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Understanding Our Group Identities: How is Group Cohesiveness Increased?

By Dan (April) Feng

Tdjesus

There were thousands of people, dressed uniformly in green, waving their hands in the same motion at a unified rhythm, their firm voices echoing loudly in the large and packed stadium: “Kill, kill, kill…” I was sitting amongst the crowd, excited by the blinding green, by the impassioned cheering from all my friends, and most of all, by an overwhelming sense of belonging. All of a sudden, I felt almost ashamed of myself for sitting instead of standing like everyone else. I stood up and shouted as loudly as I could: “Suck it Trojans! Go Irish go!” At that moment, the only thing I could think was that the Fighting Irish was the best football team in the world. More importantly, I felt deep within me that I belonged to Notre Dame forever, body and soul. However, when the music of “Alma Mater” finally faded and the crowd began to disappear, everything went back to normal. I could not believe what had just happened. It felt like that my consciousness vanished for a while, robbed by my cheering friends. Then I realized – my friends alone were not responsible for all that I had felt. It was something even stronger: group cohesion.

This is what made both my friends and I cease to be our normal selves and what urged us to defend our group identity. Why do the Fighting Irish have such a supportive fan base and such a dedicated group always there to cheer fanatically when needed? What creates and strengthens the group cohesion of Notre Dame students to such an extent? What effects does such group cohesion have on the average person? How should we best make use of the power of group identification? These are questions that this paper will attempt to answer in the following pages.

People’s behavior in groups is always fascinating, but also disturbing at times. When we strongly identify with a group, we start to do things that are hard to explain, such as imitating other members of our group without thinking and favoring in-group members over out-group members. These behaviors can lead to serious or even harmful conflicts with other groups. The behavior mentioned in the above example may seem normal during a college football game, but the outcome of group cohesion can be entirely different if we switch the setting from the Notre Dame Stadium to a under-developed country with two opposing political parties. Instead of the landslide victory of the Fighting Irish, the result could be a series of unjust civil wars and even millions of innocent deaths.

The power of group cohesion is next to infinite and, unfortunately, can be easily generated. When it is used for good purposes, it can produce high group productivity and task efficiency. However, when misused or intentionally employed to achieve evil goals, it can also de-individualize the group members. By causing group members to do things that they would never do while thinking as an independent individual, group cohesion has the power to rapidly generate drastic and destructive forces. Given all of this, it is the responsibility of every educated person to have the ability to think and act consciously under group influences. The reason why we must learn to understand how social institutions instill specific group identities is similar to Aristotle’s reason for studying rhetoric: “…one who is skilled in discerning the truth can do well in weighing probabilities” (5); in doing so we can more effectively protect both ourselves and others. By saying this I do not mean that all group behaviors are dangerous, but rather that the strong power of group cohesion can actually be controlled and used for good if we understand the source of its strength. Thus, it is crucial and urgent for us to ask the question: What are the major factors that generate and increase group cohesion?

Ever since the studies of group behaviors emerged in the field of social psychology, scholars have been doing a large amount of research, trying to discover a generalized set of patterns or methods to increase group cohesiveness. However, most of them eventually reached the agreement that group behaviors are extremely complicated and that there is hardly any formulized way to increase group cohesiveness. The reason for this, illustrated by Hoffman, is twofold: “different group members need different forces to act upon them to stay in a given group, and different types of group situations might lead different forces to remain” (1-2). The little research done in this field, such as Sherif’s classic Boys’ Camp Study, mostly consists of case studies with methodologies largely limited to a specific group nature. As of right now, the exploration of specific methods for increasing group cohesiveness is still primarily left to the examination of individual groups. In this essay, I do not intend to give my readers a generalized guideline of how to increase group cohesiveness. Instead, I will examine some of the experiences of my friends and I as we built our group identities as Notre Dame students and Lyon-ites together during Frosh-O weekend. Based on this particular case and other research already done in this academic domain, I will analyze the strategies Notre Dame and Lyons Hall students’ council used to increase the group cohesiveness of their in-group members from a social psychological perspective.

Before we begin a detailed analysis of specific cases, it is necessary for us to first familiarize ourselves with the definitions of group and group cohesion. The basic definition of a group is that it has to contain two or more persons and there must be interaction among members (Mills 2). The additional characteristics of a group, which also seem to be signs of high group cohesiveness, are sense of membership, shared goals, and shared norms within the group (Sherif M. 143-180). Group cohesion, as defined in the field of social psychology, refers to members’ attraction to the group (Hogg 30). It is often described as a psychological force that binds people together (Keyton, Springston). It is an outcome of the group development process (Tuckman). Based on the activities brochures for Notre Dame International Orientation, Frosh-O and the Lyons Hall Orientation, I classified the orientation events into five major categories: Spiritual Events, Communicative Events, Resources-Introduction Events, Task-Completion Events, and Groups-Comparison Events.

