The Evolution of Groups

To the small number of people who might be reading this. I apologize for my loss of control on Thursday. Sometimes there’s just too much stupidity to avoid, despite however much I try. I think abandoning television helps a lot. If I’d been watching Fox or CNN instead of listening to the radio two days ago I would’ve blown a gasket.

So I return to some more questions I have about group formation and dynamics. It may just be me and my lack of understanding or awareness of contemporary research, but it sure feels like there is a lot less know about the development of groups than there is about the development of individuals.

Do groups recapitulate the development of individuals by moving from ego-centered to group-centered moralities?

Are groups more influenced by the lowest common denominator or the majority? How has technology improved or worsened these dynamics?

A cursory search of the interwebs brought me back to an intriguing theory I encountered last year at my master’s orientation program. Bruce Tuckman’s stages - from wikipedia, a summary at an outward bound training site, some other continuums of group evolution

  1. Forming: The group comes together and gets to initially know one other and form as a group.
  2. Storming: A chaotic vying for leadership and trying-out of group processes
  3. Norming: Eventually agreement is reached on how the group operates (norming)
  4. Performing: The group practices its craft and becomes effective in meeting its objectives.
  5. Adjourning: The process of “unforming” the group, that is, letting go of the group structure and moving on.

These came up at orientation because we were being indoctrinated into a standard model of contemporary pedagogy: the team learning approach. I’m personally ambivalent about whether team learning, as it’s currently practiced, is really helpful. Sometimes it works, other times it fails miserably and there doesn’t seem to be any simple ways to improve it.

I think a big failing of team-based education is the perverse interactions between grades and teamwork. At SI the team projects I’ve been in have all asked for feedback from each team member about the performance of the other team members. We’re essentially asked to grade each other. But how useful is this really?

Everyone eventually gets into a situation where they work on a team with someone who is not pulling their weight. And even worse is when those who are slacking end up getting the credit. The intent of the end of term evaluation is to ameliorate the recognition problem, so those that didn’t work get worse grades.

But the semester class is essentially a one-off game. Given a choice between cooperation and defection the incentive is to cooperate to get along, and then deploy the depth charges on the evaluation. Or is it? I sometimes think that but then don’t usually act it out. This small group stuff gets confusing fast.

There are a lot of conflicting incentives working in situations like this. There’s the individual who wants to get a good grade. There are the teachers who want to be fair but not give into grade inflation. There are the groups that just want to finish the class or the project and get on with other things. And there are the many internal priorities of the students about the importance of each class.

But in my own recent academic adventures there seems to be a solid body of research about the psychology of individuals - how they perceive, interpret, and capture information. And at the opposite end another solid body of research about how mass aggregates of individuals, almost always in the form of markets, perceive, capture, and interpret information. The core class at SI on Choice and Cognition, 502, fits directly into this mode.

If anyone has any suggestions for other places to look for interesting information on groups feel free to leave a comment.