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Chapter 5: Social Structure, Social Interaction and Social Groups

5.3 Group Dynamics and Behavior

For decades, social scientists have studied how people behave in groups and how groups affect people’s behavior, attitudes, and perceptions (Gastil, 2009). Their research underscores the importance of groups for social life, but it also points to the dangerous influence groups can sometimes have on their members.

The Importance of Group Size

The distinction made earlier between small primary groups and larger secondary groups reflects the importance of group size for the functioning of a group, the nature of its members’ attachments and the group’s stability. If you have ever taken a very small class, say fewer than 15 students, you probably noticed that the class atmosphere differed markedly from that of a large lecture class you may have been in. In the small class, you were able to know the professor better, and the students in the room were able to know each other better. Attendance in the small class was probably more regular than in the large lecture class.

Over the years, sociologists and other scholars have studied the effects of group size on group dynamics. One of the first to do so was German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858–1918), who discussed the effects of groups of different sizes. The smallest group, of course, is the two-person group, or , such as a married couple or two people engaged to be married or at least dating steadily. In this smallest of groups, Simmel noted, relationships can be very intense emotionally (as you might know from personal experience) but also very unstable and short lived: if one person ends the relationship, the dyad ends as well.

image of male and female charm hanging on twine

The smallest group is the two-person group, or dyad. Dyad relationships can be very intense emotionally but also unstable and short lived. Why is this so? Zun ZunPexels

A , or three-person group, involves relationships that are still fairly intense, but it is also more stable than a dyad. A major reason for this, said Simmel, is that if two people in a triad have a dispute, the third member can help them reach some compromise that will satisfy all the triad members. The downside of a triad is that two of its members may become very close and increasingly disregard the third member, reflecting the old saying that “three’s a crowd.” As one example, some overcrowded college dorms are forced to house students in triples, or three to a room. In such a situation, suppose that two of the roommates are night owls and like to stay up very late, while the third wants lights out by 11:00 p.m. If the majority rules, as well it might, the third roommate will feel very dissatisfied and may decide to try to find other roommates.

Figure 5.4 Number of Two-Person Relationships in Groups of Different Sizes

Graphic showing 6 squares, all showing different numbers of relationships. Box one has two people with 1 relationship, box two has 3 people with 4 relationships, box three has 4 people with 6 relationships, box 4 has 5 people with 10 relationships, box 5 has 6 people with 15 relationships and box 6 has 7 people with 21 relationships.

As groups become larger, the intensity of their interaction and bonding decreases, but their stability increases. The major reason for this is the sheer number of relationships that can exist in a larger group. For example, in a dyad only one relationship exists, that between the two members of the dyad, whereas in a group of 5, ten relationships exist, as shown in figure 5.4 “Number of Two-Person Relationships in Groups of Different Sizes.” As the number of possible relationships rises, the amount of time a group member can spend with any other group member must decline, and with this decline comes less intense interaction and weaker emotional bonds. But as group size increases, the group also becomes more stable because it is large enough to survive any one member’s departure from the group. When you graduate from your college or university, any clubs, organizations, or sports teams to which you belong will continue despite your exit, no matter how important you were to the group, as the remaining members of the group and new recruits will carry on in your absence.

Group Leadership and Decision Making

Most groups have leaders. In families, for example, parents or guardians are the leaders, as much as their children sometimes might not like that. Even some close friendship groups have a leader or two who emerge over time. Virtually all secondary groups have leaders. These groups often have a charter, operations manual, or similar document that stipulates how leaders are appointed or elected and what their duties are.

Group leaders vary by type. are task oriented and keep the group moving towards its goals; people respect this type of leader. are concerned with the emotional temperature of group members and will make an effort to lift their spirits by making jokes and offering sympathy. People like this type of leader. Ideally, two people will take on these two types of leadership roles within the group, since one keeps the group on track while the other increases harmony and reduces conflict.

