The Almighty Group

by Vicki on February 7, 2014

At least a couple times this week I’ve heard individuals disparaging others who happen to be in complimentary fields. One instance involved a physician and the other a veterinarian. In both cases, they were discounting alternative approaches to achieving well-being and health.

Both of these examples left me scratching my head.

Why isn’t there more collaboration between these two camps? Where does the animosity and distrust come from? Aren’t these people all playing on the same “help creatures be well” team?

As I thought about it more, this tendency for groups of people who “should” theoretically be able to appreciate alternative points of view or methods can be found in many contexts – government, academic circles, parenting styles, health, religion…the list is endless.

What is this about?

I think some of this contention can be explained by economics, differing philosophies and values. But I also think social psychological theories that shed light on the power of the “group” and group behavior also apply:

  • Group think: The tendency for members of a group to reach decisions without weighing all the facts, especially those contradicting the majority opinion. When groups members agree, and are generally happy with that agreement, we typically do not want to hear contrasting ideas.
  • Group polarization: The tendency for members of a cohesive group to make more extreme decisions due to the lack of opposing views. With group polarization, the group gets so focused and energized about a decision, opposing views are not considered and the push to move forward for a given idea is fueled internally.
  • Discontinuity effect of inter-group conflict: The tendency in some settings for relations between groups to be more competitive, or less cooperative, than relations between individuals
  • Realistic group conflict theory: This theory explains how hostility between groups can arise because of conflicting goals and competition over limited resources (e.g., real or perceived scarcity of money, political power, military protection, or social status)
  • In-group favoritism (and the related implicit egotism): The tendency to favor our own group (versus other groups) because of an unconscious preference for things associated with the self. Positive emotions such as admiration and trust tend to be reserved for the in-group (Brewer, 1999).

My list is by no means exhaustive. But just reading through some of the online research on groups helps make sense about the conflicts I’ve heard this week.

It doesn’t necessarily matter if the groups SHOULD theoretically be able to align, what might matter most is that groups are part of the equation.

What groups do you subscribe to? How does it affect your ability to interpret information? How does group identification affect your perceptions of those in other groups?

In a follow up post I’ll explore how social psychologists have managed to get people to see and move beyond the mighty hold of the group.


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