Group Influence on Behaviour

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, such as shared ethnicity, and who may constitute small communities or be part of a larger community.  People’s sense of belonging may be strengthened by rituals and participation in group activities.

Amitai Etzioni’s article, Strength in numbers, described the supportive value of communities, and their role in governance:

“Many communities are confessional, ethnic or both. They tend to command a strong sense of loyalty and mutual responsibility – like families writ large. Critics often call them ‘tribal’.”

“Communities, importantly, also provide informal social controls that reinforce the moral commitments of their members and, in turn, help make for a largely voluntary social order. The most effective way to reinforce norms of behaviour is to build on the fact that people have a strong need for continuous approval from others, especially from those with whom they have affective bonds of attachment (members of their communities). Communities can consequently strengthen adherence to social norms.”

The penalties for non-compliance take the form of moral sanctions, which can be very effective.  Stigmatising bad behaviour puts pressure on people who are transgressing and ostracising them can have a profound impact.

Groups tend to form, and start to develop friction between themselves and other groups, on the basis of even tiny perceived differences.  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 [chapter IV].  Henri Tajfel formalised this as Social Identity Theory, described on the Simply Psychology website as follows:

“Henri Tajfel proposed that stereotyping (i.e. putting people into groups and categories) is based on a normal cognitive process: the tendency to group things together. In doing so we tend to exaggerate:

  1. the differences between groups
  2. the similarities of things in the same group.

This is known as in-group (us) and out-group (them). The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that group members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image.”

The article cited examples of this behaviour which include Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants, and rival football teams.  The potential for ethnic conflict between groups is discussed later (

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 instructions – as demonstrated in The Milgram shock experiment, described on the Simply Psychology website:

“Stanley Milgram was interested in how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities, for example, Germans in WWII.”

He researched “how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person”, in this case administering an electric shock.  “65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e., teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts,” which had been explained to them as “Danger: Severe Shock”.

Many people, particularly the young, feel that their popularity in social groups such as Facebook – where they seek to be ‘liked’ – is very important to their happiness, as described in an article: Why Do We Get So Obsessed With ‘Likes’ On Social Media?



This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3a book, © PatternsofPower.org, 2020.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/4322a.htm