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Protesting COVID-19 Quarantining: Mob Mentality or Groupthink?

When I see the pictures of people blocking the entrances to hospitals, flocking to the beaches when asked to socially distance, and railing about their “rights” as they violate lawfully imposed mandates I’ll admit my first reaction is: What stupid people. But that reaction is no more than the to tendency look for causes inside of people–in their personalities, their temperaments, their insufficiencies–instead of searching for causes that lie outside the person. This focus on the person is so powerful that it’s dubbed the “fundamental attribution error”: the too-quick tendency to find fault in individuals instead of the social forces that constrain them. So, when I read about people who protest the steps taken to reduce the harm caused by COVID 19, I know I should consider the interpersonal- and group-level processes that are causing them to respond, rather than just assuming they are nitwits.

Were I Gustave LeBon, I’d likely suggest that the protests against quarantining are an instance of mob mentality: that as a result of social contagion and the manipulative masterminding of a few leaders those who are most susceptible to persuasion succumbed to their irrational impulses. Were I Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, I’d instead suggest that the stress of isolation triggered regression to a of immaturity and the subsequent search for the approval of authority figures who would protect them from their existential anxiety. But, as a social psychologist, I’ll instead favor a more quotidian, and distinctly unsexy, explanation: groupthink.

Any group can stumble, but groups that act in obviously ignorant ways require special explanation. Psychologist Irving Janis suggested that perhaps such groups are suffering from a specific interpersonal syndrome that transforms a normal, relatively sane group into one that is inefficient, unproductive, and irrational. He termed this syndrome groupthink, and identified the many symptoms displayed by groups that are marching mindlessly toward a massive mistake.

Cohesiveness. The primary symptom of a groupthink group is a sense of unity, esprit des corp, and shared identity. Cohesiveness is, in general, a good thing for a group. People enjoy their membership much more in cohesive groups, they are 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.

Isolation. Groupthink groups tend to be separated from other groups–particularly groups that disagree with their particular viewpoint. Members only listen to one another, and in consequence they don’t realize that their beliefs are inconsistent with social reality. In today’s world of social media, they live within their filter bubble, and justify their isolation by ridiculing other groups and other viewpoints. They don’t need to defend their ideas, because their ideas are never challenged by open discussion.

Biased leadership. Leaders are essential for coordination of a group’s action and motivating the members, but during groupthink the leader takes the group in the wrong direction. The leader determines the identity of the group, provokes the members to act in ways that are consistent with that vision, and then–in many cases–denies responsibilty for what the group has done.

Decisional stress. Groupthink becomes more likely when groups face stressful circumstances. Studies of groups that have responded poorly to situational pressures, such as political decision makers, members of alternative religious groups threatened by authorities (e.g., Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown), and corporations, identify a tendency for these groups to shift from rational deliberation to polarized reactivity. 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.

Overestimation of the group (and enhanced group identity). Groups that have fallen into the trap of groupthink are actually planning fiascoes and acting in ways that are objectively irrational. Yet the members usually assume that everything is working perfectly. They are happy and confident, and continue to identify with their group–championing it above all others. Their identification with the group can increase, to such an extent that their capacity to make an individual, personal decision is eroded: they lose their autonomy, and accept as their own their group’s position.

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. They even assume, in many cases, they that have chosen the moral high ground on issues. Instead of recognizing that their choices and plans are fundamentally unethical, they take pride in “sticking to their guns” and “doing the right thing.”

Conformity pressures. In groupthink situations, pressures to conform become overwhelming. Although individual members may experience a personal reluctance to follow the group’s path–a person may, for example, wonder if it is really such a good idea to block access to hospitals so that a person who needs life-saving medical attention will die–they are unable to express their uncertainty publicly. 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. Conformity pressures become so great that the group members–who are driven by a fundamental need to express their individuallity–actually become just a mob of conformists who look, act, and think as one.

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.

Are the members of the groups that are currently opposing efforts to curtail COVID19 suffering from groupthink? Possibly, but this empirically based explanation is, at an emotional level, unsatisfying. Intuitively, we require a more dramatic explanation for such irrational deeds; something more compelling than just “bad group dynamics.” Didn’t some leader brainwash them? Didn’t they snap when cabin fever set in? Weren’t they manipulated by some malevolent foreign country or the alien lizard people?  We may feel the need to dehumanize the group members for their actions by calling them stupid or hypothesizing weird social forces that constrained them, but in the end their actions stem from our remarkable tendency to live out our lives with other people, and to allow those interpersonal relations to define who we are and how we will act.

