufficient. Informational, normative, and interpersonal influence processes guide us constantly. In ambiguous situations, other people’s actions provide us with the social proof we need to make our own choices. If it’s OK for them, we assume it must be OK for us. And should we fail to match the expectations of those around us, they will be pleased to guide us back to the right path. We may feel the need to dehumanize the group for its actions by calling them crazy or hypothesizing weird social forces that constrained them, but in the end their actions stem from the same processes that guide the behavior of the accountant crunching numbers for a client, the gang member facing down a rival, the soldier readying for another patrol, or the frat boy drinking to heavily at keg party.

Why Did the Heaven’s Group Make Such an Extreme Choice?

We don’t really understand any group, yet alone the actions of a group that commits suicide. But if we assume that Heaven’s Gate was a group like any other, then we can speculate about the factors that may have led it to make such a dreadful decision.

When people must make important decisions, they turn to groups. Groups can draw on more resources than a lone individual. Groups can also generate more ideas and possible solutions by discussing the problem. Groups can also pressure individual members to accept the solution, even if they have doubts. People generally feel that a group’s decision will be superior to an individual’s decisions.

Groups, however, don’t always make good decisions. Juries sometimes render verdicts that run counter to the evidence presented. Community groups take radical stances on issues before thinking through all the ramifications. Military strategists concoct plans that seem, in retrospect, ill-conceived and short- sighted.

Groups can stumble, but groups that make disastrous decisions require special explanation. One such explanation is groupthink: a distorted style of thinking that renders group members incapable of making a rational decision (Forsyth, 1995, Our Social World, Brooks/Cole). Groupthink, which was coined by Irving Janis in his classic book Victims of Groupthink, is considered a disease that infects healthy groups, rendering them inefficient, unproductive, and irrational.

Did Heaven’s Gate suffer from groupthink? Janis has identified a number of causes of groupthink, and many were likely operating in the Heaven’s Gate group.

Cohesiveness. Groupthink only occurs in cohesive groups. Such groups have many advantages over groups that lack unity. People enjoy their membership much more in cohesive groups, they less likely to abandon the group, and they work harder in pursuit of the group’s goals. But extreme cohesiveness can be dangerous. When cohesiveness intensifies, members become more likely to accept the goals, decisions, and norms of the group without reservation. Conformity pressures also rise as members become reluctant to say or do anything that goes against the grain of the group, and the number of internal disagreements–so necessary for good decision making–decreases.

Isolation. Groupthink groups work in secret. They isolate themselves from outsiders, and refuse to modify their beliefs to bring them into line with society’s beliefs. They avoid leaks by maintaining strict confidentiality and working only with people who are members of their group.

Biased leadership. A biased leader who exerts too much authority over the group members can increase conformity pressures and railroad decisions. In groupthink groups the leader determines the agenda for each meeting, sets limits on discussion, and can even decide who will be heard.

Decisional stress. Groupthink becomes more likely when the group is stressed, particularly by time pressures. The Heaven’s Gate group experienced such stress, as the arrival of the comment Hale-Bopp and the Christian holy days forced them to come to a decision regarding their assumed transportation. When groups are stressed they minimize their discomfort by quickly choosing a plan of action, with little argument or dissension. Then, through collective discussion, the group members can rationalize their choice by exaggerating the positive consequences, minimizing the possibility of negative outcomes, concentrating on minor details, and overlooking larger issues.

The group, then, was ripe for groupthink. Moreover, as details are reported by the media, we can continue to ascertain if the group displayed one or more of the following symptoms of groupthink:

Overestimation of the group. Groups that have fallen into the trap of groupthink are actually planning fiascoes and making all the wrong choices. Yet the members usually assume that everything is working perfectly. They are happy and confident.

Biased perceptions. During groupthink members respond to people who oppose their plan with suspicion. They often adopt ideas that are completely inconsistent with reality, and yet they rationalize their beliefs.

Conformity pressures. In groupthink situations, pressures to conform become overwhelming. Each individual member of the group experiences a personal reluctance to disagree. Through self-censorship, pressuring dissenters, and mindguarding, the group develops an atmosphere of unanimity. Every person may privately disagree with what is occurring in the group, yet publicly everyone expresses total agreement with the group’s policies. The fact that the Heaven’s Gate members dressed similarly and looked so identical that the first officers on the scene assumed that all of the members were men speaks to the magnitude of the pressures to seek uniformity.

