Sarah: Psychology Paper

The Change in Character Based on the Influence of the Group

 

Sarah E. Schriner

Dr. Fischer

November 19th, 2014

 

In everyday life we make choices, consciously and unconsciously, based on interactions with the groups within which we live our lives. As humans, we often experience conflict between wanting to conform to the group’s beliefs, morals and actions; and the desire to be unique. Therefore, social behavior is highly susceptible to influence depending on the group dynamics surrounding the individual. Often however, because of peer pressure, an individual’s behavior can seem “out of character.”

 

Social influences can be either positive or negative. However many scientific experiments or events looked at through a sociologist perspective, tend to focus on the more negative outlook of the experiment or event. The brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964, as chronicled in the book, Psychology by Richard A. Griggs (p. 289), is a dramatic example of a negative influence of social group dynamics on the behavior of those involved.

 

 “Kitty Genovese was returning home from work late one night, when she was attacked in front of her apartment building. She screamed for help and struggled with the knife-wielding attacker. Many apartment residents heard her pleas for help and looked out their windows. The attacker started to flee, but when no one intervened, the attacker continued his assault. The struggle continued for 35 minutes before the attacker finally fatally stabbed her. Not only did her cries for help go unanswered, but even more mystifying, no one called the police. (Griggs, 289).”

 

How was it that a woman being murdered just outside these apartments suffered for thirty five minutes in agonizing pain, responding with gut wrenching screams that were heard all down the street -- yet no action was taken? If this situation had occurred with just one-bystander, verses the thirty some residents that witnessed it, how would the outcome be different? Group dynamics can lead the individual to believe: ‘Someone else will do it.’ And that thought is a very dangerous one in a group of people. This, apparently, is the identical thought that these apartment residents had while looking out their windows. It was not what Griggs refers to as “apathy;” but rather the “bystander effect.” The meaning of this latter term is: “The probability of an individual helping in an emergency is greater when there is only one bystander, than when there are many bystanders” (Griggs, 304). No one is willing to step up and take personal responsibility because of the diffusion of responsibility. This phenomenon is also described as: “The lessening of individual responsibility for a task when responsibility for the task is spread across the members of a group.” (Griggs, 304).

 

The behavior of these people when acting alone would be quite the opposite from their behavior as members of a group. When the responsibility for action, in this case calling the police, rests on one individual -- more often than not that action will take place because the outcome of that situation falls heavily on an identifiable person’s shoulders, and is not relying on group awareness. Diffusion thus plays a large role in de-individuation: “The loss of self-awareness and self-restraint in a group situation that fosters arousal and anonymity” (Griggs, 305).

 

As members of a group of people feel less responsibility and therefore more free, often this feeling then can lead them into decision-making not usual for that person’s normal, individual behavior. Thoughts acted upon in this state are hardly ever thought out and very spontaneous. The negative effects of ones actions in this same state are not considered as much. You may not think much of the negative consequences of these actions when only influencing one person on an individual level, however in a group setting this can be a recipe for disaster. What I just described is often displayed in such things as: mob violence, riots and vandalism. Being a part of a group’s ‘anonymity’ leads to a reduction of personal responsibility for actions And the attendant excitement that comes with some group behavior, can lead to a quickly deteriorating situation. It can sometimes create shocking behavior that is never to be expected from a certain person, given their character. Yet this can very quickly become normative behavior within a group setting.

 

Social Psychology, by Jonathan L. Freedman, brought light to the topic of social conformity within a group. “In 1895 Le Bon suggested that people in a mob tend to feel and behave the same way because of the emotions of one person spread through the group (Freedman, 595).” Emotions and the feeling of a situation, highly impact our actions or reactions. And when surrounded by a group, the emotions tend to often be somewhat contagious.

 

As an example for me on a personal level: The emotions I feel at “Praise and Worship” on Tuesday nights in Christ the King Chapel are mainly based on the phenomenon of experiencing the feeling of the music amidst a group of people. We could never reach that deep of a worship state, I believe, without the group dynamics and the energy that emerges from it. This is a very positive influence of group dynamics impacting an atmosphere.

 

Our actions tend to be formed by society and its rules. What often results are morals we have developed over the course of our lives, and the values we hold in importance. However “when one person does something, even if it would be ordinarily unacceptable to most of the group members, everyone else tends to do it also (Freedman, 595).” This is what he calls contagion. By labeling the action, he is comparing this behavior to that of a disease. It is a disease within a group that would spread just as quickly as the flu, if we all drank out of the same cup – and someone, toward the beginning, indeed had the flu. “Freud explained contagion in terms of a breakdown of the normal control mechanism that each person has internalized (Freedman, 595).” What a scary thought! That is, even when a person feels grounded within their own morals, a negative group setting can quickly reverse any concrete attachment to those personal values.

