8.1 Group Psychology - Social Processes, Attitudes, and Behavior

MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review - Kaplan Test Prep 2021–2022

8.1 Group Psychology
Social Processes, Attitudes, and Behavior


After Chapter 8.1, you will be able to:

· Describe social facilitation, deindividuation, the bystander effect, social loafing, and peer pressure

· Compare and contrast group polarization and groupthink

· Distinguish between assimilation and multiculturalism

Understanding social processes and interaction has long been a goal of sociologists, notably Max Weber, who was one of the first sociologists to study this interaction. Weber attempted to understand and describe social action, which he defined as actions and behaviors that individuals are performing or modulating because others are around. The idea is that humans will behave in different ways based on their social environment and how their behavior will affect those around them. If individuals predict a negative reaction from those around them, they will often modify their behavior.


Social action should be contrasted with social interaction. Social action considers just the individual that is surrounded by others. When examining social interaction, we will look at the behavior and actions of two or more individuals who take one another into account.

Social Facilitation

It has been observed that people tend to perform better on simple tasks when in the presence of others. This tendency is known as social facilitation, and it supports the idea that people naturally exhibit a performance response when they know they are being watched. Although being in the presence of others does not necessarily constitute an evaluation, the theory suggests that performance sparks a perceived evaluation in the individual performing. According to the Yerkes—Dodson law of social facilitation, being in the presence of others will significantly raise arousal, which enhances the ability to perform tasks one is already good at (or simple tasks), and hinders the performance of less familiar tasks (or complex tasks). For example, an expert pianist may perform better in concert than when alone in practice sessions. However, someone with very limited knowledge of music would perform worse in a social setting than when alone. This is demonstrated in Figure 8.1.

ImageFigure 8.1. Yerkes—Dodson Law

Note the difference between Figure 5.2 and Figure 8.1. Whereas Figure 5.2 focuses solely on new or less-familiar tasks, Figure 8.1 also includes simple tasks, which are not adversely affected by heightened arousal. Social facilitation reflects the idea that performance is not solely influenced by individual ability, but also by social environment and awareness of that environment.


The Yerkes—Dodson law is also used to describe the relationship between stress or sympathetic arousal and performance. Just as social facilitation can enhance the ability to perform tasks, so can moderate levels of arousal. Arousal can also be an effect of being surrounded by others and feeling pressure to perform: if there’s too much pressure, performance drops. Motivation and stress are discussed in Chapter 5 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review.


Deindividuation describes the loss of one's self-awareness in a group setting and the associated adoption of a more group oriented identity. This phenomenon is sometimes called mob mentality, as the individuals of the group lose their own sense of morals and ethics and adopt the mob mentality. To explain this phenomenon social psychologists have cited group cohesion and individual anonymity as factors impacting deindividuation. If an individual can relate to the group, perhaps through a sports team or political affiliation, then the likelihood of a person adopting the group identity increases. In addition, group settings increase anonymity and thus diffuse the sense of individual responsibility for the actions of the group. Thus, as group anonymity increases, as does the strength of deindividuation. Applied to the real world, deindividuation often leads to antinormative behavior, that is, behavior not socially acceptable in most social circumstances; behavior “against the norm.” A commonly cited example of antinormative behavior in the context of deindividuation is the violence seen in crowds and riots. Large, homogenous groups are postulated to increase deindividuation effects, particularly when relative anonymity is a factor due to the group’s size. These factors can be further enhanced when a group is in uniform or masked, as shown in Figure 8.2.

ImageFigure 8.2. DeindividuationBeing masked or in uniform facilitates anonymity in a crowd.

Bystander Effect

The bystander effect is another observed phenomenon that occurs in social groups wherein individuals do not intervene to assist those who are in perceived need when other people are present. The likelihood and timeliness of response is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the more people standing by, the less likely any one of those people is to help. There are several factors at play in the bystander effect. First, when in groups, people are less likely to notice danger or anything out of the ordinary. Additionally, when in groups, humans take cues from others. If other people are not responding to a situation, an individual is less likely to perceive the situation as a threat or emergency. The degree of emergency or the perceived danger plays a role in response. In low-danger scenarios, bystanders are less likely to provide aid; in high-danger scenarios, bystanders are more likely to intervene. Another factor is the degree of responsibility felt by the bystander. This is determined by the competency of the bystander, his or her relationship to the at risk individual(s), and whether he or she considers the person(s) at risk to be deserving of aid. Finally, cohesiveness of the group has been shown to influence responsiveness. In groups made up of strangers, the likelihood of a response, and the speed of that response, is much slower than in a group of well-acquainted individuals.