The Psychology of Isolated Groups

Anthropologists have documented the great diversity of human societies, but across all these variations, they have found one constancy: People spend their lives in groups, including primary groups (e.g., families, close friends), secondary groups (work teams, neighborhood associations, service groups), and even larger, multi-member associations. Under normal circumstances, then, we are members of dozens of groups, each one with varied purposes, rewards, and requirements. So what happens when we find ourselves confined—in the current circumstances by the threat of contagion—to only one group? How will we cope in these groups, as our social network shrinks from many to very few? Will we seize this time of enforced togetherness to strengthen our attachments to one another—to share, support, and appreciate each other? Or will boredom, tension, and conflict grow with each passing hour and day. Will we, as Henry David Thoreau explained, grow tired of the sameness of our associates, for we have not had “time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at three meals a day and give each other a taste of that old musty cheese that we are” (Thoreau, 1962, p. 206).

Studies of groups that have spent long periods of time in isolation, such as teams stationed in Antarctica and explorers living for months on end in a confined space, suggest that some groups will prosper, but others will falter under the strain. During the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958), for example, several countries sent small groups of military and civilian personnel to outposts in Antarctica. These groups were responsible for collecting various data concerning that largely unknown continent, but the violent weather forced the staff to remain indoors most of the time. As months went by with little change in their situation, morale declined and group members found themselves arguing over trivial issues. Friendliness, good humor, and sensitivity were replaced with lethargy, low morale, grouchiness, and boredom.

Other groups, however, manage to prosper when cut off from the outside world. Some of the isolated groups studied by researchers at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, for example, responded quite positively when sequestered. These researchers confined pairs of volunteers to a 12-by-12-foot room with no means of interacting with anyone outside of that space—no computer, no Internet, no media. Some of these groups imploded—they insisted they be released from the study after only a few days. Others, however, thrived. Over the course of the isolation their reliance on one another strengthened, as did their satisfaction with their circumstances. They shared concerns and worries about how they were dealing with the isolation, and made adjustments whenever conflicts and tensions arose. They set up schedules of activities, even agreeing on a plan of action for meals, exercise, and recreation. Cooperation, then, was critical. As one person who spent considerable time in an isolated group under similar circumstances (an underwater habitat, SEALAB) explained: “If we hadn’t had a real compatible group there might have been a lot of hard feelings.  Everybody was cooperative.  They all worked and helped each other as much as possible.  I think it was a real good group” (Radloff & Helmreich, 1968, p. 821).

The successful groups also avoided one of the symptoms of maladaptive responding displayed by the less successful groups: withdrawal. The members of groups that did not cope well with isolation, over time, tended to stop interacting with each other—they cocooned instead of communicating, collaborating, cooperating, and caring for one another (see Altman & Haythorn, 1967, p. 174).

These findings offer hope to the many groups that find themselves facing an unfamiliar future. Isolation need not lead inevitably to conflict, stress, and gloom; people can do things that will transform their stressed-out group into a thriving, enjoyable one. For example:

  • Successful isolated groups sustain high levels of communication within the group. Members do not keep their concerns, grievances, and worries to themselves: they share them with others, who then (ideally) provide support and reassurance. Communication, however, is no sure-fire remedy for avoiding conflict; angry, embattled groups talk just as much as cohesive, harmonious ones, but the messages are very different in emotional tenor, sensitivity, and intent. As confinement continues, each member must take on the role of the socioemotional expert: the person who seeks to keep the peace and maintain the group’s morale.
  • Quarantined individuals face another challenge: enduring confinement in the same physical space. A space that, under normal circumstances, is comfortable and relaxing can become boring and unpleasant over time, so members must act to maintain the space, to ensure that it is restorative rather than draining and depressing. Time spent in spaces that are interesting, aesthetically pleasing, and compatible with our purposes and intents leave us feeling more energized and optimistic. Outdoor spaces, if accessible and safe, should also be visited and maintained, for natural spaces are generally more restorative than constructed ones. Moreover, like Sheldon and his preferred chair in Big Bang Theory’s living room—where the group was regularly confined—group members will feel more comfortable if they have their spaces that they can territorialize—when they can make the space their own. Privacy needs should also be respected, so long as members of the group do not become reclusive—hiding in their private spaces and no longer socializing with others (Collado, Staats, Corraliza, & Hartig, 2017).
  • Isolated groups will likely prosper if members shift from an individualistic orientation to a more collectivistic one. When the needs of the individual do not mesh with the needs of the group, individuals often follow their own path, acting as they personally prefer. But when they are members of an isolated group, the group’s needs must come first, rather than the individuals’ needs. In communal groups people help fellow members more,  think of their work as a joint effort, and are also more likely to consider the consequences of their actions for others. So, rather than horde the Pop Tarts and toilet paper, repeatedly expressing political beliefs that others find offensive, or taking personally any complaint or criticism, the collective self will be more diligent in making sure that others’ needs are met.  What matters most is the “greater good” rather than “me, myself, and I.”
  • Individuals who are quarantined in their homes will likely be able to communicate with other family members safely, but interactions with loved ones will not stave off social loneliness. Unlike emotional loneliness, social loneliness occurs when people feel cut off from their network of friends, acquaintances, and associates. If social loneliness mounts, people may look to their closest intimates for solace, but this burden may put too much pressure on these alliances—even a single enduring and intimate relationship can rarely satisfy all one’s need for social contact. But social loneliness can be countered by reaching out to other people through any (safe) means possible, including technology. Individuals confined to the underwater habitat SEALAB for prolonged periods, for example, responded well once they were able to establish communication with others outside the group. Even those of us who before relied only grudgingly on our phones and computers to connect with other people, can now use these technologies to maintain our social relationships. In darker periods in history when plagues and contagions threatened, quarantine meant total isolation from others. Today, in contrast, few of us are ever really alone, for technology keeps us constantly connected.

