Getting culture right Part 2: Understanding group psychology

This is the second post on getting cultures right in schools. You can find Part 1, on social norms and using normative messages, here.

We are essentially social animals and have evolved to thrive in groups. Although we tend to be disposed to share resources and cooperate with those we perceive as belonging to our group, we are worryingly ready to discriminate against anyone we see as an outsider.

Creating a community with a sense of belonging is the ambition of all schools. In part, this involves creating a sense that students are part of an in-group – whether in a local sense of membership of a form group or a house, or the larger scale sense of belonging to the school community. We readily identify with a social group, even forming in-groups with individuals with whom we actually have little in common other than fairly superficial labels. It seems reasonable to expect that the more meaningful these groups are, the stronger or deeper the feelings of belonging will be. Most of the experiments into group identity have utilised competition as the basis of creating a sense of ‘shared fate’ for members of the group. Schools regularly attempt to harness this in the shape of inter-form or inter-house style competitions.

Generating competition between groups

Competition can be a positive way to generate a sense of group identity, but it can also have a darker side. Muzafer Sherif’s famous 1954 ‘Robber’s Cave’ experiment suggested that competition can – especially high-stakes competition for limited resources – exacerbate inter-group tensions. In the study, 24 boys were divided into two teams and, at first, had no contact with one another. Over the course of five or six days, each group formed a strong in-group identity, spontaneously adopting the names ‘The Rattlers’ and ‘The Eagles’. As each group became aware of the existence of the other, their in-group identity was reinforced and they became defensive that the out-group might be ‘abusing’ the camp facilities. Researchers organised competitive events between the two groups with desirable prizes for the winners and no consolation prize for second place. These were intended to create some inter-group frustration and it appears to have been highly successful. Within a few days the groups started name-calling and singing derogatory songs about the other group; one group raided the others’ camp and took any prizes they could find, and almost came to blows when the theft was discovered. Researchers found that each group would attribute unfavourable characteristics – sneakiness & cowardice – to the out-group and favourable characteristics – bravery and cunning – to their in-group.

In the 1970s, Henri Tajfel conducted a range of experimental studies aimed at identifying in-group and out-group bias. Comprehensive school students involved in the studies believed they were assigned to groups based on some characteristic. These characteristics were pretty superficial; for example, in one experiment, students were shown pairs of paintings and picked their preference. Afterwards, they were told they had been put into groups based on whether they had preferred paintings by different artists. In reality, students were randomly assigned into groups regardless of the pictures they had picked.

Despite the fact that these groups were based on trivial differences, Tajfel discovered that it influenced the decisions students made when playing an economic game. It seemed that, no matter how the contrived the structure of the groups was, students made decisions that unambiguously favoured members of their in-group. However, this bias wasn’t simply an attempt to maximise outcomes for the student’s own group, but to maximise the advantage over the out-group. In other words, where a rational choice might have led to the in-group scoring more points this was rejected in favour of a choice which discriminated against the out-group.

What these studies appear to show is that social groups readily form around even the most trivial (and sometimes non-existent) differences. We are prone to form a social identity based on any identifiable objective or subjective criteria. When we interact based on these social group identities we tend to ‘like’ members of our in-group more (i.e. rate them as having more pleasant personalities) and act to maximise the difference in resources between our in-group versus the out-group. This positive impression of individuals within our in-group almost certainly benefits the self-esteem of the members of that group. The downside is that we tend to show discriminatory bias in favour of individuals identified as part of our in-group and against those we see as outsiders.

There may be a pattern to the cognitive development of in-group and out-group bias. Research by Dominic Abrams suggests that intergroup biases (bias in favour of a member of an in-group) tend to form earlier than intragroup biases (bias against in-group members who deviate from expected social norms). His research studied 5 to 11-year-olds and found that as children get older, they don’t only make judgements based on group membership alone, but start to combine these with social judgements on the basis how well individual’s stick to the social norms of their group.

