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Why Do People Act Differently in Groups Than They Do Alone?

Social psychology helps explain the interesting ways we behave when we’re in a group.

Have you ever gone along with the crowd only to end up doing something you regretted? Have you ever joined a team and embraced challenges you would have never embraced on your own? In both cases, being part of a group changed the way you made decisions. But why?

Clinical psychologists, mental health practitioners, and those in the social psychology field have spent years studying group psychology in depth, investigating why our behaviors and decision-making tend to be different when we’re in a group versus when we’re alone. Here are the basics of what we know.

Why Do People Act Differently in Groups Than They Do Alone?

Groups Produce Conformity

When we’re in a group, we have a strong tendency to conform to the norms of that group. This may be due to the fact that, in many ways, groups protect us. In a presociety world, we needed groups—or tribes—in order to protect against predators and acquire enough resources. In modern times, groups protect us from loneliness and/or purposelessness. By conforming, we demonstrate our willingness to be a part of the group, thus increasing the likelihood the group will protect us.

Conformity can be a positive force if the group supports positive behaviors. But our conformity impulse is so strong that it can overwhelm our better judgment. One famous study put participants in a group and asked each member of the group to decide which of three lines was the same length as a fourth line. The answer was obvious, but only one participant was a real test subject. Everyone else had been instructed to choose the wrong answer. Faced with either going against the group or conforming, about 75% of test subjects agreed with the wrong answer at least once during the course of the study.1

Groups Police Behavior

The threat of ostracization also plays a role in maintaining group order. Groups often use ostracization or the threat of ostracization to keep everyone in line with the norms of the group. While you might think of ostracization as an inherently negative action, it can actually be beneficial if the group supports positive behaviors and ethics. A recent Stanford study found that groups that engage in ostracization are better able to reform bullies, protect less assertive members from exploitation, and achieve meaningful cooperation.2

Groups Normalize Behaviors

Numerous studies have found that we often decide how to act based on how those around us are acting.3 To put it another way, if the group says a behavior is okay, we are likely to believe it is, indeed, okay. This is called normalization, and it goes deeper than mere conformity. With conformity, we follow a group’s norms for the sake of getting along. When a specific behavior is normalized in us, we believe it to be normal and proper, which bonds us strongly to groups that believe the same. Depending on what’s being normalized, normalization can either be positive (eating healthy is normal) or negative (using drugs is normal).

Groups Intensify Attitudes

If you join a group of people with opinions similar to your own, your opinions are likely to intensify. Social scientists call this polarization and have observed the phenomenon in multiple studies.2 It’s particularly prevalent when people with similar political opinions come together, but it can happen any time all the members of a group share a similar attitude toward a subject. Polarization occurs because, when our opinions are reinforced by others, we become more certain that our opinions are right and less aware of counterarguments.

Leaders Make a Difference

Most groups have leaders, and those leaders can play a significant role in whether a group supports positive behaviors or negative ones. Bad leaders gain personal power by exploiting our urge to conform, using fear of ostracization (and worse) to motivate action, normalizing unethical behavior to justify their own misdeeds, and/or stifling dissent in order to make their opinions the only opinions. Good leaders, however, can use the ways groups influence behavior to help group members improve themselves and help the group improve an organization or society as a whole.

How Can You Learn More About Social Psychology?

If you’re a psychology professional who is interested in group psychology and want to start or advance a psychology career that focuses on group behaviors, an MS in Psychology can help you reach your goals. Specifically, you should look for a master’s in psychology program with a specialization in social psychology.

If you’re concerned that earning a master’s degree in psychology will interfere with your job or other responsibilities, online education can offer a solution. When you enroll in an online master’s in psychology program, you won’t have to drive to a campus. Instead, you’ll take online psychology courses right from home or from anywhere else you have internet access. Additionally, when you earn an online psychology degree, you can attend class at whatever time of day works best for you.

Online learning is making it possible for working professionals to complete psychology master’s programs and start or advance a rewarding career in psychology. You can join them when you earn your master’s degree in psychology with a social psychology specialization.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an MS in Psychology degree program with a Social Psychology specialization online. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.

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Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,