Living in a small isolated group will be challenging. This experience, however, offers opportunity in addition to threat. When asked “What is it that makes your life meaningful?” most people answer: their intimate relationships, including their friends and loved ones. And while everyday concerns may cause us to forget this essential fact, spending days (or weeks, or months) with only our partners, our parents, our children, or our best friends may remind us of this truth.

Altman, I., & Haythorn, W. W. (1967). The ecology of isolated groups. Behavioral Science, 12, 169-182.

Collado, S., Staats, H., Corraliza, J. A., & Hartig, T. (2017). Restorative environments and health. In G. Fleury-Bahi, E. Pol, & O. Navarro (Eds.), Handbook of environmental psychology and quality of life research (pp. 127-148). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.

Radloff, R., & Helmreich, R. (1968). Groups under stress: Psychological research in SEALAB II. New York: Irvington.

Thoreau, H. D. (1962). Walden and other writings. New York: Bantam.

Coping with the Vote: Post-Midterm Malaise or Merriment?


By November 7, if all goes well, the midterm elections will be over, and you will know if the candidates you voted for won or lost. You will not be the person standing at the podium giving the victory or concession speech, but if you voted, your party–and you by association–will be either a winner or a loser.

Psychologists probably did not need to do a great deal of research to confirm that people do not respond well to failure, but they did anyway.  That research suggests that, on November 7, the citizens of the US will fall into two different groups: the happy and the sad. When our groups are successful, we ourselves feel happy: elated, optimistic, hopeful, pleased, even joyful. But should our groups fail, we usually experience such negative emotions as sadness, resignation, disappointment, and even depression. These emotions will be all the more intense the more we identify with our groups–the people who canvassed for their favorite political candidate or put up political signs in their front yard will be the ones who feel the loss more profoundly than those who kept themselves apart, psychologically, from this melee.  Moreover, the “agony of defeat” is more psychologically profound than the “thrill of victory.” Our moods become somewhat more positive after our groups win, but our mood plummets following failure.

Nor does it help that the winners in the competition are often less-than-gracious when accepting the mantle of victory.  Their party’s victory becomes their personal victory, and they may seek to emphasize their association with the winning side. Like the sports fan who wears their team’s jersey after a win, they engage in BIRGing: they Bask In Reflected Glory by stressing their association with the successful party. They will be the ones who want to talk about the election for weeks to come, even when their “I voted” sticker has long-since faded. And they will be more likely to gather together, to enjoy the experience collectively.

Those who are devoted to the less successful party, in contrast, face a different problem: They must insulate their own sense of self-worth from the contaminating effects of their group’s setback.  Some will blame the group and its leaders, finding fault in the strategy used in the campaign or the public claims of the party leaders. Most, however, will instead seek other excuses that externalize the group’s failure in some way. Our group would have won, they may argue, had it not been for foreign interference, the dirty tactics of the other party, rampant voter fraud, and so on. They may even justify the outcome by reinterpreting the loss as a victory. Even a loss can be reframed as a wake up call that will rally the party’s true believers in future elections.

So what do these findings suggest if, come November 7, you are one of the millions of unhappy Americans, disappointed in the electorate’s choices of leadership?  Although blaming the other party and its leaders is a natural response, so is accepting the failure as feedback about your party’s position on issues facing the country as a whole. Rather than letting the loss flood into counterproductive anger, frustration, and hostility, harness its positive motivational effects and take steps to build consensus within and between the nation’s political parties. And, what if come November 7, you are one of the happy Americans?  Resist the urge to gloat; Don’t rub it in.


