Groups as Vehicles for Change, Growth, and Productivity – The psychology of groups the intersection of social psychology and psychotherapy research

  • Parks, Craig D; Tasca, Giorgio A

ISBN: 9781433831805 , 1433831899 , 9781433831898; DOI: 10.1037/0000201-005

The psychology of groups the intersection of social psychology and psychotherapy research / , 2021, p.69-85

Principles of cooperation: Implications for group psychotherapy.


It is indisputable that the group is the core of social existence. Other than
the rare person who chooses to live off the grid and in isolation, all of us
depend on collectives for almost everything. Fundamental needs like security,
commerce, education, and infrastructure; psychological needs like support,
well-being, self-understanding, and propriety; and social needs like collaboration, task execution, and communal thriving are satisfied by interactions with

Philosophers have consistently recognized the central role of the group
in life quality. To take just two examples: Aristotle, in his discussion of
eudaimonia, or objective life happiness, argued that it is impossible to achieve
this state without being surrounded by others toward whom one can be
virtuous, helpful, and supportive, and from whom one can receive virtue,
help, and support. Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759/2002)
suggested that achievement of self-interest, as discussed in his Wealth of Nations
(1776/2000), merely satisfies a base need, and once it is met, the person
can turn his or her attention to the higher needs (or, to use Smith’s term, “noble
virtues”) of approval and expression of sympathy, both of which he argued are
innate. To express sympathy and win approval, the person performs good
works for others in the community, which strengthens the community,
allowing others to pursue their needs for approval and a sympathetic expression,
and ultimately results in a strong, tight, and happy society. Aristotle and Smith
both ultimately argued that true happiness is not possible absent positive
engagement with others.
The group, then, can be a vehicle for personal flourishing. Indeed, Aristotle,
Smith, and a host of other philosophers argued that a group is required for
one to flourish. Generosity is a useless trait if there is no one to be generous
toward. How to use groups to promote flourishing is a topic of considerable
interest within psychology.

Indeed, it is one of the oldest topics in the discipline with research stretching back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g., Triplett’s, 1898, studies of physical performance alone versus in the presence of other actors; Pratt’s, 1907, use of patient groups to provide support to tuberculosis sufferers). Researchers study groups as facilitators of workplace productivity, enhancers of health and mental health treatment, and promoters of (positive and negative) social experiences. They try to isolate the factors that distinguish a successful group from a dysfunctional group. They examine how the group experience impacts the individual members and how group dynamics change as a result of the particular combination of individual characteristics that the members bring to the group.
Clearly, group research spans a variety of types of groups and situations.