This implies that the nature of bullying may alter as students get older. Younger students may target individuals they identify as outside of their social group, especially where that in-group has a social norm related to hostility towards an out-group and individuals believe their status within the group will be enhanced by hostile acts towards members of that out-group. In older students this may combine with hostility towards perceived deviants within their in-group. It’s not uncommon for bullying to emerge from volatile friendship groups – where the individual being victimised was formerly friends with the group that is doing the bullying, but has deviated from some expected attitude or behaviour of that group.

Overcoming inter-group discrimination

It’s important not to exaggerate the negative effects of competition – they likely intensify in-group/out-group distinctions – acting to bolster feelings of in-group membership as well as out-group difference. In the Robber’s Cave experiment, Sherif’s team tried to overcome the inter-group tensions and encourage friendly interaction between the two groups of boys by creating a series of contrived scenarios involving superordinate goals – tasks which would require significant cooperation between the two groups. Over time, these superordinate activities appeared to successfully reduce the inter-group tensions – to the extent that on the bus home the boys did not sit along group lines and The Rattlers used prize money to buy malted milks for both groups of boys.

Another well-known classroom intervention intended to break down inter-group prejudice is the ‘jigsaw technique’ developed by Elliot Aronson. In order to tackle racial prejudice amongst students, Aronson organised the teaching of a topic so that students worked in small but ethnically diverse interdependent groups. Each student in a group was given part of the topic to study, before all students in that group would bring their ‘pieces’ together to form the whole picture. Thus, all members of the group were brought together by a superordinate goal – having to work together to combine the separate information each student possessed. Aronson found that this method of classroom teaching appeared to reduce prejudice towards group members belonging to an ethnic minority. What’s unclear is whether the reduction in prejudice was generalised beyond the individual member of a minority group taking part in the classroom exercise. It seems possible that attitudes towards the individual working within the group are improved, but that generally held prejudicial views towards that member’s ethnic group may not be altered, at least in the longer term. As an aside, it’s worth noting that reviews of academic outcomes appear to show the original jigsaw technique was ineffective at helping students actually learn the material.

Finding a level of healthy competition which effectively brings students together without setting different groups of students at odds with one another is probably a good bet for helping to create a sense of membership within a cohesive school community.

Beyond competition, however, schools also make use of superordinate goals in order to foster a broader spirit of school community. Charity fundraising events requiring cooperation across different forms, year groups or houses are one example commonly seen in schools. Perhaps the key element for creating a successful superordinate goal is that it requires significant cooperation between members of different groups – merely interacting isn’t sufficient, again it requires a strong sense of ‘shared fate’ to overcome entrenched in-group and out-group distinctions. 

Shaping healthier peer groups

Group socialisation theory, the brainchild of Judith Rich Harris, explains that culture is primarily transmitted between peers rather than from parents to children, and that a big part of the reason we end up thinking and acting as we do is due to group socialisation. The theory predicts that the most important variable for determining children’s educational success is the peer culture at their school. In a selective school, parents go to some trouble to make sure their children pass a demanding entrance exam and, although some people don’t want to admit it, grammar schools serve largely homogenous populations of parents with similar socioeconomic status. Parents’ values are handed down to children whilst they’re at home and continue to hold sway as long as these are values shared by a critical mass on the child’s peer group. If a small minority of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds attend the school, they will take on the values shared by their peers and abandon those of their parents. They’ll start to speak differently – at least whilst at school – and, because the school is academically selective, they’re likely to take on beliefs about the value of hard work and be increasingly motivated by academic achievement.

But, if the minority group is large enough – there’s a lot of uncertainty about this but it could be that as few as 3 or 4 members are required – then students are likely to identify with those most like themselves and be socialised in opposition to the dominant group. Differences between groups tend to exaggerate over time as they become increasingly distinct. Harris reckons that “no circle is more vicious than the one having to do with intelligence.” The heritability of intelligence actually increases over time; the cleverer you are, the better the choices you’re likely to make, the more likely you are to get cleverer still. Group contrast effects can have an indirect but profound effect on the heritability of IQ. If the group values hard work and good behaviour, individuals within the group will learn more; if the group thinks school is for geeks and trying hard is for losers, individuals within the group will learn less. So, hat starts as a different attitude to schoolwork might well end up as a difference in average IQ.