SPIRITUAL EVENTS

Spiritual Events refer to activities that clearly demonstrated the core values of Notre Dame as a living community and quickly fostered a homey atmosphere among freshmen. Usually held in “Notre-Dame-like” places that have long histories or great reputations, such as Joyce Center, Main Building, the LaFortune Students Center, typical Spiritual Events during Frosh-O included the Eucharistic Liturgy as an official welcome to all freshmen, the Performance “Spirit of ND” by the University Marching Band, the Cheers 101 for football pep-rallies, the series of lectures “Building Community the Irish Way”, and the movie watching of Rudy. These activities were performed or hosted by central organizations and renowned individuals of the university, like the Notre Dame Marching Band, Rev. John I. Jenkins (President of the university), Brian Kelly (the head coach of the football team), and Rev. Hugh Page (Dean of the First Year of Studies). Most of the events were mandatory for all first-year students and were open for parents, as well.

Though sometimes long and boring, these Spiritual events increased the sense of belonging among freshmen tremendously in many ways. I can still clearly remember one of the magical moments I had during the Eucharistic Liturgy. Sitting in the large and packed Joyce Center and surrounded by strangers, I could not find even one familiar face. Father Jenkins stepped into the Center and said that it was a Notre Dame tradition to pray to God for blessing on all of the first-year students for all our years under the Dome. At that moment, I suddenly realized that we were not considered separate individuals, but were instead treated as an emerging group. When we proceeded to the Exchange of Peace, I was surprised to find that we hugged and talked as if we had already known each other for a long time. When I saw the sincere smiles, I truly felt proud of the Notre Dame community and was thrilled to be part of it. From the Liturgy, the most important event of life here in Notre Dame, freshmen understood and began to appreciate the dominant values of the university, and subconsciously began to build their feeling of group identity based on these beliefs.

Spiritual Events focus on introducing the most salient characteristics of the group: goals, norms and values. By giving thorough and high-quality presentations of the group cores, these events first helped new group members appreciate the fundamental values and beliefs of the group-the first step of building up a strong group identity. Then by repetitiously letting the members participate in the practices of specific group beliefs, Spiritual Events instilled the group values into the minds of the new group members and simultaneously strengthened their group identities. When these shared factors of the group were engraved, the group identities become so cardinal for group members that they were inseparable with the members’ personal identities. Stronger group cohesion was successfully established.

COMMUNICATIVE EVENTS

Communicative Events are usually oriented towards interaction and self-disclosure. In daily life, they take place everywhere, but they were intentionally emphasized during the Frosh-O weekend. Lyons Hall freshmen were told to sit together in the South Dining Hall for every meal. Many of us did not actively talk with each other in the beginning, and a few girls even left the table early sometimes. Eventually however, due to the high level of intimacy that was fostered and the large amount of time we spent interacting with each other, we were forced to step out of our comfort zones and share our lives with one another. Aside from the three meals every day, we also had section gatherings every night. Although it may seem weird now, all we did during those gatherings was talking about our strange habits and our funny moments in life. Clearly, the main purpose of these communicative events was to encourage the new group members to interact with and disclose themselves to each other as much as possible. These Communicative Events also achieved satisfactory results increasing group cohesiveness.

Interaction among group members, especially one-to-one communications, are extremely important and effective in building up group identities and increasing group cohesiveness. According to Vinter, an educator and consultant at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, “potent influences on group cohesiveness are exercised through member-member interactions, through the group’s activities or program, and through its structure.” Compared to member-member interaction, one of the earliest-recognized dominant strategies of generating group cohesion, the dispute of using self-disclosure to increase group cohesiveness was settled quite recently. One experiment (Worthy, Gary and Kahn, 1969) found that intimacy of disclosure “followed a linear pattern of reciprocity, suggesting greater disclosure led to greater attraction (Hoffman 18-19).” Similarly, the study of Certner (1973) also reported a positive relationship between self-disclosure and group attraction.

However, we should also pay attention to the specific period of time when the self-disclosure strategy is used in group-formation process. It is not hard for one to notice that there were more Communicative-Events held at the beginning of the semester than at later time periods, as demonstrated by the study of Kahn and Rudestam on the relationship of liking and group cohesion in 1971. In the study report, they noticed a decline in group cohesiveness at later time periods. This finding indicates that there are certain time constraints to the self-disclosure technique. Kahn and Rudestam concluded that “disclosure might affect cohesion for a period of time, then other variables might assume more importance” (Hoffman 19).

