A Group Doesn’t Even Have To Exist To Affect Our Behavior

Just the mere feeling of belonging to a group with a shared mission can make children persist longer and learn better, according to a new study by Stanford University professors. As reported in the BPS Research Digest:

“Researchers Allison Master and Gregory Walton assigned 55 children (average age 4 years) to one of three conditions before testing them on a challenging jigsaw puzzle. In one condition, the children were told that they were members of ‘the Blue Group’ that did puzzles. Although they were alone, the children donned a blue t-shirt, sat on a blue chair, and the puzzle box had a blue sticker on it. They were further told that children in the ‘the Green group’ do other things.

Children in the control groups were either given an individual identity (they were told that they were ‘child number 3′ and that ‘child number 3 does puzzles’) or simply worked at the puzzle with no mention of groups or identities.

Even though they worked alone and there was no history to their group membership, the children in the Blue Group condition were fired up by their belonging to the group that does puzzles. They persisted 29 per cent longer on the puzzle than children in the ‘child number 3′ condition and 35 per cent longer than children not allocated to a group or individual identity.

Master and Walton believe the children in the Blue Group condition readily internalized the purpose of the group—to do puzzles—in a way that didn’t happen for kids in the the individual puzzle identity condition, or the no-intervention control condition.

To test this, the researchers conducted second study, similar to the first, but this time some of the children were allocated to a Blue Group ‘that does puzzles,’ while others were allocated to a Blue Group without any mention of the group existing to do puzzles. Children in the Blue Group ‘that does puzzles’ persisted for 39 per cent longer than the children in the purposeless Blue Group, thus reinforcing the idea that the benefit comes from readily internalizing the group’s stated mission.

A third and final study followed a similar procedure but a word learning task was substituted for the puzzle task (it involved learning the names for four alien objects). The children led to believe they belonged to a group that ‘looks at alien toys and learns their names’ later outperformed by 38 per cent other children who’d been told they were the child who ‘looks at alien toys and learns their names.’

‘These findings underscore the importance of group identity for young children’s motivation and learning,’ the researchers said. ‘They suggest that children readily develop socially shared motivations with in-groups and that this shared motivation can lead children to put forth sustained effort on challenging academic tasks and to learn more from such tasks even in the absence of other children or members of their group.’ (Read more here.)

What’s interesting here is just how minimal these groups were—they didn’t even really exist!—and how much they affected the children’s behavior nonetheless. In an earlier study, Gregory Walton called this state “mere belonging”—a minimal social connection that still exerts a powerful influence on us. Fascinating, since we’re used to thinking of group membership as something deep, lasting and profound, although clearly it needn’t be.

2 Responses to “A Group Doesn’t Even Have To Exist To Affect Our Behavior”

  1. I think more research is needed for this theory to be conclusive.
    Besides, I think the competition element partly contributed to the group members doing better.

  2. It would be interesting to see how this effect changes as children get older. Does it have any bearing on say high school and college/university students and group work

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