Groups with an Educational Purpose

Over the course of the next several weeks new groups will come into existence all around the world. These groups will be formed to achieve a specific purpose: the education (and possible enlightenment) of their members. School is back in session.

These classes, like all groups, will develop a set of norms that will become powerful determinants of the students’ actions. These group-level standards will emerge naturally over time, but those that grow organically might not be the most conducive for helping students reach their learning goals. In consequence, one of the primary responsibilities of the teachers and professor is the creation and maintenance of normative structures that facilitate change.  They can do so by:

  • Stating the norms clearly in the syllabus and reiterating them as needed.
  • Linking norms to a more general framework of social and moral principles that provides a rationale for the class’s procedures. Students can be reminded, for example, that the highest priority is learning, and that all other concerns must be set aside.
  • Stressing the need for cooperation and teamwork, particularly in larger classes where the actions of a minority can substantially disrupt the quality of the experience for the majority. Remind students of the importance of putting their personal, individual needs aside for the good of the collective.
  • Sharing responsibility for maintaining norms with the students. Remind students they are collectively responsible for maintaining norms, and so attentive students should feel free to tell talkative students to be quiet.
  • Comparing the class to other types of social aggregates, such as audiences, congregations, and mobs. Inform students that the classroom is not like a movie house, where patrons can step out for popcorn whenever they like. For online classes, tell students the class is not an anonymous chat room but an online community.
  • Using rituals to start and end each session. For example, begin class each day with the same stock opening phrase (e.g., “Good morning scholars!”) and end class crisply with a ritual closing phrase, such as “And so ends the lesson,” or “How time flies.”
  • Highlighting descriptive norms to make the amount of conformity to the preferred standards salient to students. For example, after a class discussion, explicitly state to the class if the level of participation met your standard for good engagement. When teaching online, let students know about base rates for engaging with class material, such as the number of questions and comments posted to a forum. Saying such things as “I’ve noticed very few people are streaming the online lectures” will reduce rather than encourage that behavior.
  • Nipping undesirable emergent norms in the bud. For example, never tolerate the “there are only 5 minutes left so I’m going to get ready to leave” habit. If students get noisy, stop class, remind them you are aware of the time remaining and that you will end class on time, but that you must have their attention during the class’s final minutes so you can complete the day’s teaching.

For other ideas about using principles derived from group dynamics in education, see Forsyth (2016).

The Resilience of Groups

So what is to become of the members of the Wild Boars, the soccer team trapped for 18 days in a cave in Thailand, now that they have been rescued? Will they suffer long-term psychological problems as a result of their ordeal, or will they move on with their lives, getting back to their families, their school, and the soccer field with hardly a misstep?

Many experts have warned that the experience will lead to continuing psychological problems for the boys, but there is cause for optimism. The boys were part of an intact, supportive group–a sports team–and just as the group sustained its members during the ordeal, it may sustain them in the days to come.

Groups do, of course, often get their members into trouble; the boys and their coach, as a group, did not heed the warning signs and decided to venture deep into the caves. But just as groups can be the cause of much misfortune, so they are also the source of support and relief. First reports of the 18 days spent in the caves suggest that the team banded together, marshaling its combined resources to cope with the experience, for if anyone can survive such a disaster, it is a group—and an organized one at that. Just as other groups facing such dire predicaments–for example, the trapped Chilean miners and the Old Christian rugby team stranded in the Andes–survived by relying on the group, so the trapped soccer team was able to overcome obstacles that would have overwhelmed any one person.

The boys will, undoubtedly, be troubled by the dark memories of their horrific ordeal, but just as their group helped them survive when underground, their group will also help them as they rejoin the world above. The recovery of many groups that have faced difficult circumstances–victims of bus crashes, the Old Christian rugby team, combat units, survivors of school shootings–is often more favorable when members cope collectively: when they are able to gather together and provide mutual support to one another. Family, friends, and experts can offer useful information for solving problems, making decisions, and setting their goals, but the group can be trusted: their shared experience authenticates both their sympathy for one another and the wisdom of their advice, guidance, and suggestions. Even now, early reports suggest that the boys are turning to one another for or spiritual support, as they reconfirm their understanding of the experience and develop a shared sense of meaning. When the boys experience difficulties–sleepless nights, problems coping with their new-found fame, self-doubts about their future–the group can help them.