Leadership styles also vary. The has complete control over all decisions and gives orders to group members without discussion. The tries to reach a consensus by giving all members the opportunity to contribute their opinions. And the is less of a leader and more of a sounding board for group members; they will offer their thoughts but not require them to be followed. It is important to recognize how both situations and cultures influence the sort of leader found in any situation. In an emergency situation, an authoritarian leader works best. In contrast, an art teacher will explain a technique but allow the students to decide how to apply it, making the laissez-faire style most appropriate. Here in the U.S., though it is time consuming, we much prefer a democratic leader thanks to our value of independence, while in some Asian cultures, where group needs take precedence over individual needs, an authoritarian leader is favored.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

Think about the best or worst team you have ever been on or group you have ever belonged to and consider the leadership of this team or group.

How much of the success or failure of this team or group was due to leadership type or style?

Would another style or type of leader have made a difference?

Alternatively, consider your own approach to being a group leader.

What leadership style or type best exemplifies your methods?


Group Cohesion

Another factor that affects group dynamics is , or how strong the bond is between members. The stronger the bond, the more stable and long-lasting the group, leading to 50-year long marriages, incredibly successful teams or deeply fulfilling friendships. A number of factors have been identified as having an impact on group cohesion, as found in Table 5.1 “Some of the Factors that Contribute to Group Cohesion.” Thinking again about the above question regarding group leadership, how cohesive was the group you belonged to? Did that also contribute to its success or failure?

Table 5.1 Factors that Contribute to Group Cohesion

Member similarity

The more members have in common regarding the group’s goals, values, beliefs and norms, the greater its group cohesion.

Member interaction

Regular and intense interaction with other members produces group cohesion.

Group size

The smaller the group, the greater the cohesion.

Member entry

The harder it is to become a member of the group, the greater the cohesion.

Group success

When a group experiences success, that indicates its values and norms are effective and reinforces their appropriateness.


Groups, Roles, and Conformity

We have seen in this and previous chapters that groups are essential for social life, in large part because they play an important part in the socialization process and provide emotional and other support for their members. As sociologists have emphasized since the origins of the discipline during the 19th century, the influence of groups on individuals is essential for social stability. This influence operates through many mechanisms, including the roles that group members are expected to play. Secondary groups such as business organizations are also fundamental to complex industrial societies such as our own.

Social stability results because groups induce their members to conform to the norms, values, and attitudes of the groups themselves and of the larger society to which they belong. However, conformity to the group, or peer pressure, has a downside if it means that people might adopt group norms, attitudes, or values that are bad for some reason to hold and may even result in harm to others. Conformity is thus a double-edged sword. Unfortunately, bad conformity happens all too often, as several social-psychological experiments, to which we now turn, remind us.


image of golden justice statue

Groupthink may prompt people to conform to the judgments or behavior of a group because they do not want to appear different. While we value fair and impartial trials, is justice truly blind? Because of pressures to reach a quick verdict, jurors may go along with the majority opinion even if they disagree. Sang Hyun ChoPixabay

Sometimes people go along with the desires and views of a group against their better judgments, either because they do not want to appear different or because they have come to believe that the group’s course of action may be the best one after all. Psychologist Irving Janis (1972) called this process and noted it has often affected national and foreign policy decisions in the United States and elsewhere. Group members often quickly agree on some course of action without thinking completely of alternatives. Groupthink is seen in jury decision-making. Because of the pressures to reach a verdict quickly, some jurors may go along with a verdict even if they believe otherwise. In juries and other small groups, groupthink is less likely to occur if at least one person expresses a dissenting view. Once that happens, other dissenters feel more comfortable voicing their own objections (Gastil, 2009).

An example of groupthink is the series of decisions that led to the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. On January 28, 1986, what was supposed to be a routine launch of the space shuttle turned to tragedy when only 73 seconds into its flight it exploded, killing the seven crew members on board. The subsequent investigation determined that an O-ring failed. Critically, concerns about the O-ring had been raised in the months prior to January 28; the issue of the O-ring’s potential to fail was again mentioned the day of the launch. But due to poor communication between the engineers and upper echelon management, a culture at NASA that allowed practices detrimental to safety, and NASA’s desire to use the Challenger to raise public interest in its program, unease about the risks in the O-ring were downplayed and the launch commenced. But perhaps the most stunning outcome of the Challenger explosion was the persistence of groupthink at NASA. Following years of concern over the viability of the foam that covered the exterior of the shuttles, but which did not garner sufficient attention, in 2003 a chunk of foam came loose during the launch of the Columbia space shuttle. It breached the wing of the craft, causing atmospheric gas to enter the craft and leading to its disintegration upon re-entry. All seven crew members were killed.

