You are here

Working Together in Groups

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

The ability of a group to perform well is determined by the characteristics of the group members (e.g., are they knowledgeable and skilled?) as well as by the group process—that is, the events that occur while the group is working on the task. When the outcome of group performance is better than we would expect given the individuals who form the group, we call the outcome a group process gain, and when the group outcome is worse than we would have expected given the individuals who form the group, we call the outcome a group process loss.

One group process loss that may occur in groups is that the group members may engage in social loafing, a groupprocess loss that occurs when peopledo not workas hard in a group as theydo when theyare working alone. In one of the earliest social psychology experiments, Ringelmann (1913; reported in Kravitz & Martin, 1986) 1 had individual men, as well as groups of various numbers of men, pull as hard as they could on ropes while he measured the maximum amount that they were able to pull. As you can see in Figure 14.9, although larger groups pulled harder than any one individual, Ringelmann also found a substantial process loss. In fact, the loss was so large that groups of three men pulled at only 85% of their expected capability, whereas groups of eight pulled at only 37% of their expected capability. This type of process loss, in which group productivity decreases as the size of the group increases, has been found to occur on a wide variety of tasks.

Figure 14.9 Group Process Loss 
Ringlemann found that although more men pulled harder on a rope than fewer men did, there was a substantial process loss in comparison to what would have been expected on the basis of their individual performances. 

Group process losses can also occur when group members conform to each other rather than expressing their own divergent ideas. Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group made up of members who may be very competent and thus quite capable of making excellent decisions nevertheless ends up, as a result of a flawed group process and strong conformity pressures, making a poor decision (Baron, 2005; Janis, 2007). 2 Groupthink is more likely to occur in groups whose members feel a strong group identity, when there is a strong and directive leader, and when the group needs to make an important decision quickly. The problem is that groups suffering from groupthink become unwilling to seek out or discuss discrepant or unsettling information about the topic at hand, and the group members do not express contradictory opinions. Because the group members are afraid to express opinions that contradict those of the leader, or to bring in outsiders who have other information, the group is prevented from making a fully informed decision. Figure 14.10 summarizes the basic causes and outcomes of groupthink.

Figure 14.10 Causes and Outcomes of Groupthink 

It has been suggested that groupthink was involved in a number of well-known and important, but very poor, decisions made by government and business groups, including the decision to invade Iraq made by President Bush and his advisors in 2002, the crashes of two Space Shuttle missions in 1986 and 2003, and the decision of President John Kennedy and his advisors to commit U.S. forces to help invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro in 1962. Analyses of the decision-making processes in these cases have documented the role of conformity pressures.

As a result of the high levels of conformity in these groups, the group begins to see itself a s extremely valuable a nd important, highly capable of making high-quality decisions, and invulnerable. The group members begin to feel that they are superior and do not need to seek outside information. Such a situation is conducive to terrible decision-making and resulting fiascoes.

Psychology in Everyday Life: Do Juries Make Good Decisions?

Although many other countries rely on judges to make judgments in civil and criminal trials, the jury is the foundation of the legal system in the United States. The notion of a “trial by one’s peers” is based on the assumption that average individuals can make informed and fair decisions when they work together in groups.

But given the potential for group process losses, are juries really the best way to approach these important decisions?

As a small working group, juries have the potential to produce either good or poor decisions, depending on the outcome of the characteristics of the individual members as well as the group process. In terms of individual group characteristics, people who have already served on juries are more likely to be seen as experts, are more likely to be chosen to be the jury foreman, and give more input during the deliberation. It has also been found that status matters; jury members with higher status occupations and education, males rather than females, and those who talk first are more likely be chosen as the foreman, and these individuals also contribute more to the jury discussion (Stasser, Kerr, & Bray, 1982). 3

However, although at least some member characteristics have an influence on jury decision making, group process plays a more important role in the outcome of jury decisions than do member characteristics. Like any group, juries develop their own individual norms, and these norms can have a profound impact on how they reach their decision. Analysis of group process within juries shows that different juries take very different approaches to reaching a verdict. Some spend a lot of time in initial planning, whereas others immediately jump into the deliberation. Some juries base their discussion around a review and reorganization of the evidence, waiting to make a vote until it has all been considered, whereas other juries first determine which decision is preferred in the group by taking a poll and then (if the first vote does not lead to a final verdict) organize their discussion around these opinions. These two approaches are used quite equally but may in some cases lead to different decisions (Davis, Stasson, Ono, & Zimmerman, 1988). 4

Perhaps most importantly, conformity pressures have a strong impact on jury decision making. As you can see in Figure 14.11, when there are a greater number of jury members who hold the majority position, it becomes more and more certain that their opinion will prevail during the discussion. This does not mean that minorities can never be persuasive, but it is very difficult for them to do so. The strong influence of the majority is probably due to both informational conformity (i.e., that there are more arguments supporting the favored position) and normative conformity (the people on the majority side have greater social influence).

Figure 14.11 Results From Stasser, Kerr, and Bray, 1982
This figure shows the decisions of 6-member mock juries that made “majority rules” decisions. When the majority of the 6 initially favored voting guilty, the jury almost always voted guilty; when the majority of the 6 initially favored voting innocent, the jury almost always voted innocent. The juries were frequently hung (could not make a decision) when the initial split was 3–3.

Given the potential difficulties that groups face in making good decisions, you might be worried that the verdicts rendered by juries may not be particularly effective, accurate, or fair. However, despite these concerns, the evidence suggests that juries may not do as badly as we would expect. The deliberation process seems to cancel out many individual juror biases, and the importance of the decision leads the jury members to carefully consider the evidence itself.