 

In four years, we will be leaving Franciscan University of Steubenville. We will also be leaving a setting that has helped nurture a good deal of spiritual growth and formation of our Catholic values in general. Things that we have developed over our time here. This formation is often considerable, and as a result, many Franciscan students believe they will not be influenced by the secular society that they will be active participants in once they are out of our “bubble” on top of this hill.

 

However realistically, the groups we surround ourselves with -- and also naturally find ourselves in – will influence us, whether we like it or not. They will either help strengthen, or diminish, our desire to hold firm to our Catholic values.

The author, Freedman, draws conclusions about the anonymity of a group, or rather the individuals within the group -- and how they relate to being anonymous. Anonymity often opens the door for actions to be taken, or words spoken, that in many other instances would not occur. Modern technology has become a tool for this. Although it is not completely anonymous, communication through texting, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, promotes sort of a ‘one-level-removed from direct face-to-face contact’ situation. As a result, sometimes what is said in a text message, would never have been said in a face-to-face encounter.

 

When interactions can occur with distance from the other person, a degree of “false courage” can occur. This is, again, the result of a level of anonymity. “In a mob, most of the people do not stand out as individuals. They blend together and, in a sense, do not have an identity of their own. Conversely, to the extent that they are identifiable and feel that they are, they retain their feelings of individuality and are less likely to act irresponsibly (Freedman, 596).”

 

In a group setting, this anonymity is crucial for the outcome of a mob and its dynamics, negative or positive.

“The critical variable in all the research on individuation is not membership in a group, but anonymity (Freedman, 598).” This expands further on the idea that people within in a group, that act in ways not accepted by society, are less likely to be punished for these actions -- than that of one individual acting in the same deviant way. However it is important to note, that there is not much, tangibly measurable information to be used as evidence of the idea of de-individuation.

 

Nevertheless, there is strong theoretical evidence that most of the false courage, deviant behavior, and such, come from the protection and support ultimately provided from alliance with, say, a negative group.

 

Groupthink is a concept that occurs within a group during a group consensus decision-making process. “The desire for group harmony overrides a realistic appraisal of the possible decisions. The primary concern is to maintain group consensus (Griggs, 307).” This concept of thinking and decision-making is a very dangerous one and can often lead to a negative outcome as we see with the case of the Challenger disaster.

 

“In the case of the Challenger disaster, for example, the engineers who made the shuttle’s rocket boosters opposed the launch because of dangers posed by the cold temperatures to the seals between the rocket segments (Esser and Lindoerfer, 1989). However the engineers were unsuccessful in arguing their case with the group of NASA officials, who were suffering from an illusion of infallibility. To maintain an illusion of unanimity, these officials didn’t bother to make the top NASA executive who made the final launch decision aware of engineers’ concerns. The result was tragedy (Griggs, 307)”

 

Infallibility is the illusion that the group cannot make mistakes. Because of the pressure to succeed with this shuttle launch, the NASA officials dismissed sound science, to make sure the launch occurred. The group dynamics with the NASA officials, allowed for this ‘group conscious’ to condone something that was potentially very dangerous. However if it had just been one official, with the responsibility of relaying the factually correct information, it might have been different. That is, because of the direct weight of responsibility on that official’s shoulders, his actions might well have been much different than those the group of officials took.

 

Group dynamics, and the influence it has over a person’s character, involves many different variables. What is most important about knowledge of groups, when it comes to group influences on a personal level, is not making irrational statements and assumptions suggesting that groups cannot affect our morals and values, either negative or positive. Because in reality, this is often times false. 

 

It has been demonstrated time and again, that there are direct links between “groupthink” and actions. And one should weigh this information when making decisions about what group(s) to be involved with.

 

“For better or for worse, the individual is always a member of groups. It would appear no matter how “autonomous” and how “strong” his personality, the commonly shared norms, beliefs, and practices of his groups bend and shape and mold the individual (Krech, 486).”

 

This can be either a positive influence, or negative one. The group’s positive influence on an individual’s character at times allows a person to feel “comfortable” within his or her own skin. And as a result, this often helps that person feel more liberated to freely express themselves. However these group dynamics often only occurs when the group is sought out and developed around a common interest.

 

Negative influences of the group upon an individual’s character are where most of scientific research is focused around this topic. The research looks at, for instance, how quickly a group can diminish personal morals and values. It looks at how group anonymity allows for more outrageous actions. And it looks at how the responsibility of action lies on a group’s collective shoulders, verses an individual’s shoulders.

 

Group dynamics have the power to influence, shape, form, and change our deepest moral values.

 

 

Source References

Freedman, Jonathan L. Social Psychology. Fourth ed. Englewood: Prentice-Hall, 1981. Print.

Griggs, Richard A. Psychology: A Concise Introduction. New York: Worth, 2009. Print.

Krech, David. Individual in Society; a Textbook of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962. Print.