image of space shuttle Challenger astronauts

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger and the seven-member crew were lost when a ruptured O-ring in the right solid rocket booster caused an explosion soon after launch. An investigation into the tragedy determined several engineers had raised their concerns about the viability of the O-rings, only to be dismissed as over-reacting to the threat. Crew members who died that day include: Teacher-in-Space payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; and astronauts Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist; Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist; Mike J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist. NASA Johnson – CC BY NC-2.0 – Flikr

Diffusion of Responsibility

Similar to groupthink, the , also known as the bystander effect, is an observable social pattern where people are less likely to act if they think others will. This pattern of behavior reflects the trend of conforming to the group. Imagine someone in the middle of a busy sidewalk in New York City, crying loudly. How many people do you think would stop to ask if this person was okay? Now imagine the same individual, crying on the sidewalk of a smaller community. Would people be more likely to offer help? Psychologists have found that people are less likely to act especially in larger groups (Latané and Darley, 1968). It is believed that people do not believe that the responsibility to act rests on them if there are others who can act, with three factors influencing the decision: whether the person was deserving of help; the competence of the bystander; and the relationship between the bystander and the victim. Subsequent studies found bystanders were influenced by the clarity of the situation, with obvious emergencies drawing a reaction over ambiguous ones. The perceived danger of the situation also had an impact, as did whether a perpetrator was present (Fischer, 2011).


Think Like a Sociologist

Have you ever found yourself in a situation you could define as an emergency? For example, you may have seen a car stopped on the side of the road with its hood up.

How has your impulse to help been affected by the presence or absence of other people?

image of person passing by homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk

The Blackbird (Jay Black) – CC BY-SA 2.0 – via Wikimedia Commons

The diffusion of responsibility (or bystander effect) means people are less likely to get involved in a situation depending on other factors, such as the presence of other people or the ambiguity of the situation. For example, in this photo, is the man sleeping or sick?

If you walked past this man lying on the curb in a large city, what would be your response to him?


Solomon Asch and the Power of Peer Pressure

Several decades ago, Solomon Asch (1958) conducted experimental research examining the power of peer pressure within social groups. Consider the pair of cards in Figure 5.5 “Examples of Cards Used in Asch’s Experiment”. One of the lines (A, B, or C) on the right card is identical in length to the single line in the left card. Which is it? If your vision is up to par, you undoubtedly answered Line B. Asch showed several students pairs of cards similar to the pair in Figure 5.5 “Examples of Cards Used in Asch’s Experiment” to confirm that it was very clear which of the three lines was the same length as the single line.

Next, he had students meet in groups of at least six members and told them he was testing their visual ability. One by one he asked each member of the group to identify and answer verbally which of the three lines was the same length as the single line. One by one each student gave a wrong answer. Finally, the last student had to answer, and about one-third of the time the final student in each group also gave the wrong answer that everyone else was giving.

Figure 5.5 Examples of Cards Used in Asch’s Experiment

graphic of two cards, one showing one line, and the other showing 3 lines of differing lengths, marked A, B and C

Unknown to these final students, all the other students were confederates or accomplices of the research team, to use some experimental jargon, as Asch had told them to give a wrong answer on purpose. In reality, the final student in each group was the research subject, also known as the naive subject, and Asch’s purpose was to see how often the naive subjects in all the groups would give the wrong answer that everyone else was giving, even though it was very clear it was a wrong answer.

After each group ended its deliberations, Asch asked the naive subjects who gave the wrong answers why they did so. Some replied that they knew the answer was wrong, but they did not want to look different from the other people in the group, even though they were strangers before the experiment began. But other naive subjects said they had begun to doubt their own visual perception: they decided that if everyone else was giving a different answer, then somehow, they were seeing the cards incorrectly.