The stereotypes espoused by a group can have a lasting influence on group members. If the group values hard work then it becomes important to identify as a hard worker. If our group values mucking about and being defiant, then that’s how we’re likely to identify. When we find ourselves in situations where we’re torn between two sets of values, we experience what Claude Steele dubbed ‘stereotype threat‘. Steele found that all you had to do to make African-American students perform worse on a test was to give them a pre-test questionnaire which included a question about race. Simply being reminded of our group affiliations is enough to trigger the associated stereotypes about who we’re supposed to be. Aware of the negative stereotypes related to their minority group, members of the group may lack a feeling of acceptance or belonging within the school as an institution. This absence of ‘social belonging’ may act to undermine performance in school.

In some schools, students gain status within their peer groups by being academically successful. But this might also explain why children from lower socioeconomic status tend to do worse in grammar schools; if there are sufficient students from a similar background they’re likely to band together around their own shared values and see themselves as distinct to the majority, retaining the attitudes and behaviours they brought with them to the school.

If you want schools or classes to be successful you need to address the peer culture. Teachers and school leaders have some real power in this regard. Leaders can do much to change the characteristics of the group and, thankfully, leaders do not have to be group members to be successful leader.

There are three ways teachers can shape peer culture:

  1. By defining group norms. You don’t have to influence every member of a group, you just need to nudge enough of the most influential members. This then generates a kind of ‘herd immunity’ against poor choices and bad behaviour. (See the section on ‘seed groups’ in this post.)
  2. By defining the boundaries of the group. We can, to a greater or lesser extent, control who is in and who is out, who is us and who is them. Of course it’s possible for subcultures to form within classes and schools but by engendering strong social norms we can make belonging to the in-group both inclusive and desirable.
  3. By defining the image or the stereotype students have of themselves. If we encourage students to value hard work and disciplined behaviour in each other, then we will have done our job; they will police the social norms themselves.
Most of this post is adapted from Nick Rose’s chapter on In-groups and Out-groups in What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology.

3 Responses to Getting culture right Part 2: Understanding group psychology

  1. […] Getting culture right Part 2: Understanding group psychology (The Learning Spy) If you want schools or classes to be successful you need to address the peer culture. Teachers and school leaders have some real power in this regard. Leaders can do much to change the characteristics of the group and, thankfully, leaders do not have to be group members to be successful leader. […]

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    One of the chief aims of our free school project in Oldham was to break down the barriers between ethnic Asian and white British pupils by assigning them to houses that all had roughly the same mix both in terms of ability and race. The houses would be a central feature of the school, with each house meeting every school day under the supervision of former NCOs who know a thing or two about using intensive competition in a constructive spirit. The more able pupils would tutor those who needed additional support–one of the great vitues of the military is the instinctive understanding of the need to practise past the point of perfection. The British Army got there long before Dan Willingham! Our NCOs would be trained in the use of direct instruction materials which would be the primary means by which deficits in basic skills would be remediated; these are also suitable for peer tutoring. Regular testing would reveal which houses were most successful in helping their least able pupils catch up.

    I doubt that this would have dismantled pupils’ racial prejudices altogether, but it certainly would have helped. Sadly, our first education adviser–who was very positive and helpful–was replaced by one who made little effort to conceal his hostility to our ethos. This was openly expressed by my own union, the NASUWT, who thought that our proposal was

    “…predicated on the fetishisation of troops and the insulting suggestion that physically powerful adults (men) are needed to teach working class children. It downgrades the professional status and expertise of teachers, suggesting that effective teaching for some groups of young people can be reduced to the use of simplified, structured materials and operating manuals.”

  3. […] Peer culture tends to be more aligned to academic success in some schools because students come from backgrounds where education is prized. In schools with a larger proportion of students from backgrounds were this is not the case, school leaders have to work harder to make the cultural shifts necessary for academic success. This isn’t fair, but it is true. In some schools it’s unnecessary to have zero-tolerance approaches to low-level disruption because it’s rare. In other schools this isn’t the case. If you’re fortunate enough to work in a school where you have to work less hard to align peer culture with academic success, you should never look down on the efforts of those who lead schools where students can’t afford the luxury of being allowed to mess about. I written some ideas about changing peer culture and social norms here and here. […]

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