Defective decision-making strategies. Groups usually make decisions by sharing information, weighing alternatives, discussing costs and benefits, and seeking new information. When a group experiences groupthink, it locks into a plan of action and does not waiver from it. It experiences tunnel vision, and no longer uses effective decision- making strategies. I have not seen any information about the decisional processes used by the group.

The bottom line of this analysis is that Heaven’s Gate was a tragedy. The members people took their own lives, leaving behind family and friends. Yet, we should not rush to demean the group with simplistic explanations that call them “crazy.” Studies of groupthink have traced such decisions as the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the mission to rescue the hostages held in Tehran, the launching of the space shuttle Challenger, and the defense of Pearl Harbor back too much cohesion, isolation, biased leaders, and too much stress. Rather than dismiss the Heaven’s Gate group as insane, try to consider them to be a group that made a bad decision.

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The Costs of Hazing

February 23, 2013 Leave a comment
Reposted from SPSC

The list grows ever longer: Names like Harry Lew, Chucky Stenzel, Chad Saucier, Gabe Higgins, Donna Bedinger, J. B. Joynt…and now Robert Champion. Its the list of people killed by hazing. Champion died of “blunt force trauma” that occurred during the FAMU marching band’s “Crossing Bus C” ritual, when his classmates punched and slapped him as he walked down the aisle of the band bus. He suffered so many injuries, inflicted by so many hands, that prosecutors charged 11 members of the band with felony hazing.

Hazing should never happen, but it does. Hank Nuwer’s Wrongs of Passage documents in excruciating detail the way fraternity pledges at some universities are ritually beaten, ridiculed, harassed, and coerced into abusing alcohol and drugs. New members of sports teams are subjected to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. The recent suicide of Marine Lance Corporal Harry Lew has been linked to hazing. Marching bands, clubs, schools, businesses, even churches: they psychologically and physically harm their newest members.

Hazing is an entrenched group practice, and has been documented in ancient and modern societies and in all parts of the world. It’s a remnant of the modern-day group’s origins in the primal horde, designed to humble newcomers, remind them of their lowly status, and teach them to respect the group’s chain of command and traditions. Hazing legitimizes the abuse of power by group leaders, who claim the practice will unify the group, weed out the weak and uncommitted, and give newcomers a chance to prove their worth (Cimino, 2011).

But hazing is the wrong way to achieve any of these outcomes. Research in social psychology, including the classic study conducted by Eliott Aronson and Jud Mills in the 1950s, suggests that individuals rate positively groups which cause them to suffer, but other research indicates people like groups that support and reward them even more (Lodewijkx, van Zomeren, & Syroit, 2005). When Raalte, Cornelius, Linder, and Brewer (2007) examined the effects of two type of initiations—ones that involved group outings, swearing an oath, performing in skits, and doing community service and ones that involved kidnapping and abandonment, verbal abuse, physical punishment (spankings, whippings, and beatings), degradation and humiliation, sleep deprivation, alcohol abuse, running errands, and exclusion—they discovered the positive forms increased group unity. The negative forms backfired, creating tension and disunity in the group.

Robert Champion, Courtesy of the Champion familyYet hazing marches on, in part because it so psychologically compelling. Most who haze know that intentionally harming others is wrong. But hazing is sanctioned by the traditions of the group, so it is transformed into a sacred duty. If hazing was called by its correct names—torture and bullying—people might be more reluctant to carry on the grand tradition. Those who are hazed are part of the paradox as well, for they seem to be willing victims who embrace their own abuse. But even the participants in Stanley Milgram’s (1963) famous study of obedience misunderstood the cause of their own actions—they did not realize the power of a situation that so few of them could resist. Like Milgram’s subjects, victims of hazing are enmeshed in a group that severely limits their capacity to act of their own free will. A New York Times article discussing the tragic hazing of Robert Champion quoted a former band member as saying “much of the hazing is voluntary.” It is voluntary in the sense that Milgram’s subjects freely agreed to shock another person to death.