The questions that arise are: To what extent are phenomena general across groups and situations? Does a factor that impacts the efficacy of a psychotherapy group also play a role in the performance of sports teams? Can a technique that
encourages diligence among members of an exercise group produce similar
results within a work group? One would expect to find hundreds of studies in
the literature that test such questions and regular collaboration among experts
who focus on different types of groups. Unfortunately, this is not so. Although
in the early years of group research, this kind of collaborative cross-disciplinary
the research did happen to some degree, but over at least the past 50 years, group research has largely been siloed. The primary goal of this present work is to promote a reversal of this trend.
What exactly do researchers mean by group? At first glance, this is an unusual
the question, not unlike asking what is meant by tree or dog. But, just as trees and dogs have scientifically determined definitional boundaries—a true tree, for
example, has a trunk that thickens each year, which means that a palm “tree”
is not a tree but a monocotyledon, which is in the same family as sugar cane
and wheat—so does a “group” have a specific set of features that distinguishes
it from a mere collection of people who happen to occupy the same physical
space. For our purposes, a group is a set of people who have assembled for a
a common reason, whose activities are somehow combined into a single output, and who engage in some form of sustained interpersonal interaction.
This definition distinguishes the group from other collections of people, such
as audiences, crowds, queues, and coacting individuals. For example, people
who are all in the same public park on a sunny Saturday afternoon are not a
group because their actions are independent and directed toward different
goals; any effect of one person’s behavior on another person’s outcomes is
likely coincidental. From this, it follows that group members are those individuals
who have a common interest, are engaged in interactions, and are contributing
to the output. Groups are often characterized by fuzzy definitional boundaries
that can make it hard to determine who belongs and who does not (Lamont
& Molnár, 2002), so clarifying what we consider to be a group member is
crucial. Some of the groups that our authors discuss have clear boundaries—
there should be no confusion over whether someone is a member of a
therapy group, for example—but others do not. Should we consider someone
to be a member of a volunteer group if they regularly attend meetings but do
not contribute effort toward projects? What are we to make of someone who
signs up for a physical rehabilitation group but rarely comes to workout
sessions? Should a worker from one department who consults for another
department be considered a member of that second department? How these
questions are answered affects the analyses of these groups.
A similar fuzzy concept is that of a group leader. Once again, for certain groups,
the leader is easily identified, but for many other groups, including some for
which a person has been formally appointed as leader, it is not so clear.
Leaderless groups rarely operate as a true democracy; one or a few members
typically emerge as dominant forces in the group (e.g., Waldman, Atwater,
& Davidson, 2004). Furthermore, if a group has an appointed leader who is
weak or unsupported, members may look to a subordinate colleague to informally manage aspects of the group’s daily functioning (e.g., Wickham &
Walther, 2007). In their chapter on leadership in this volume,
Platow, Haslam, Reicher, Grace, and Cruwys carefully walk us through what a
a leader is and is not, and their framework is applicable to all discussions of
group leadership in this work.
In 1980, Morton Deutsch, a social psychologist who was also a licensed therapist, suggested that the enterprise of studying groups had gone in two directions: (a) a theory-driven approach mostly interested in deriving broadly applicable models to explain one cause while ignoring the contributions of other causes and the question of why the model does not work in certain situations; and (b) a problem-driven approach that sought to identify the strongest solution for one specific situation, pulling in multiple causes but without regard for trying to understand why that particular combination of causes worked or how the approach might be modified to be of use in other situations. Deutsch felt that experimental group researchers were largely following the first path, and group psychotherapy researchers, the second. He was not saying that psychotherapy researchers were ignoring theory or that group psychologists were uninterested in solving real-world problems; rather, his argument was that each set of researchers had coalesced around one approach to research and were only rarely engaging in the other. Group psychologists suggested that their theories might be of value for real groups but never actually tested this hypothesis. Group psychotherapists noted
consistent findings across studies and commented that the consistency might
indicate the existence of a general theoretical principle; however, they often
did not take the time to develop those principles.
Deutsch (1980) felt that the strongest approach to understanding groups
was to unite the two perspectives specifically to identify variables that are
influential across many types of groups and situations, to know the limitations of those variables by identifying groups and situations in which their influence is diminished, to know how the variables combine to impact groups and why those combinations are impactful, and ultimately to be able to enter into any group situation with a solid understanding of what variables to bring to bear so as to produce maximum benefit within the group.
This idea is the guiding principle behind this present work. We recruited as authors experts on some aspect of experimental groups or psychotherapeutic groups and asked them to think broadly about their topic and to discuss how the major findings in their area are pertinent and important for other forms of groups. We were especially interested in identifying and revealing common themes across the two domains of experimental group psychology and of group psychotherapy. A key goal was to reveal that considerable overlap exists between group psychology and group psychotherapy research, and that collaboration across the domains is not difficult.
Floating underneath Deutsch’s (1980) distinction between theory-driven and
problem-driven research is the distinction between intergroup research, which
examines how groups compare with each other on various dynamics, and
intragroup research, which focuses on how individual members impact and are
impacted by, the group environment. Although it is not difficult to find examples
of both types of studies in the group psychology and group psychotherapy
literature, it has generally been the case that laboratory-based researchers
have focused on intergroup dynamics and field-based researchers, on intra-group dynamics. At one level, this is not surprising. Intragroup phenomena typically develop over time and cannot be simulated in ad hoc groups that exist for a single experimental session, and intergroup analyses generally require an ability to control confounding variables to make the groups as comparable as possible. However, it is these very limitations that underscore the need for collaboration. Research that focuses only on within-group phenomena ignores the possibility that those phenomena may ultimately have little bearing on group performance and strictly intergroup comparisons provide no insight into how group members generated their final product. The literature offers excellent examples of what can be learned when intergroup and intragroup approaches are combined—for example, the research on how group member conflict impacts the quality of group decisions (de Wit, Greer, & Jehn, 2012)—but such work is the exception rather than the rule.
A primary focus of Parks’s historical review in this present work is of how the group’s field got to where it is today is the drifting apart of researchers and practitioners: why it happened, how it happened, and why it persists today. Key to the review is that the separation did not always exist. Indeed, for the first few decades of inquiry into group dynamics, researchers and practitioners worked regularly together and often wore both hats. Recall that Morton Deutsch was an academic researcher and a practicing group psychotherapist. There was widespread recognition that research on groups needed to be (in modern terms) translational, and there was no reason to believe that findings generated from the study of a decision-making group would by definition be irrelevant to understanding the dynamics of a T-group, or a workplace assembly line, or an athletic team.
Indeed, early writers often emphasized that their results needed to be tested on intact groups whose procedures had real consequences for its members. Practitioners in turn were hungry for tools and knowledge that would help them more effectively manage the groups that they oversaw, and organizations often asked university-based researchers to conduct research on-site. Practitioners and researchers have thus historically worked side by side toward the goal of better understanding how groups operate and how to use them.

We use the term practitioner in the broad sense to mean anyone who works
with any type of real group on a regular basis. Thus, group psychotherapists are
practitioners but so are athletic coaches, work shift supervisors, youth group
counselors, and military unit officers. In this book, we focus primarily on practitioner psychotherapists, but we believe that all of the chapters are of value and potential interest to anyone who works with real groups or who hopes to someday work with such groups. Indeed, we would be pleased to receive feedback that topics discussed by our authors are applicable to groups that the authors did not mention. Our primary goal is to stimulate this kind of thinking.
__Deutsch, M. (1980). Socially relevant research: Comments on “applied” versus “basic” research. In R. F. Kidd & M. J. Saks (Eds.), Advances in applied social psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 97–112). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.
__de Wit, F. R. C., Greer, L. L., & Jehn, K. A. (2012). The paradox of intragroup conflict: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 360–390.
__Lamont, M., & Molnár, V. (2002). The study of boundaries in the social sciences.
__Pratt, J. H. (1907). The class method of treating consumption in the homes of the poor. JAMA, 49, 755–759.
__Smith, A. (2000). An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. New York, NY: The Modern Library. (Original work published 1776)
__Smith, A. (2002). The theory of moral sentiments (K. Haakonssen, Ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1759)
__Triplett, N. E. (1898). The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. American Journal of Psychology, 9, 507–533.
__Waldman, D. A., Atwater, L. E., & Davidson, R. A. (2004). The role of individualism and the five-factor model in the prediction of performance in a leaderless group discussion. Journal of Personality, 72, 1–28.
__Wickham, K. R., & Walther, J. B. (2007). Perceived behaviors of emergent and
assigned leaders in virtual groups. International Journal of e-Collaboration, 3, 1–17.


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