Will conflict arise within the group, in time? Certainly, as the group struggles problems will disrupt the group’s unity (typically, blame about the cause of the predicament, emotional expressions of anger, interference by outsiders, strengthening of status differentiation), but successful groups manage to weather these threats to their cohesion and stay unified. The group will always remind members of the ordeal they experienced, but the group will also remind them they that they survived.

Social Exclusion and Violence on College Campuses

GunOn November 4 of 2015 Faisal Mohammad walked into his 8 AM class at the University of California at Merced and attacked his fellow students using a long-bladed hunting knife. Described by his roommate as very socially withdrawn, a document found during the investigation suggested he was seeking revenge for being excluded from a study group. Christopher Harper-Mercer, a student at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, shot and killed his professor and 8 fellow students in his English class on October 1, 2015. Harper-Mercer associated with no one at his school, and was described as an isolate who was frustrated by his inability to connect with others. Elliott Rodger, who shot and killed six people near the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2014, left behind a message that explained, “All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life amongst humanity, but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance” (New York Times, 2014).

How could these students turn against their fellow classmates and teachers with such monstrous hostility? There is no simple answer to this question, for such horrific actions spring from a complex of interrelated psychological and interpersonal factors. However, when Mark Leary and his colleagues examined 15 cases of post-1995 shootings in schools in the U.S. they found that these terrible acts of violence were tied together by a common thread: rejection. In most cases the aggressors were individuals who did not belong to any groups or take part in common social activities. They were often described as loners who were not able to sustain any intimate or friendship relations.

Social isolation was a defining condition in the life of Seung Hui Cho, the 23-year-old senior at Virginia Tech, who killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before committing suicide: “Cho lived a life of quiet solitude, extreme quiet and solitude. For all of his 23 years of life the most frequent observation made by anyone about him was that Seung Hui Cho had absolutely no social life. During all of his school years he had no real friends. He had no interest in being with others. In fact, he shied away from other people and seemed to prefer his own company to the company of others” (Dupue, 2007, p. N-3).

Some shooters, such as Cho, were never mistreated by other people, yet they still felt rejected and isolated. In other instances, however, they had been ostracized by others at their schools and were the target of teasing, ridicule, and bullying. These individuals usually chose their targets deliberately, seeking revenge against those who had excluded them. They did not try to blame their behavior on psychological problems, their parents, the media, or the influence of their friends. Nearly all claimed that they had been pushed into violence by a specific group of people who excluded them. Exclusion, by itself, is not associated with behavioral problems in adolescents, but those who are isolated and report “problematic peer encounters” are at risk for a variety of negative outcomes (Kreager, 2004).

Ostracism was not the sole cause of these incidents. In nearly all cases aggressors had a history of psychological problems, although the severity of their troubles was often unrecognized. They were also often preoccupied with violence and death, and were interested in guns and weapons in general. Exclusion, however, was a key social factor in most cases. The harm that these individuals have wrought cannot be undone, but their actions serve as a reminder that our desire to join with others in groups can, when thwarted, unbalance the mind.


Dupue, R. L. (2007). A theoretical profile of Seung Hui Cho: From the perspective of a forensic behavioral scientist. In Mass shootings at Virginia Tech: Report of the review panel. Retrieved from

Kreager, D. (2004). Strangers in the halls: Isolation and delinquency in school networks. Social Forces, 83, 351–390.

Leary, M. R., Kowalski, R. M., Smith, L., & Phillips, S. (2003). Teasing, rejection, and violence: Case studies of the school shootings. Aggressive Behavior, 29, 202–214.

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The Danger of the Madding Crowd: When Groups “Stampede”

September 27, 2015 Leave a comment

It is said that there is safety in numbers, but there is danger as well. Just this week 700 people died when pilgrims taking part in the Hajj were overwhelmed by the heat and massive overcrowding. Such disasters are a worldwide phenomenon because the primary ingredients for such tragedies—large numbers of people who gather in spaces that are too confining—are present across the world. In the U.S., for example, a gathering of concertgoers waiting to gain admission to a concert by the rock band The Who in Cincinnati was transformed from a group of expectant fans to a dangerous crowd when the venue doors first opened. The back of the group moved faster than the front, and the flow jammed near the clogged doors. People were literally swept off their feet by the surge and some slipped to the concrete floor. Those around them tried to pull them back to their feet, but the overcrowded mass of people pushed on toward the open doors. As the rear of the crowd continued to push forward the crowd swept past those who had fallen, and they were trampled underfoot. Eleven people were killed.