Communicative-Events provide time and places for interpersonal interactions and expand self-disclosure among new group members. By encouraging one-to-one communications, they help new members create deeper understanding of each other. By feeling more attached to each of the group members, people tend to appreciate their group identities more and have a more favorable opinion of their group. As a result, the general group cohesiveness is strengthened.

RESOURCES-INTRODUCTION EVENTS

Resources-Introduction Events aimed at helping freshmen to become fully aware of the University’s resources and able to use these resources effectively. Good examples of this type of event would be the exploration sessions during the Frosh-O, the Academic Exploration session, the Study Abroad and Off Campus Programs, the Athletic Department Orientation Program, and the Multicultural Reception. They were all presented by the Deans of departments and introduced the great opportunities at Notre Dame. Personally, when I attended those events, I felt that the university opened a vast world for me and that my personal goals clicked with the University’s own beliefs. More importantly, I could see my goals became attainable with the resources here. Another interesting feeling I had while attending the Multicultural Reception session was that the University also needed my help. During the session, international students were warmly welcomed by the vice president of the University’s International Department and repeatedly told that the overall mission of the university was to “achieve human solidarity and the pursuit of common good”. He continued to say that in order to accomplish this goal, every one of us was needed to work to achieve our full potential. We were turned into an inseparable part of the student body and only with our support could the University’s mission be fully achieved.

The feeling described above is called goal isomorphism, defined by Schwartz as “a [symbiotic] relationship between the individual and his nurturing group…each needing the other for its own life and growth, and each reaching out to the other with all the strength it can command.” The Resources-Introduction Events encourage the urge of group members’ to belong to the group as full and productive members and help group members see the similarities between their individual needs and group resources (Schwartz). The exact process of how goal isomorphism increases group cohesiveness is best elaborated by Libo:

The resultant force acting on the group (cohesiveness) may be hypothesized as a function of the degree to which there is correspondence between the need structures of all the individual members and the need-satisfying potential in the group. Individual needs, which may be satisfied through group membership, are of many sorts. They may be associated with formal or informal group goals or activities, with the prestige position of the group, with affectional ties to other group members, with opportunities for free emotional expression without personal exposure, and with protection against external threat. (Libo 6)

The Resources-Introduction Events instilled a sense of goal isomorphism between the freshmen and the university. By quickly helping the new group members realize their possibilities of reaching their potentials and making them feel interconnected to the group, these events effectively increase the group cohesiveness.

TASK-COMPLETION EVENTS

Task-Completion Events refer to activities that are based on completing tasks together as a group. One of the most typical Task-Completion Events is the Lyons Two-Mile Running around both the St. Mary’s and St. Joseph Lake in the early morning. Though it was not mandatory, almost all freshmen participated. The total length of the running routine was approximately two miles. The task was made more difficult by the rule that no one, once participated, was allowed to quit at any point. The task itself might not be pleasant when one works individually. However, while we were completing the task together, our social identities as members of the running group urged us to help and encourage each other. We chatted with other runners, trying to cast away the extreme tiredness. We waited for each other to make sure that nobody was left behind. We fought together and did have a sense of entity. Without comparison or competitions with other groups, Task-Completion Events successfully used the Group Goal Effect, which attributes the increasing of group cohesiveness to group tasks completion, to increase task cohesion of the groups.
The task cohesion is one of the two basic forms of group cohesiveness and is easily generated by the method of introducing superordinate goals to the group. Based on his exemplary experiment of the Boys’ Camp Study, which discussed three phases of group interaction: creating in-group cohesion, introducing the intergroup conflict through competition, and reducing intergroup conflict through a superordinate goal, Sherif argues that one of the keys of producing uniform group identities of unacquainted and diverse individuals was to introduce problems or situations in which the attainment of the goal was depended on the coordinated activity of all group members. The underlying reason for that, explained by him, is that when working toward a goal which requires coordination of all members, individuals usually voluntarily form group structures, including hierarchical status arrangements, regulating behavior and group norms (Sherif 1958). And thus, stronger group cohesion was created.

The Task-Completion Events increase the group cohesiveness greatly by introductions of group tasks that require all members to coordinate and accomplish together. During the process of which, new group members build up shared norms, hierarchies and rules by and for themselves. Greater group cohesiveness was generated by members actively constructing the group.

