The central concept of group-dynamics theory is cohesion,
the attractiveness of the group to its members. As emphasized
by TMT, cohesion is increased by the degree to which group
consensus offers an antidote to uncertainty about issues of
meaning and value. Cohesion is also increased by more mundane
membership rewards, such as congeniality, status, and accomplishment
of group goals.
High cohesion leads to strong pressures for uniformity on
issues relevant to the group. This is basically a homeostatic
prediction, in which differences of opinion that would get
in the way of a social-reality consensus or pursuit of group
goals must be controlled if members are to experience the
rewards that attract them to the group. For group members,
higher cohesion thus leads to greater acceptance of group
norms, more rejection of deviates, and greater respect for
and obedience to group leaders.
Although developed in studies of small face-to-face groups
(primary groups), the predictions of group-dynamics theory
can be scaled up to apply as well to larger collectivities,
such as ethnic and national groups, that are so large that
most members cannot be known personally (secondary groups).
Identification with secondary groups is equivalent to cohesion
in primary groups, and the consequences of primary-group cohesion
can be predicted as well from identification with secondary
groups. More identification should lead to greater acceptance
of ethnic or national group norms, more rejection of those
who deviate from these norms, and more respect for ethnic
or national leaders.
The power of the group and the consequences of cohesion are
explicated in some of the classic experiments in social psychology.
In Solomon Asch's experiments on conformity, 75% of college
students denied the evidence of their own eyes to give an
incorrect judgment of line length when seven other students
(confederates of the experimenter) unanimously gave the incorrect
judgment. This power was increased by greater uncertainty
(more difficult line discriminations) and decreased by any
break in the unanimity of the majority (if even one confederate
gave the objectively correct judgment). If the subjects could
make their judgments privately rather than aloud, conformity
was cut by two thirds.
One clear implication of these results is that group influence
depends partly on group power to reward conformers and punish
deviates; when the group could not hear the subject's judgment,
conformity was decreased. The conformity remaining with private
judgment shows a different kind of group influence, influence
based on subjects accepting the judgments of others as valid
information about reality. Group power to define reality is
even stronger on issues of value, where there is no source
of certainty except group consensus.
Both kinds of group power contribute to killing in intergroup
conflict. Killers are controlled by the rewards and punishments
of their group, and by their acceptance of group norms and
the social reality defined by group consensus. In time of
war, every state depends on coercion to make men fight: prison
or death for refusing conscription, prison or death for desertion,
prison or death for disobeying an order. Terrorist killers
are probably less controlled by coercion than by the social-reality
power of their group, inasmuch as terrorist groups only wish
they had the reward and punishment powers of the state.
Even for soldiers, however, the controlling group norms tend
to be more the values of the combat group than the values
of the state. Research with American soldiers in particular
has shown that, in the stress of combat, most soldiers fight
less for cause or country or hatred of the enemy than for
their buddies. The half dozen or dozen men who share the loneliness
of the battlefield are closer than brothers; they fight because
to do less is to endanger the group on which they are totally
dependent. One of the great lessons of social psychology is
that group power is maximized when group members have no other
group to turn to. In combat groups as in terrorist groups,
the individual's social world has contracted to just the few
A similar account has been offered for genocidal killing.
Christopher Browning describes how middle-aged German men
in uniform came to participate in killing Jews. The Reserve
Police were sent to Poland, separated from family, friends,
and previous occupations in a foreign land where their only
home was their unit. Their officers had orders to kill Jews,
but, at least initially, did not threaten much coercion against
men who could not or would not. In this situation, it is not
individual motives of anti-semitism that explain the killing.
Browning points instead to the cohesion of "ordinary
men," for whom the best reason to kill Jews was that
those who did less put more burden on their fellows.
Browning puts considerable emphasis also on desensitization
and routinization of killing in explaining how men slowly
escalated their participation in killing. This is the psychology
of commitment, much studied in research on dissonance theory.
In its modern version, dissonance is a theory of rationalization
in which individuals sucked into stupid or sleazy behavior
will change their opinions to justify and make sense of their
behavior. Probably the paradigm case of this psychology is
another classic study, Milgrams's research on obedience.
Milgram showed that the majority of normal individuals will
give a supposed "learner" increasing levels of shock,
up to a maximum 450-volt shock labeled "XXX DANGER STRONG
SHOCK." Part of the power of this paradigm is the slow,
graded nature of the shocks, which begin at only 15 volts
and increase 15 volts with every mistake the "learner"
makes. So close is the grading of shock levels that, at each
level, to recognize something wrong with giving the next level
must imply something wrong with the level already administered.
Slow escalation of hurting others is a slippery slope in which
each act of aggression becomes a reason for more aggression.
Taken together, group dynamics and the psychology of escalating
commitment go a long way toward explaining how normal people
can do awful things. Throw in the reward and punishment power
of the state, a power that needs move only a small number
of people to do the dirty work against a target class or race,
and even genocide begins to be comprehensible.
Clark McCauley is Professor of Psychology at Bryn Mawr
College and Co-Director of the Solomon Asch Center for the
Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania.
He is an HFG grantee.
Averill, J. R. 1982. Anger and Aggression: An Essay on Emotion.
New York: Springer.
Berkowitz, L. 1989. Frustration-aggression hypothesis: Examination
and reformulation. Psychological Bulletin 106: 59-73.
Browning, C. R. 1992. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion
101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins.
Duckitt, J. 1989. Authoritarianism and group identification:
A new view of an old construct. Political Psychology 10: 63-84.
Dodge, K. A. 1991. The structure and function of reactive
and proactive aggression. In D. J. Pepler and K. H. Rubin
(eds.) The Development and Treatment of Childhood Aggression.
Holmes, R. 1985. Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle.
New York: Free Press.
Kinder, D. R. 1998. Opinion and action in the realm of politics.
In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, and G. Lindzey (eds.) Handbook
of Social Psychology, vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill.
McCauley, C. (ed.) 1991. Terrorism Research and Public Policy.
Pyszczynski, T., J. Greenberg, and S. Solomon. 1997. Why
do we need what we need? A terror management perspective on
the roots of human social motivation. Psychological Inquiry
Rummel, R. J. 1996. Death by Government. New Brunswick, N.J.:
Smith, D. N. 1998. The psychocultural roots of genocide:
Legitimacy and crisis in Rwanda. American Psychologist 53:
Williamson, S., R. D. Hare, and S. Wong. 1987. Violence:
Criminal psychopaths and their victims. Canadian Journal of
Behavioral Science 19: 454-462.
1 | 2
| 3 | back to TOC