Group dynamics

ATL: Essential understandings

Biological, cognitive and sociocultural factors all play a role in prejudice and discrimination.

Conflict may be the result of dispositional and/or situational factors.

Psychological theory may be applied to resolve conflict.

Cooperation and conflict both have an effect on an individual’s behaviour.

When psychologists discuss group dynamics, they are discussing how members of a group interact (intragroup dynamics) or how members of one group interact with members of another group (intergroup dynamics).

A social group consists of two or more people who interact with each other and who perceive themselves as a distinct social unit. Once a social group is formed you will often see that certain norms about how members should behave in a given situations. An important concept here is 'norm'. There are explicit norms (nor directly spoken) and explicit norms (openly talked about), which guide the life of the group.

According to the American psychologist Philip Zimbardo, norms shape behaviour because they provide limits within which people receive social approval for their behavior; in this way norms establish a basis for estimating how far one may go before experiencing the normative power of ridicule, rejecting, and loss of status among friends, acquaintances, and co-workers. Group norms are often internalized and become part of the group members' own beliefs and value systems, and for group members to show commitment to the group, they tend to conform to group norms to feel accepted and avoid social exclusion.  

The focus of this chapter is primarily on group dynamics.  Intragroup behaviour is behavior that is demonstrated within a group among its members.  Intergroup behaviour is when individuals belonging to one group interact, collectively or individually, with members of another group   Intergroup behavior is explained by Social Identity Theory: First, you identify with a group (a cognitive process);  then, you attach some value to being a member of that group (an evaluative process), and finally, there is an emotional investment in the group membership.

Sometimes the interactions can be negative.  Negative interactions are often characterized as being competitive, rather than cooperative.  In addition, perceptions of members of the other group are usually stereotypes, leading to both prejudice and discrimination. According to Deutsch (1998), competitive relationships are characterized by poor communication, suspicion of others’ intentions and seeing an increase in another group’s power as a threat to your group.

Interactions, of course, can also be positive.  Positive interactions are characterized as being cooperative rather than competitive. According to Deutsch, cooperative relationships are characterized by effective communication, common goals and a sense of trust.

Cooperation vs. Competitive approaches

Morton Deutsch (1998) described groups as either adopting a cooperative approach or a competitive approach.  He described these traits as follows:

Cooperative styles

  1. Effective communication where members of the group feel free to voice their opinions.  Other members of the group pay attention to others' ideas and are influenced by them. 
  2. Group members help other group members.
  3. There is a division of labour and a clear setting of group goals. 
  4. There is a sense of basic similarity in beliefs and values.
  5. Everyone's needs are valid and worth addressing.

Competitive styles

  1. Communication is reduced as there is a lack of trust in the group.  Members withhold information in order to gain an advantage.
  2. Suspicion of others' intentions. There is a focus on individuals' negative traits, rather than the positive traits.
  3. Less productive as there is a lack of trust that means that it is difficult to divide a task among members.
  4.  Rejection of others' ideas leading to lower self-esteem and confidence.
  5. Members see other members' success as a threat to their position in the group.
  6. Thinking is rigid and does not welcome compromise.

ATL: Reflection

Think about a team that you have been on in the past - whether it be a sports team, a musical or drama ensemble or a project in class. 

Reread the list of qualities listed above for cooperative and competitive groups.  For each of the following questions, be able to justify your position.

1. With regard to the type of team that you were on, which cooperative traits do you think are the most important?

2.  With regard to the type of team that you were on, which competitive traits do you think are the most harmful?

3.  Is there anything that you feel that Deutsch is missing on either the list of cooperative or competitive styles?

This chapter will start by focusing on a positive group dynamic: cooperation.  It will then look at the nature of prejudice.  The chapter will then will look at the origins of conflict, examining a range of conflicts from discrimination to violence.  Finally, theories for resolving conflict will be explored.


All materials on this website are for the exclusive use of teachers and students at subscribing schools for the period of their subscription. Any unauthorised copying or posting of materials on other websites is an infringement of our copyright and could result in your account being blocked and legal action being taken against you.