Lone individuals are capable of doing great harm to others. People like Timothy McVeigh, Seung Huo Cho, Ted Bundy, James Earl Ray, Ted Kaczynski, David Berkowitz (the “son of Sam”) are the source of much of the world’s evil. But if you discover harm that is truly senseless, inhumane, and massive in scale, you will likely find a group is to blame. Hazing is a violent, aggressive action; a morally repugnant form of torture and extreme bullying. Hazing is unlawful in many jurisdictions; people who have been hazed are victims of a crime. Hazing is dangerous and often lethal; each year young people are killed or seriously injured in hazing incidents. And hazing does not even yield the effects that it was introduced to generate. When groups identify shared goals, find ways to improve their performance, and identify sources of conflict, they become more cohesive. When they victimize their newest members, they irreparably undermine the group’s unity. Hazing is one form of group behavior that we no longer need.

References

Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effects of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177-181.

Cimino, A. (2011). The evolution of hazing: Motivational mechanisms and the abuse of newcomers. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 11, 241-267.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

Nuwer, H. (1999). Wrongs of passage: Fraternities, sororities, hazing, and binge drinking. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Lodewijkx, H. F. M., & Syroit, J. E. M. M. (1997). Severity of initiation revisited: Does severity of initiation increase attractiveness in real groups? European Journal of Social Psychology, 27, 275-300.

Van Raalte, J. L., Cornelius, A. E., Linder, D. E., & Brewer, B. W. (2007). The relationship between hazing and team cohesion. Journal of Sport Behavior, 30, 491-507.

Group Development

Nearly every theorist who has wondered about some aspect of groups and their dynamics has also speculated about regularities in the way groups change time. Indeed, the issue of groups changing over time is so central to the study of groups that Cartwright and Zander (1968, p. 7) defined group dynamics to be the scientific study of groups and “the laws of their de­velopment.”

For example, Parsons, Bales, and Shils (1953) hypothesized that all social organizations must adapt to their environment (Adaptation), develop and enact methods for attaining their group’s goals (Goal Attainment), structure and regularize intermember relations (Integration), and satisfy each members need to feel connected to and not rejected by the group (Latent Pattern Maintenance). Bales (1970), in extending this model to groups, suggested most groups deal with these functions sequentially, moving from Adaptation to Goals Attainment to Integration and then to Latent Pattern Maintenance.  Hare (2009) later suggested LAIG as the order, identified subphases and shifts from a task focus to a relationship (socioemotional) focus. Schutz (1958) suggested groups meet individual members’ needs to give and to receive inclusion (I), control (C), and affection (A), but that from the outset groups repeatedly cycle through intervals where interaction focuses on I, C, and A, in turn, until the group reaches its conclusion, where the sequence shifts to A, then C, and lastly I.  Other theoriests, such as Arrow (1997), Bennis and Shepard (1956), Braaten (1975), Brabender and Fallon (2009) Burnand(1990), Heinen and Jacobson (1976), Hill and Gruner (1973), Karterud (1989), Kuypers, Davies, and Glaser (1986), Lacoursiere (1980), Mabry (1975), MacKenzie (1994), Maples (1988), Sarri and Galinsky (1974), Stock and Thelen (1958) Tuckman (1965; see, too, Tuckman & Jensen (1977), and Wheelan (1994), offer theoretical models of group development that describe regularities that often emerge across groups in a variety of contexts.

Model of Group Development

A. Paul Hare's L-A-I-G model of group development, with subphases.

Most of the theories that consider the changes that occur in groups over time use the word development to describe this change, but only rarely consider the implicit connotations that this term carries.  New groups—ones that have just formed—are different from experienced groups. The committee meeting for the first time will act in ways that are very different from its interaction patterns of its 10th meeting, the team playing its first game of the season will not perform in the same way it will on its last game, and partygoers at 2AM act very differently than they did at the party’s start at 8PM.  But have these groups developed or merely changed. Development implies maturation, or the progressive and predictable emergence of a set of typical qualities in living organisms over time. Biologically, development (or epigenesis) is the result of the interaction of both nature and nurture: the organism’s genotype determines, to a large extent, how it will change as it moves through its life course, but the actual qualities it exhibits—its phenotype—is the result of the interaction of the genotype and the organism’s environment. Group development, as a form of social and psychological development, assumes that a group becomes more “mature” over time, suggesting that it will become better organized, or more effective, or more able to meet members’ needs. Yet, just as a child is considered to be “healthy” and “normal” even though he or she has not reached maturity, the developing group is also considered to be normal across the entire lifespan of the group. Even during the group’s initial formative stage members should gain psychologically and interpersonally from the experience. The successfully developing group is one that is able to profit at each of its development milestones, but in some cases the course of development may result in a dysfunctional group. Although time is thought to result in a gradual emerging of potential within a group (or in a person), development is contextually dependent. The concept of development also suggests that, at some point, the organism is no longer progressing with the passage of time, and is in fact deteriorating—at some point the group is no longer developing but aging. In some cases the changes that take place in groups may be better described as “unraveling” or “unfolding” rather than “developing.”

