Group Influence on Behaviour

(This is an archived extract from the book Patterns of Power: Edition 2)

In addition to their family ties, people are also members of many other social groups.  The term ‘groups’ is used here to describe collections of people who have some basis for commonality and who may constitute small communities or be part of a larger community.  Groups tend to form, and start to develop friction between themselves and other groups, on the basis of even tiny perceived differences.[1]  People’s sense of identity and self-esteem is based on their membership of the group, and in some cases individual judgement is almost completely suppressed by the desire to conform to the group’s ethos and to instructions given by a group leader.[2]

Leaders of groups are particularly influential:

·      People who are charismatic tend to become leaders, even if they have no other basis for exerting moral authority (4.3.1).  People lacking in self-confidence are drawn to follow those who have plenty of it.  As a group grows in size, others are attracted to share in the sense of belonging that it offers.  A charismatic leader can develop considerable momentum and power, particularly by appealing to people's emotions, even if he or she is leading the group in a direction which conflicts with its best interests.

·      People in a group model their behaviour on that of the leader.  'Mahatma' Gandhi,[3] who was neither a religious leader nor a politician, but who commanded people’s respect, had an enormous moral influence over the Indian people: urging them to pursue their legitimate claims for self-determination but not to use violence. 

·      Membership of the group is often conditional upon loyalty to the leader, and exclusion is a powerful sanction against disloyalty.

The role of leaders is crucial to the use of moral influence as a form of power.  As with Gandhi, it can be consistent with peaceful behaviour – but negative examples, such as Osama bin Laden, are numerous. 

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014

[1] Social Identity Theory was developed by Henri Tajfel in 1979.  In his paper Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations (p. 23), Tajfel describes a group that was formed merely by the toss of a coin – where ”The results showed clear and consistent evidence of bias in favor of the ingroup”. He quotes several other research findings that corroborate this statement.

In May 2014, a simple summary of Tajfel’s theory appeared at http://www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html.  It includes the sentence “Social identity theory states that the ingroup will discriminate against the outgroup to enhance their self-image” and it cites examples of this behaviour which include Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants, and rival football teams.

Jonathan Swift satirised this human tendency to inter-group conflict, in his book Gulliver's Travels, with the example of the Lilliputians who, having nothing else to fight about, went to war on the basis of how to eat a boiled egg: whether to start at the big end or the little end.

[2] Professor Saadi Lahlou, the director of the Institute of Social Psychology at LSE, said that “humans think and act as social beings rather than rational agents”; he made this point in the ‘Psychology as Social Science’ inaugural lecture on 26 October 2009, entitled How to Control and Change Individual Behaviour: the world as installation.  That quotation comes from the directory entry for the event on the LSE website, where an MP3 download of the lecture was available in May 2014 at http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2009/20090826t1540z001.aspx

He continues by describing how people suspend their autonomy and transfer responsibility to a group leader.  He quoted the famous Milgram experiment as evidence, for which a video was available in May 2014 at http://www.23nlpeople.com/NLP/psychology-experiments-milgram-zimbardo-rosenhan.php. The same link refers to other relevant experiments as well.

[3] The BBC published a brief biography of Mohandas 'Mahatma' Gandhi, which was available in May 2014 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/gandhi_mohandas.shtml.