Asch’s experiment indicated that groups induce conformity for at least two reasons. First, members feel pressured to conform so as not to alienate other members. Second, members may decide their own perceptions or views are wrong because they see other group members perceiving things differently and begin to doubt their own perceptive abilities. For either or both reasons, then, groups can, for better or worse, affect our judgments and our actions.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

Think about the power of peer pressure. Consider the clothes you wear, your current hairstyle, the products you buy, the car you drive (or hope to drive someday) and the forms of entertainment you enjoy.

How many of these items are the result of truly independent choices versus the influence, at least to some degree, of peer pressure?


Stanley Milgram and the Power of Authority

Although the type of influence Asch’s experiment involved was benign, other experiments indicate that individuals can conform in very harmful ways. One such well known experiment was conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram (1974), who designed it to address an important question that arose after World War II and the revelation of the murders of millions of people during the Nazi Holocaust. This question was, “How was the Holocaust possible?” Many people blamed the authoritarian nature of German culture and the so-called authoritarian personality that it inspired among German residents, who, it was thought, would be quite ready to obey rules and commands from authority figures.

Milgram wanted to see whether Germans would indeed be more likely than Americans to obey unjust authority. He devised a series of experiments and found that his American subjects were quite likely to give potentially lethal electric shocks to other people. During the experiment, a subject, or “teacher,” would come into a laboratory and be told by a man wearing a white lab coat to sit down at a table housing a machine that sent electric shocks to a “learner.” Depending on the type of experiment, this was either a person whom the teacher never saw and heard only over a loudspeaker, a person sitting in an adjoining room whom the teacher could see through a window and hear over the loudspeaker, or a person sitting right next to the teacher.

The teacher was then told to read the learner a list of word pairs, such as mother-father, cat-dog, and sun-moon. At the end of the list, the teacher was then asked to read the first word of the first word pair—for example, “mother” in our list—and to read several possible matches. If the learner got the right answer (“father”), the teacher would move on to the next word pair, but if the learner gave the wrong answer, the teacher was to administer an electric shock to the learner. The initial shock was 15 volts, and each time a wrong answer was given, the shock would be increased, finally going up to 450 volts, which was marked on the machine as “Danger: Severe Shock.” The learners often gave wrong answers and would cry out in pain as the voltage increased. In the 200-volt range, they would scream, and in the 400 volt range, they would say nothing at all. As far as the teachers knew, the learners had lapsed into unconsciousness from the electric shocks and even died. In reality, the learners were not actually being shocked. Instead, the voice and screams heard through the loudspeaker were from a tape recorder, and the learners that some teachers saw were only pretending to be in agony. Watch the video below to hear Stanley Milgram explain his research and to see footage from the original experiment.

Before his study began, Milgram consulted several psychologists, who assured him that no sane person would be willing to administer lethal shock in his experiments. He thus was shocked (pun intended) to find that more than half the teachers went all the way to 450 volts in the experiments, where they could only hear the learner over a loudspeaker and not see him. Even in the experiments where the learner was sitting next to the teacher, some teachers still went to 450 volts by forcing a hand of the screaming, resisting, but tied-down learner onto a metal plate that completed the electric circuit.

Milgram concluded that people are quite willing, however reluctantly, to obey authority even if it means inflicting great harm on others. If that could happen in his artificial experiment situation, he thought, then perhaps the Holocaust was not so incomprehensible after all, and it would be too simplistic to blame the Holocaust just on the authoritarianism of German culture. Instead, perhaps its roots lay in the very conformity to roles and group norms that makes society possible in the first place. The same processes that make society possible may also make tragedies like the Holocaust possible.


Think Like A Sociologist

During the Iraq War, American forces took over Abu Ghraib, a notorious prison used by the Iraqi government, and made it into their own military prison. The entire Army prison system was overseen by Janis Karpinski, an Army Reserve brigadier general, and staffed by military personnel. Most of them, including Karpinski, had no experience running a prison. Abu Ghraib housed three types of detainees: common criminals, security detainees suspected of crimes against the U.S. military and coalition allies, and a small number of “high value” opposition leaders.