Other Related Musings

  1. Nearly all experts on groups assume that the changes groups manifest over time are relatively predictable. Groups do not change in unpredictable, random ways, but rather they exhibit regularities in their structure and interactions the longer their duration. The theories of development vary when describing the expected sequence of these changes, using such terms as stages, phases, cycles and even life courses of development. These terms of often used interchangeably, even though they vary somewhat in the meaning and implications. If a group passes through stages, then development proceeds.  Phases, in contrast, implies a lack of clarity in the movement from one stage to the next, and admits to the possibility of recurring phases. A life cycle suggests that groups may return, repeatedly, to earlier points in group history, and work through repeatedly issues and experiences.
  2. A life-course approach suggests that the more flowing, gradual, continuous process of change may be difficult to identify if one examines just one time period within a group.  Most theorists admit group development may be discontinuous, constant, rapid, or slow, but they do not discuss in detail issues of continuity and discontinuity.  Doe groups develop in a smooth, even flow, like a tree or stream flowing, or more stage/phase like, even transformative, as the group shifts from one form to another?  In a related vein, do groups have sensitive periods, critical period in their development?  Are there better times, than others, for a group to reach particular goals or to make progress towards greater maturity and functionality?
  3. Nearly all theories of development posit a work stage, but “work”—that is, a stage when members are dealing well with one another, making decisions rationally, and expending maximal effort in the direction of the group’s tasks—can occur at all stage in the group’s development.  Even during the group’s initial formative stage, the group members are working—albeit, on the task of exchanging information and developing relationships.
  4. What causes the change? External events? Some internal event, unique interaction. Abrupt, unexpected, planned, orchestrated by leader, inevitable unfolding. Or is group development akin to biological develop, in that groups, by their nature, follow patterns of change in all but the most unusual of environmental contexts?
  5. Developmental approaches offer descriptive accounts of the typical progression of the typical group by asking what is changing in the group and when do this change typically take place.  But only rarely to these theories explain why these patterns emerge.  One of the best known theories of group development, Tuckman’s (1965) rhymical model of forming-storming-norming-performing (and adjourning) offers little in the way of explanation of why these stages occur and why in this sequence.
  6. Theorists have used a variety of terms to describe the way groups development, including Change is multilevel and multidimensional; multilevel because it occurs within the individual members, within the pairs of association that link members to one another and to the group’s therapist, and within the group as a whole and multidimensional because it involves changes in affect, cognition, behavior.   But what is the relationship between the group-level change and adaption and the individual level change?
  7. Some aspects of change over time that occurs in groups have not been examined, directly, in extant theories of development.  For example, it may be that groups become increasingly real over time—entitative—to the point that they exist independently of the individual members (in a sense) and become increasingly influential.  Also, do groups get more rational over time…through continuous, guided, careful communication groups increase members’ integration/understanding/uncovering of unrecognized (unconscious) motives, emotions, and anxieties needs with rational, explicit, socially acceptable motives, emotions, and needs (primary process thinking and secondary process thinking).  Also, groups develop a shared history (transactive memory) that grows longer and more detailed over time. Applying life history theory of evolution to groups, one could argue that the occurrence, duration, and experience of key events in a group lifetime are shaped by group’s key consensual goal—maximize efficiency, productivity, and members’ satisfaction—to produce progress towards that essential goal.
  8. What are the common domains of change? What characteristics, qualities, and processes within the group the undergo change over time:  Norms, roles, conflict, communication, task focus, leadership, attraction, cohesion, etc….