GROUPS-COMPARISON EVENTS

Different from the Task-Completion Events mentioned above, in which group members complete tasks without the existence of other groups, Groups-Comparison Events aim at letting group members recognize the differences between their own group and others groups. A large portion of the Lyons Hall Frosh-O events is done with other dorms. These events, such as the Ice Cream Social with Morrissey Manor, the Campus Scavenger Hunt with Alumni Hall, the Game “Capture the Flag” with Sorin Hall, and the Charitable Blanket Making with Pangborn Hall, provided chances for new Lyon-ites to socialize with other dorms. At the same time, by the group comparisons which occurred simultaneously with these socializing events, the group identities became clearer and more identified by the new group members. According to the Social Identity Theory of intergroup behaviors, introduced by Henri Taifei and John Turner between 1970s and 1980s, a sense of belonging and attraction to their own group was fostered by these events.
The famous Social Identity Theory, introduced and explained in the article “The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior,” claims that the value of a group depends heavily on comparisons with other groups. The theory was based on the experiment done by Taifei and Turner under the “minimal intergroup situation”, in which participants are assigned to groups completely randomly. The group members are under a situation where there is no knowing anything specific about the other in-group members, no communication among group members, and no precious hostility between groups. In subsequent behaviors, even they were given no material benefits, participants showed a strong tendency to favor their own group. Based on the experiment outcomes, Taifei and Turner conclude that comparisons among groups can increase the group cohesiveness by creating more in-group attractions to group members. They further explain the theory that since the self identity has two components: personal identity and social identity and positive social identity derives from perceiving favorable impressions during intergroup comparisons of the group which the person belongs to, a desire for positive self-concept will lead the group members to favor their own group and defend their group identities.

Supported by the Social Identity Theory, the Group-Comparison Events increase the group cohesiveness by creating the incentives for new Lyon-ites to feel the urge of protecting their new group identities, and thus, increase the in-group attraction and cohesion.

DE-PERSONALIZATION OF SELF AND OTHERS – A NEW APPROACH

According to traditional and contemporary research of increasing group cohesion as presented above, the generation of group cohesiveness is based on five factors: the conformation of individual characteristics to group norms, the interdependent interaction between group members, the individual satisfaction of reaching mutual goals of both members and the group, the perception of interpersonal similarities among individuals, and the derived positive self-concepts from positive impressions through group comparisons – all of which produce interpersonal attraction and focus on the aspect of increasing group cohesiveness by recognizing the connection between individuals in the group. According to the approach focusing on interdependence, group attraction can be viewed as the aggregate of interpersonal bonds. However, social psychologists recently discovered another group of means to increase group cohesiveness. These methods are based on The Social Identity Model of De-individuation Effects (SIDE). This theory proposes that de-personalization of self and others is responsible for “increasing group-based self-categorization, which directly increased attraction to the group and indirectly increased group attraction by enhancing group-based stereotyping of others” (Lea et al.).

Carefully examining my personal experience of how Lyons Hall helped new members to feel attached to the hall community, I can discover how the SIDE was used in reality. During the entire Frosh-O weekend, all Lyons girls were required to wear the same Frosh-O shirt and at the Dillion Pep-Rally, we were asked to wear short black skirts for the Lyons annual photograph. The uniformity of dressing indicates a strong sense of de-personalization and group-based self-categorization. I realized the power of this approach when one day my roommate told me that she felt the Lyons arch on the t-shirt was already standing in her heart.

Though this new group of approaches is still in feverish debate among the social psychologists, it is in fact already used widely by institutions and proved to be effective by my personal experience during the orientations and Frosh-O weekend. This specific branch of methods originated from the Social Identity Model of De-individuation Effects (SIDE) marks a new era of exploration into the area of group studies and should be given a large amount of attention in the future.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

The experience and social psychological interpretations above clearly illustrated the major categories of events: Spiritual Events, Communicative Events, Resources-Introduction Events, Task-Completion Events, and Groups-Comparison Events, and the strategies which apply to the events used by the University of Notre Dame and Lyons Hall to increase the group cohesiveness of their new group members during First-Year Orientation and Frosh-O. Also, this paper introduced a new and under-explored approach to increase group cohesiveness: de-personalization of self and others.

Now as the readers understand both the theoretical and practical aspects of how institutions create and increase group cohesiveness, they should be capable of standing up against plots, which use group cohesiveness to achieve evil goals and better protect themselves from potential dangers of group over-conformity, such as de-humanization and de-individuation. Also, they should be able to speculate the causes behind social catastrophes resulting from excessively strong group cohesion like wars, massacres and genocide and prevent them in the future. More importantly, by understanding the strategies, the utilization of the group-cohesion is made possible. Under a setting like the Notre Dame community where group cohesion causes beneficial outcomes, the strategies of increasing group cohesiveness should be more frequently practiced to improve group productivity and efficiency. However, we should also keep track of strategies that are leading the group to wicked goals and by recognizing the methods used, stop the process of de-humanization and de-individuation.

Last but not least, please note that the events and strategies discussed in this paper are limited to the specific case of personal experience and are far from a complete methodology. The strategies provide only a shallow glance into the vast collection of strategies to us. We all look forward to further researches which can give us a complete set of methodologies of increasing group cohesiveness in the future.