What causes a group to stampede?  The principles that describe how fluids and gasses flow through constrained spaces apply equally well to the movement of large groups. Most flow systems are stable and predictable, but when they are overloaded—too much fluid is pumped through too small a pipe—the system fails. Similarly, when too many people attempt to move through a constrained space, bottlenecks form along the group’s path at points where its pathway is obstructed—even if the obstruction is a minor one. The queueing effect can further limit the crowd’s movement: people inch forward as they wait, creating the illusion of progress, but also further compressing the crowd. If the crowding is not relieved, crowd turbulence can cause people to lose their footing and fall. Once they fall, they may not be able to regain their footing, and so they are then trampled by the rest of the crowd as it passes over them. Most deaths, however, do not result from trampling, but from asphyxiation: people are jammed into together so tightly that they cannot breathe.

Even very large groups of people can usually navigate through entrances and exits with ease, but if crowding becomes so great that the group feels threatened, a crowd can panic. The most obvious solution–limit the size of the crowd by constricting the size of the entry points so that they are smaller than the size of the exits—is not always the best solution; it can backfire because overcrowding is likely at the entry points. Instead, the space should be designed so that it can accommodate a large, mobile group.  It should feature, for example, “pressure relief valves”—structures that can be opened should the densities become too great—and be completely free of any obstacles (e.g., stairwells, a vendor’s booth, or a misplaced trash barrel) that may cause a bottleneck. The movement of the individuals in the space should also be regulated, just as the movement of automobiles on highways are regulated by lanes, signals, and well-designed access ramps. Steps can be taken to disperse people evenly in the space and over time. Just as most concert vendors moved away from general admission seating after the Cincinnati tragedy to assigned seating, issuing tickets linked to specific time and locations in the space can minimize excessive clumping within the group.  But, perhaps the best solution is consider Thomas Hardy’s advice and remain far from the madding crowd.

Group Assignment? How to Collaborate Successfully and Avoid Disaster

[Reblogged from original posting at NOBA,] Professors often ask students to work on projects and activities in groups. These learning groups can yield remarkable educational benefits, but their value depends on how well the group manages its work and its relationships. Consider, for example, these two students’ experiences in groups.

(A) Ava is upset as she listens to her professor make a nightmare of an assignment: a 5-student group project comparing the James-Lange theory of emotions to the Cannon-Bard theory. She doesn’t like working in groups, but she manages to get everyone’s name and emails as class ends. That night she sends them all messages and sets up a meeting for the next day. Sadly, only two other people show up, but together they talk about the project some—although they also discuss how unfair group projects are. They decide to split the paper up into parts, and assign each part to one member. Ava emails everyone their assignment, and all agree to do their work. As the deadline looms, 3 turn in drafts, one turns in part of a draft, and the fifth member explains he has been ill and did not get to it. Ava downloads the various parts and turns them into a paper, but she has to pull an all-nighter to get it done. The professor gives the paper a C-, and threatens to turn the group into the honor council since portions are plagiarized.

(B) Ethan is worried when his professor explains the assignment: a 10 page group paper about the psychological effects of playing violent video games. He has been in groups before, and in one class he nearly failed because the group got an F on their project. But, at the group’s first meeting, held immediately after class, he is relieved when the students quickly settle on a time for a more extended meeting. At that meeting they discuss the project, and ideas flow because everyone read the portions of the chapter that apply to their topic before the meeting. One member volunteers to set up a Google Docs page to facilitate their work, and over the next several weeks the members stay in email contact and busily revise the online document. They finish the project two days before it is due, and one project member has it reviewed and edited by a consultant at the writing center. They make the final changes, the professor gives the paper an A, and the group celebrates that evening after class.

Ava and her fellow members learned only one thing from their experience: avoid working in groups. But Ethan’s group learned something about the topic they studied and how to work successfully in collaborative groups. Next time one of your professors assigns a group project, what can you do to make sure your group is more like Ethan’s than Ava’s?

Many factors combine to influence group performance, but Tuckman’s (1965) theory of group development highlights four: planning (forming), dealing with conflict (storming), setting standards (norming), and teamwork (performing).

1. Forming. Groups do not become instantly effective teams—they must spend time as members identify their goals and develop interdependencies. In study after study, researchers have found that groups that spend time during the forming stage identifying their goal and planning their process outperform other groups, First, they get clear, as a group, on what the group must deliver at the end of the project: Is it a paper, will you be taking quizzes as a group, answering problem sheets together, doing a PowerPoint presentation? Second, they identify the steps the group will take to reach its goal. The plan can change along the way, but having a goal is of little benefit if your group does not know what steps to take to reach the goal. Third, and perhaps most critical, they identify key milestones, deadlines, and meeting dates.