Real World

The violent 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese outside her home in Queens created interest in the bystander effect after her murder and a lack of response by neighbors were reported in the newspaper. Kitty reportedly cried out while being attacked in her apartment parking lot. One neighbor called out the window for the attacker to leave her alone. The attacker left, but returned ten minutes later and found Kitty barely conscious just outside the back door. Genovese was attacked again for over half an hour and ultimately died en route to the hospital. Of the 38 witnesses (bystanders), it was reported that no one had called the police.

Social Loafing

Social loafing refers to the tendency of individuals to reduce effort when in a group setting. This phenomenon may apply in many contexts: physical effort, such as carrying a heavy object; mental effort, such as working on a group project; or initiative, such as coming up with the solution to a problem.

Peer Pressure

From a sociology perspective, peers are individuals who are equals within a social group. Peer pressure refers to the social influence placed on an individual by one's peers. Peer pressure exists at all ages. This pressure can come in many forms, including religious ideals, appearance, values, and sexual behavior. It can be positive or negative; certain types of peer pressure can benefit the individual experiencing the influence. In children, social acceptance is associated with being most like the social norm of the group, regardless of positive or negative connotations.

In adolescence, peers play an extremely important role in determining lifestyle, appearance, and social activities. While parents and other adults provide the foundation for development of beliefs and values, peers become very important as teenagers become independent from their parental figures. The pressure exerted by peers can cause changes in behavior, attitudes, or beliefs to conform to the norms of the group. Stress and the presence of peers can lead to poor choices and facilitate risky behaviors such as binge eating, reckless driving, and violent activities.

Changes in beliefs or behavior due to peer pressure can be explained by the identity shift effect. When an individual’s state of harmony is disrupted by a threat of social rejection, the individual will often conform to the norms of the group. Upon doing so, however, the individual will begin to experience internal conflict because the behavior is outside the normal character of the individual. To eliminate the sense of internal conflict, the individual experiences an identify shift wherein the individual adopts the standards of the group as her own. The identity shift effect also highlights a larger theme in psychology: cognitive dissonance, the simultaneous presence of two opposing thoughts or opinions. This generally leads to an internal state of discomfort, which may manifest as anxiety, fear, anger, or confusion. Individuals will try to reduce this discomfort by changing, adding to, or minimizing one of these dissonant thoughts.

Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment showed that individuals will often conform to an opinion held by the group. In this experiment, male college students participated in simple tasks of perception. The study was set up to have one individual who made observations in the presence of confederates, or actors who were pretending to be a part of the experiment. The point of the study was to examine if the behavior of the individual was influenced by the confederates. The participants were shown two cards like those in Figure 8.3. They were then asked to say aloud which line on the second card, labeled A, B, or C, matched the length of the line on the first card. Prior to the experiment, the confederates were secretly told to unanimously respond correctly or incorrectly to the question. When the confederates answered correctly, the error rate for the real participants was less than 1 percent. However, when the confederates answered incorrectly, it was seen that the real participants answered incorrectly up to one-third of the time. Thus, Asch concluded, individuals will sometimes provide answers they know to be untrue if it avoids going against the group: the urge toward conformity could outweigh the desire to provide the correct answer.

ImageFigure 8.3. Example of Cards Used in the Asch Conformity Experiment

MCAT Expertise

The MCAT can ask about psychological experiments by name, so you should be familiar with some of the landmark experiments in social psychology. For example, a question may refer to the Asch conformity experiment by name, or it may include a similar experiment without a direct reference and ask you to draw conclusions using your content knowledge.


In contrast to social action, social interaction explores the ways in which two or more individuals can both shape each other’s behavior. These include group processes and establishment of culture.

