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How Groups Can Influence People in Negative and Positive Ways Essay

How groups can influence people in negative and in positive ways. By definition a group is a number of people who are regarded as a unit. They are united by a shared interest or belief, be that religion, sport, or politics. All groups have their own identity, we as people have multiple ones. From a social perspective, an individual is often defined by who they are and what they do; a parent, a child or a friend, and by what line of work or study they are in.

Cultural identity is defined by ethnicity, and group identity comes from having a sense of belonging, having a ‘them and us mentality’. This essay will look at how different roles and identities can influence social behaviour when belonging to a group, both in a negative and a positive way. Tajfel and Turner (1979, cited in spoors et al. , 2011) developed the social identity theory, a theory that describes how belonging to a group forms a significant part in the individual group member’s self-concept. Having a ‘we’ rather than an ‘I’ concept.

They suggest there are three key stages to joining a group. The first being social categorisation; this is for the individual to be given a label; Christian, gay, snob, Geordie, disabled are a few examples. The next stage is social identification; where the individual takes on the group’s characteristics and becomes defined by the group’s behaviour. The final stage is social comparison; members of a group view it from a positive point of view, often forming an elevated opinion of the group they belong to.

People can take on defined roles when involved in group activity; influence on these roles can be from observing other members of the group’s behaviour, or a personal representation of the defining role. Zimbardo (1971, cited in spoors et al. , 2011) conducted an experiment to determine how roles within a group can influence people’s behaviour. During the experiment participants were given a ‘guard’ or a ‘prisoner’ role. The experiment ended prematurely as participants took their roles to extremes, ‘guards’ became increasingly aggressive, and ‘prisoners’ became withdrawn and emotionally distressed.

This could be an example of how people’s expectations of a role they have no experience in can influence behaviour. They may have been influenced by other member’s actions, or by a stereotypical character portrayed by the media, leading them to have behaved negatively and ‘out of character’. Kondo (1990 cited in spoors et al. , 2011) is a Japanese/American student. In her personal account of living in Japan, she writes how she finds the roles and expectations of her by the Japanese family she is staying with became quite challenging and disturbing.

She felt her own identity was slowly being replaced with the obligation to act appropriately to whichever role she was playing, be it guest, daughter, student or a Japanese woman. During a traditional tea ceremony Kondo received high praise from her Japanese teacher for her performance. She states she was ‘inordinately pleased’ by the praise but did feel she had to ‘escape’ before she changed completely, this shows both negative and positives to social conformity. Kondo feeling pressured into conforming to set standards and rules can also apply to some group behaviour.

In 1997 the ‘heaven’s gate’ cult lost thirty nine members to mass suicide. They believed their souls would be transferred to a spaceship. These members may have become too dependent on the group, maybe so fearful of their leaders to not go ahead, or the sense of belonging and comfort they felt being part of the group; they had such conviction in their beliefs they carried the suicide through. This is group conformity to the extreme, and in this case had a negative outcome, but some form of conformity is necessary in society so it can be a benefit to the majority.

Belonging to a group can lead to an in-group out-group culture. With groups being defined and identified by their roles, beliefs and behaviour, comparisons are often made between one group’s identity and others, be it sports teams, gangs, social groups, religion, or different cultures. Having an inflated opinion of the individuals group can encourage them to view any other group as inferior; this can lead to competition and conflict between groups. A good example of a ‘them and us’ situation is the robbers cave experiment conducted by Sherif (1961 cited in spoors et al. 2011) A group of boys staying at summer camp were split into two groups, and a tournament was set up. The good sportsmanship of the group quickly turned into aggression and prejudice. Although once given tasks where the two groups had to work together, they boys worked positively and cooperated with each other. In-group traits can occur even where there is no history of involvement between the groups involved. Taifel (1971 cited in spoors et al. , 2011) conducted an experiment where a ‘virtual’ group situation was set up.

Participants were given a task believing they were part of a group, but were in fact working as an individual. In-group favouritism was still present. Loyalty and cooperation is a positive outcome for the in-group mentality, but it has its negative traits in the hostility and aggression it can provoke towards the out-group. Emotional values are given to the individual depending on the behaviour of the group; anti-social behaviour would define them in a negative way, just as being seen to belong to a ‘good’ ‘kind’ or ‘charitable’ group would have a positive emotional effect on the individual. To conclude, evidence shows there are many positives to belonging to a group. The individual gains a sense of identity, both within the group and in society. Self-esteem, self-worth and sense of belonging are increased. Close bonds are formed with others who share similar characteristics. Having an elevated sense of status within the group can lead to positive behaviour. Self-confidence is increased due to a feeling of safety. Support, praise and encouragement from other group members have a positive impact on behaviour.

There are also many negative aspects to group behaviour, members may be influenced to behave ‘out of character’ from their usual identity through controlling methods within the group dynamic, in some cases separating the group entirely from accepted behaviour within society. Prejudice, violence and discrimination can also be a result of the ‘us and them’ situation. The ‘heavens’ gate example could be viewed as both positive and negative, depending on the perspective, the group members and society would have conflicting views.


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