2. Storming. Working with others is not always a smooth, harmonious process. Members often disagree each other—over their procedures, who gets to be in charge, who is right, who is wrong—but these conflicts must be handled skillfully if your group is to prosper. It is not conflict, but the poor management of conflict, that leads to problems. When researchers have studied student learning groups, they found that too many spend more time trying to resolve conflict instead of just getting down to work. The #1 goal of a learning group is to learn, not to become fast friends. Cohesive groups are not necessarily more effective groups, but effective groups tend to become more cohesive over time.

3. Norming. All groups develop informal rules that guide member’s behaviors—norms—but not all norms facilitate group productivity. One of the key differences between a group and a team is a team is collaboratively structured—members know their roles and responsibilities and they recognize that the group’s overall performance is determined by their personal contribution to the group. Successful groups do not tolerate people who do their own thing: the slackers, control freaks, partiers, and so on. They define expectations and monitor members’ behavior, being careful to not wait too long before intervening to clarify the group’s standards. If someone in your group fails to respond to emails, misses meetings, or shirks work, intervene immediately–do not wait.

4. Performing. With goals, procedures, and norms in place, the members are ready to go to work on the project. But highly effective groups do not do their work individually. They continue to collaborate across the duration of the work phase—in short, they use teamwork to reach their goals. They resist the temptation to break the project down into parts and assign the parts to members. Instead, they work as a team, communicating ideas, offering support and suggestions, and helping each other learn the material the group is reviewing. During the performing phase the group also carefully monitors its time and its methods. Groups, even more so than individuals, have a difficult time calibrating the time they will need to do their work (the planning fallacy). Effective groups often appoint one person who is the time-keeper—always responsible for reminding the members of deadlines.

So, why did Ava’s group founder, whereas Ethan’ prospered? Ava’s group failed to harness the power of their five minds, and so the result was less—far less—than the sum of the parts. Ethan’s group formed, stormed, normed, and performed its way to success, confirming the adage, “none of us is smart as all of us.”

[Donelson R. Forsyth, a social and personality psychologist, holds the Colonel Leo K. and Gaylee Thorsness Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. A fellow of the American Psychological Association, he researches and writes about ethics, groups, and related topics. Dr. Forsyth is the author of the Noba module “The Psychology of Groups”]

The Seduction of March Madness

NewsdayReposted from Newsday, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

A modern mania is about to descend upon us: March Madness. Sixty-eight colleges and universities will send their basketball teams into a tournament that will end with one team recognized as national champion. And the other 67? All fails, but not major fails: This tournament is such a big deal that just qualifying gets you bragging rights.

March Madness undoubtedly will lead to a loss of rationality for some fans. People will watch, which is fine unless they are supposed to be doing something else – driving trains, directing traffic, wiring a GFI circuit, proofing a million-dollar contract or running those budget numbers for the coming staff meeting.

Each year, Corporate America wonders at the tournament’s cost in productivity, as ever-diligent personnel are seduced into all kinds of distracting diversions: streaming the games, checking scores, wagering in office brackets, celebrating victories with too much relish (and libation) and meshing their Facebook statuses with their favorite team’s fortunes on the floor. (Challenger Gray & Christmas estimates 50 million Americans will participate in an office pool and that companies could lose $1.2 billion per hour in productivity the first week of the NCAA tournament.) That’s a lot of money, no doubt, but as the efficiency experts of the old days of organizational charts and stop watches discovered, there is more to workplace productivity than time at task.

The gains March Madness yields, in terms of strengthened social and psychological relationships, might overshadow the minor losses of a few hours spent in the shared enjoyment of the tournament. The event is replete with rituals and traditions – collective acknowledgement of victory, celebration of the underdog, recognition of the fair play and competition – and when these rituals spill into the workplace they align the group, turning the parts into a whole. Such rituals are strangely satisfying, for they strengthen interpersonal bonds and heighten camaraderie. March Madness can boost cohesion in the workplace, providing for free what those teambuilding junkets so often promise but can’t deliver.

March Madness also ramps up workplace energy. Napoleon said it was not the skill of his troops, but their emotional intensity that counted most in battle. Famed sociologist Durkheim called it collective effervescence: the emotional flow that helps people who are working together pursue their tasks with vigor.

But it’s March: Will winter ever end? Why can’t we go on spring break like we did in college? How long has it been since we got a long holiday? The NCAA tournament is exciting, dramatic, compelling; it might provide just the push needed to get that difficult job done or wrap up that one last detail on a long, painful project. Whatever the “loss” in productivity, is it too much to pay to push back the doldrums of March with a bit of collective effervescence?