Group Polarization

Group polarization describes the tendency for groups to collaboratively make decisions that are more extreme than the individual ideas and inclinations of the members within the group. Thus, polarization can lead to riskier or more cautious decisions based on the initial tendencies of the group members toward risk or caution. This phenomenon has shown that individuals in groups will form opinions that are more extreme than the opinions they would reach in isolation. The hypothesis underlying polarization is that initial ideas tend not to be extreme, but that through discussion within the group, these ideas tend to become more and more extreme. This concept was originally termed risky shift because it was noted that groups tended to make riskier decisions than individuals. However, when psychologists began to realize that groups could also shift toward caution, the term became choice shift. Choice shift and group polarization refer to very similar concepts. However, choice shift refers specifically to measured changes in decisions before and after group interaction, whereas group polarization refers more generally to the tendency of a group to move to more extreme conclusions and decisions as a result of interaction.

Group polarization explains many real-life scenarios, including policy making, violence, and terrorism. For example, members of the same political party may espouse the same ideals and opinions in the group setting, but may waver slightly on issues when alone. This kind of polarization is also seen in jury deliberation. In the case of punitive damages (monetary penalties for a certain behavior), jurors who initially favor a high punishment may deliberate and decide upon an even higher punishment after discussion. As social media has exploded in recent decades, research has shown that the group does not necessarily need to be together physically in order for polarization to occur. Simply reading others’ ideas on social media sites can result in more extreme ideas from individuals.


Groupthink refers to a social phenomenon in which desire for harmony or conformity results in a group of people coming to an incorrect or poor decision. In an attempt to eliminate or minimize conflict among the group members, consensus decisions are reached without alternative ideas being assessed. In these cases, the desire to agree with the group causes a loss of independent critical thinking. The group also begins to isolate and ignore external viewpoints, seeing its own ideas as correct without question.

Groupthink can have a large impact on group decision making and is influenced by a variety of factors, including group cohesiveness, group structure, leadership, and situational context. Irving Janis conducted the first research on the theory in the 1970s. Janis studied the effect of extreme stress on group cohesiveness and its resulting effect on groupthink. Janis further investigated the decision making of groups that had led to disastrous American foreign policy decisions, including the Bay of Pigs invasion. Janis specifically examined eight factors that are indicative of groupthink:

· Illusion of invulnerability: Members encourage risks, ignore possible pitfalls and are too optimistic.

· Collective rationalization: Members ignore expressed concerns about group approved ideas.

· Illusion of morality: Members believe ideas produced by the group are morally and ethically correct, disregarding evidence to the contrary.

· Excessive stereotyping: Members construct stereotypes of those expressing outside opinions.

· Pressure for conformity: Members feel pressured not to express opinions that disagree with the group, and view opposition as disloyal.

· Self-censorship: Members withhold ideas and opinions that disagree with the group.

· Illusion of unanimity: Members believe the decisions and judgments of the group to be without disagreement, even if it does exist.

· Mindguards: Some members may decide to take on a role protecting the group against opposing views.

Many of these factors, including illusion of morality, excessive stereotyping, pressure for conformity, and mindguards can be seen in Figure 8.4, a poster from the United States during the McCarthy era, which argues against public health measures (water fluoridation and polio vaccines) and equates anti-Semitism with lunacy for fear of Communist influence.

ImageFigure 8.4. Groupthink as Seen in McCarthy-Era Propaganda

Real World

The Bay of Pigs Invasion and Cuban Missile Crisis were used by Janis as case studies. When JFK took over the White House, the administration inherited a CIA Cuban invasion plan, and it was accepted without critique. When Senator Fulbright and Secretary Schlesinger expressed objections, they were ignored by the Kennedy team. Over time, Fulbright and Schlesinger started to perform self-censorship. After the invasion, it was revealed that there were many inaccuracies in the CIA plan, including underestimation of the Cuban air force and the assumption that Castro would not have the ability to quell uprisings.

Similar patterns of thinking, in which a group arrives at a common (but often extreme) consensus also underlie many cultural phenomena, including riots, fads, and mass hysteria. Antinormative behavior in riots was described previously in the section on deindividuation. Still, like groupthink, a shared political or social motivation may urge groups to engage in potentially violent and destructive behavior. A fad is a behavior that is transiently viewed as popular and desirable by a large community. Fads can include owning certain objects (such as pet rocks in the 1970s, Rubik’s cubes in the 1980s, and pogs in the 1990s) or engaging in certain behaviors (using catchphrases, altering clothing in some way, or engaging in particular types of media such as viral videos). Finally, mass hysteria refers to a shared, intense concern about the threats to society. In mass hysteria, many features of groupthink—collective rationalization, illusion of morality, excessive stereotyping, and pressure for conformity, in particular—lead to a shared delusion that is augmented by distrust, rumors, propaganda, and fear mongering. Perhaps the most notable historical case of mass hysteria was the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts, which led to the execution of twenty individuals for fears of witchcraft.