Abu Ghraib quickly became overcrowded and rife with abuse, ranging from intimidation to torture. Some prisoners were made to wear dog collars and forced to act like dogs in order to humiliate them, while other detainees were kept naked, forced to simulate sexual acts and/or piled naked in a pyramid. The worst of the abuse involved electric wires attached to the hands and genitals of some prisoners. While these dehumanizing acts, “would be unacceptable in any culture, it is particularly so in the Arab world, where homosexual acts are against Islamic law and it is humiliating for men to be naked in front of other men” (Hersh, 2004). Detainees were tortured, raped, beaten and even killed. Some of this mistreatment was photographed.

Indeed, the soldiers who perpetrated these acts did not try to hide their actions. Rather, it seemed almost routine. Staff Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick, one of the American soldiers who was later prosecuted for his actions, casually blamed the prisoners for behavior forced upon them. He stated, “look what these animals do when you leave them alone for two seconds” (Hersh, 2004). In fact, some of the soldiers received encouragement by military intelligence officers, who would tell them they were getting great results from their interrogations. Others said they had sought clarification on the rules for detainee treatment but received no support.

image of prisoner in ragged cape and hood standing on box with electrodes attached to his hands

Iraqi detainees in the military prison Abu Ghraib were subjected to a variety of abusive practices. This photo, taken by one of the soldiers charged with guarding prisoners, shows a hooded prisoner with electrical wires attached to his hands; the prisoner was told he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box he was standing on. One of the perpetrators of this abuse, Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, is pictured at right. U.S. Government copyright – Public domain – Wikimedia Commons

Other soldiers passing through were shocked by what they saw and made both anonymous and signed complaints, but these went ignored. Amnesty International published reports of human rights abuses in 2003, but it was not until 2004 when media outlets like CBS News and 60 Minutes published photos from Abu Ghraib and filed reports on the abuse that the public became aware.

An investigation ensued. The resulting official report found profound failure of leadership at the highest levels of the Army, even so, General Karpinski was only relieved of her command and formally reprimanded; no criminal proceedings were pursued. In interviews, Karpinski was unwilling to accept responsibility for the problems caused by poor leadership. Ultimately, seventeen members of the military were removed from duty and eleven soldiers were court martialed, convicted and sentenced to prison, including Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, who received a seven-year prison sentence. Two soldiers with the lowest rank, Specialist Charles Graner, who was said to be the ringleader, and Private First-Class Lynndie England, Graner’s girlfriend, were convicted of more serious charges. Graner was sentenced to 10 years in prison and England to three years. Several higher-ranking officials, accused of perpetrating and authorizing the measures, were not prosecuted. No one was convicted for the murder of the detainees.

Fourteen years later, Jeremy Sivits, who received a one-year prison sentence, said of his actions, “Everybody’s like: ‘Well, why didn’t you do this? Why didn’t you do that? It just happens and happens. You lose track of time, and it’s like you’re in a big warp.” (McKelvey, 2018).

Military culture relies on strict adherence to the chain of command. Soldiers undergo resocialization to learn to follow orders, rather than question them, and to understand the behaviors (roles) expected of their rank (status).

How does a sociological understanding of military values and norms, as well as research findings related to group behavior, provide a framework to understand how the abuse of detainees occurred at Abu Ghraib prison?


Test Yourself


Section 5.3 References

Asch, S. E. (1958). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. In E. E. Maccoby, T. M. Newcomb, & E. L. Hartley (Eds.), Readings in social psychology. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 

Baryar. (2019, August 13). Milgram obedience study. YouTube. Retrieved rom https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtjvQ35EsgE.

Fischer, Peter, et al. The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies.  Psychological Bulletin 137.4 (2011): 517-537. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-08829-001

Gastil, J. (2009). The group in society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

Hersh, S. M. (2004, April 30). Torture at Abu Ghraib. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/05/10/torture-at-abu-ghraib.

Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.

Latané, B. and J. M. Darley. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 10: 215–221.

McKelvey, T. (2018, May 16). ‘I hated myself for Abu Ghraib abuse’. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/44031774. 

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority. New York, NY: Harper and Row. 

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Barr, Scott, Sarah Hoiland, Shailaja Menon, Cathay Matresse, Florencia Silverira and Rebecca Vonderhaar.  (n.d.).  Introduction to Sociology. Introduction to Sociology | Simple Book Production. Lumen Learning.  License: CC BY 4.0. License Terms:  Access for free at https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-introductiontosociology/.

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