There are dangers associated with March Madness that shouldn’t be minimized, and these problems are more likely if people get carried away by the experience. The tournament can bring out the fanatic in the sports fan. People who show excessive emotional investment in a team’s outcome allow themselves to become too closely connected to teams and pay a psychological cost. If the office runs a pool, it might be illegal depending on the locale – for example, betting on the game is banned in all federal agencies. Some have even suggested that the simple office pool can be a gateway to more serious forms of gambling addiction. Sometimes, too, rivalries between teams can create rivalries and conflicts between fans. Duke fans and North Carolina fans, for example, rarely keep their preferences to themselves in March.

But even with these costs, March Madness promises to give more than it takes. The NCAA Tournament is a grand spectacle that creates excitement without violence, a sense of community without outcasts, and disagreements that do not devolve into conflicts.

If workplace success depends only on how many hours are logged at the task, then it makes sense to block those game feeds and ban those office bracket pools.

But if success is linked to such interpersonal processes as cohesion, positive collective emotions and efficacy, and honest communication, then there might be a method to this March Madness after all.

Black Friday

November 28, 2013 Leave a comment

RTDGloucestershire, England, has its annual cheese roll contest, when hundreds of men and women chase a 9-pound round of cheese down a hill so steep that nearly all tumble, fall and crash into one another along the way.

In the fields of Zacatecas, Mexico, families and friends gather in late August to hold a mock battle, La Morisma, to commemorate an ancient battle between Spain’s Christian troops and the Turks.

In Paris, about the time of the summer solstice, hundreds of couples dressed all in white set up tables in public parks and dine alfresco by the light of the moon.

And what does the United States have? Black Friday.

On the day after Thanksgiving, shoppers assemble outside malls, big box stores and outlets so they can get a jump on their holiday shopping. And this year, Black Friday is blackening Thursday as many retailers open on Thanksgiving Day to satisfy the impatient masses.

Black Friday’s climb from marketing ploy to popular craze resists easy explanation. A day of sleeping late, leftover turkey and trimmings and football seems to easily outgun one spent battling strangers to save a few bucks on this year’s cool new toy or gizmo, but last year nearly a quarter of a billion Americans chose the check-out line and not the couch. Why?

Perhaps it’s the economics of it all. People are seeking to maximize the value of their spending dollar, and so are search for high-quality goods priced below market value. Their choice is a rational one: Forgo a bit of holiday relaxation to buy the season’s most popular and so most sought-after products. As many Americans continue to struggle financially, Black Friday makes even more sense since the sale offers them their best chance to purchase the most popular products at reduced prices. Economists explain Black Friday investments are value added for they generate excess return given the capital invested, but regular folks just say “it’s a bargain.”

But if milling about in a mob risking life and limb for a new Xbox doesn’t seem all that rational, how about a more psychological explanation that traces Black Friday back to the quirks of a consumer-oriented mindset? In American society, success is defined not only by the strength of familial bonds (celebrated the day before Black Friday), but also one’s level of consumption of high-priced goods. By joining in Black Friday’s celebration of wanton consumption, people communicate their acceptance of, and relative stature in, a culture that prizes the new over the old and luxury over penury.

Does an anthropological angle offer insights into this Black Friday ritual? Could it be that Black Friday is a modern version of the sharing of communal goods that occurred in earlier times just before the onset of winter? Thanksgiving is a celebration of abundance, where the family commemorates the winter harvest with a massive feast. But it also marks the approach of winter and serves as a warning to lay in the supplies that will be needed during the difficult days ahead. Black Friday then is a modern manifestation of an ancient impulse: Having dramatically depleted our reserves, we feel compelled to rush out and get some more.

Or, maybe it’s a form of entertainment. Black Friday transforms the mall into a consumer’s amusement park: Both are expensive, require waiting in long lines and promote prolonged contact with people you would prefer not to associate with. And many shoppers speak of the excitement of the chase for that elusive bargain, the pleasure they take when planning their shopping excursion and the joy of returning home having bagged their quarry. Yet when social scientists take up observation posts in the parking lots outside the doors of stores early in the morning of Black Friday, the people they study don’t seem happy, jubilant or excited. Anxiety, irritability, frustration and aggravation are plentiful, but not too much boisterous exuberance. Each year the stories of overcrowding, long lines, short tempers and even stampedes and injuries cast considerable doubt on the “it’s so much fun” hypothesis.

So, perhaps Black Friday is just one of those mysteries of social life. Humans are the most unpredictable species on the planet, for just when we think we know how they will act, think and feel, they instead head off in a direction that is entirely without precedent.

We can say with confidence that most people — most of the time — flee far from the madding crowd. Except on the day after Thanksgiving. Then they hasten to join it. Go figure.

Reposted from the Richmond-Times Dispatch, November 28, 2013.