Culture can be defined as the beliefs, behaviors, actions, and characteristics of a group or society of people. Culture is learned by living within a society, observing behaviors and traits, and adopting them. Culture is also passed down from generation to generation. While a “cultured” individual is often thought of as someone who has knowledge of the arts and expensive taste, sociology considers all people to be cultured by living within a society and participating in its culture. Culture is universal throughout humanity; while many animals exhibit purely instinctual behavior, humans show variable behaviors based on the cultures in which they reside. For example, while all wolf mothers care for their pups in the same manner, human mothers show vast differences in their caretaking. In some cultures, children are breastfed for years, while in others, infants are breastfed for mere months or not at all. Some groups have multiple caregivers who are not the mother, while others allow only the mother to care for the child. Even within “American” culture, beliefs about the correct way to respond to infant crying varies dramatically: some groups instantly comfort a crying child and others let them “cry it out.” The beliefs held by an individual are typically based on learned behavior, expectations, and pressure from the group one is in. Cultural differences include everything from typical jobs, common dwellings, and diet to what time of day one eats and where one travels on vacation, if at all. When traveling outside of one’s own society, these cultural differences can seem quite dramatic and are often referred to as culture shock.


A discussion of culture in the context of social structure is described in Chapter 11 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review.

Assimilation and Multiculturalism

Cultural assimilation is the process by which an individual’s or group’s behavior and culture begin to resemble that of another group. This can also mean that groups with different cultures begin to merge. Assimilation integrates new aspects of a society and culture with old ones, transforming the culture itself. While one society melds into another, it is typically not an even blend. One group will generally have more power and influence than the other, resulting in more traits of that culture being displayed after transformation. In terms of immigrant assimilation, there are four primary factors that can be used to assess the completeness of assimilation: socioeconomic status, geographic distribution, language attainment, and intermarriage.

Assimilation can be slowed by the creation of ethnic enclaves, which are locations (usually neighborhoods) with a high concentration of one specific ethnicity, as shown in Figure 8.5. These are most common in urban areas and often have names like Chinatown or Little Italy.

ImageFigure 8.5. An Ethnic EnclaveEntrance to Chinatown, Sydney, Australia

Multiculturalism, also known as cultural diversity, refers to communities or societies containing multiple cultures or ethnic groups. From a sociology perspective, multiculturalism encourages, respects, and celebrates cultural differences, as shown in Figure 8.6. This view can enhance acceptance of cultures within society, which contrasts with the concept of assimilation. While multiculturalism is often described as a creating a cultural mosaic, or mixture of cultures and ethnic groups that coexist in society, assimilationism is described as creating a melting pot, or melting together of different elements of culture into one homogeneous culture.

ImageFigure 8.6. MulticulturalismMulticulturalism may be celebrated through holidays and festivals, such as Harmony Day in Australia, shown here.

Key Concept

· Assimilation—(usually uneven) merging of cultures; a melting pot

· Multiculturalism—celebration of coexisting cultures; a cultural mosaic


Subcultures refer to groups of people within a culture that distinguish themselves from the primary culture to which they belong. When studying subcultures, symbolic attachment to things such as clothing or music can differentiate the group from the majority. Subcultures can be formed based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and other differentiating factors from the whole of society.

Subcultures can be perceived as negative when they subvert the majority culture’s definitions of normalcy. In the case of counterculture, the subculture group gravitates toward an identity that is at odds with the majority culture and deliberately opposes the prevailing social mores.

MCAT Concept Check 8.1:

Before you move on, assess your understanding of the material with these questions.

1. Provide a brief definition for the following social phenomena:

o Social facilitation:

o Deindividuation:

o Bystander effect:

o Social loafing:

o Peer pressure:

2. What are the similarities and differences between group polarization and groupthink?

3. What are the differences between assimilation and multiculturalism?