10 rules that govern physical and digital groups
Much of our lives are spent in groups: we form them to earn, recreate, make art, even change the world. So let's spend some time on rules governing group behavior, critical for everyone to understand.
Psyblog shared a story listing 10 rules that govern groups in the physical world. Interesting stuff for sure and for me raised the question – are these same rules also true digitally? My sense is yes, as the way we function online in collaborative digital settings is not radically different from physical. Human behavior doesn’t change as fast as tech, we’re always playing catch-up, so how we evolved to react physically/emotionally still plays out online, to both positive & negative effect. Passion, directed can be good. Pure anger at those not part of your “tribe” is not a great state to be trapped in.
With that, let’s take a brief run through rules that govern physical groups according to various researchers (briefly summarized in italics) followed by ex of how they apply to our digital lives.
Rule 1: Groups can arise from almost nothing
The desire to form and join social groups is extremely powerful and built into our nature. Amongst other things groups give us a most valuable gift, our social identity, which contribute to our sense of who we are.
Just how readily people form and join groups is demonstrated by social psychologist Henry Tajfel in the ‘minimal groups paradigm‘. In their study boys who were strangers to each other were given only the slightest hint that they they were being split into 2 groups. Even without knowing or seeing who else was in their group they favored members of their own group over the others. Group behavior, then, can arise from almost nothing.
Groups self-assembling both online and off is the very nature of organizing without organizations (this is Clay Shirky’s thesis, his analysis on digital communities is some of the best work on the subject). The web enables group formation at scale, speed and niche not possible in physical settings – it’s unprecedented, we’ve shrunk distance barriers and other friction to 0 and made connecting+building community a magical, almost instant process (of course it still involves effort, but the point is it’s orders of magnitude more efficient - groups digitally appear to ‘arise from nothing’ with such regularity this phenomenon doesn’t even surprise us any longer).
Rule 2: Initiation rites improve group evaluations
Existing groups don’t let others join for free: the cost is sometimes monetary, sometimes intellectual, sometimes physical—but usually there is an initiation rite, even if it’s well disguised. Aronson and Mills (1959) tested the effect of initiation rites by making one group of women read passages from sexually explicit novels. Afterwards they rated the group they had joined much more positively than those who hadn’t had to undergo the humiliating initiation. So, not only do groups want to test you, but they want you to value your membership.
Think of how niche Bloggers, Redditors, even Bitcoiners/certain categories of investor interact with each other – there is a rite of passage to get into the conversation with close knit groups led by people (and select well-run brands) reaping benefits that come with such positions of authority (links, attention, subscribers, influence, etc). It may be acquiring a reputation, proving yourself through effort, reaching a certain level of visibility/social proofing, getting a Luna tattoo, etc, but let us not pretend there aren’t initiation rites of some kind (with varying levels of civility) for many of these tribes.
Rule 3: Groups breed conformity
After joining a group and being initiated, we have to get a feel for the group norms, the rules of behavior in that group. Group norms can be extremely powerful, bending our behaviors in ways we would never expect.
One of the most famous experiments showing how easily we conform to unwritten group rules was conducted by Asch (1951). He had participants sit amongst a group of other people, judging the length of a line. The trick was that all the other members of the group were confederates of the experimenter who had been told to lie about which line was longer. Incredibly 76% of participants denied the evidence from their own senses at least once, just to conform with the group. Afterwards people made up all kinds of excuses for their behavior. Most popular was a variation on: “that many people can’t be wrong”. Oh yes they can.
This is true in nearly all circles/niches online. It’s due to the fact that people within any industry or sector spend time absorbing similar media and running in the same circles, and we’re all influenced by what we consume on some level. We must strive to hold on to our individuality and critical thinking skills, remove biases and set ourselves up to make measured decisions with the best possible info from verifiable sources.
Rule 4: Learn the ropes or be ostracized
Group norms are extremely pervasive: this becomes all the more obvious when we start breaking them. Garfinkel (1967) had adolescents return to their families and behave totally out of character, i.e. speaking only when spoken to, being polite, acting formally but only for 15 minutes at a time. Rather than being delighted their parents were shocked and angry, accusing their children of being selfish and rude. Break the group’s rules and you’ll know about it soon enough.
This is not only true, it can be used to your advantage. If everyone in a group is conforming to certain norms a powerful strategy is to break those norms and go against them entirely. You can guarantee that while many appear to follow lead of others, there are always plenty of silent dissenters thirsting for the opposing viewpoints.
Rule 5: You become your job
Although groups have norms—rules that apply to everyone in the group—people have roles within groups and corresponding rules that apply to just their position.
This holds true, of course: consider the ex of how PR pros and reporters function symbiotically, yet no one can deny there is a power dynamic here and expected behavior for specific roles apply heavily. True for all jobs and levels of seniority.
Rule 6: Leaders gain trust by conforming
A high-profile, high-status role in any group is that of its leader, but where do leaders come from? In some groups, they are appointed or imposed from outside, but in many groups leaders emerge slowly and subtly from the ranks.
A study that has much to teach was carried out by Merei (1949) who observed children at a Hungarian nursery school. He noticed that successful leaders were those who initially fitted in with the group then slowly began to suggest new activities adapted from the old. Children didn’t follow potential leaders who jumped straight in with new ideas. Leaders first conform, only later, when trust has been gained, can they be confident others will follow. This has been confirmed in later studies (with adults).
The web enables this even more than in-person, which explains why sometimes influential people seem to “come out of nowhere.” I’ve witnessed rise of many talented folk in last several years who seemed to come out of nowhere. However, to those who followed them from early days, we saw them work hard to get to that point. They weren’t overnight success. Their results were product of a slow, considered process, likely involving some degree of conforming to gain trust.
Rule 7: Groups can improve performance…
The mere presence of others can make us perform better. Social psychology pioneer Norman Triplett noticed that racing cyclists with a pacemaker covered each mile about 5 seconds quicker than those without (Triplett, 1898). Later research found this wasn’t all about the effects of competition. The presence of other people seems to facilitate our own performance, but more so when the task is relatively separate to others and can be judged on its own merits.
This one is also more true on the web than in person. Just look at the collaborative efforts of Wikipedia It currently has more than fifty-eight million articles in more than 300 languages, including 6,502,974 articles in English with 122,308 active contributors in the past month. It’s completely unprecedented, and diversity, aggregation and incentives all lock into place to multiply the value of output created. I’ve written on this concept before but think it’s important to reiterate.
In Think Twice: Harnessing The Power of Counterintution, Michael J. Mauboussin postulates a diverse crowd will always predict more accurately than the average person in the crowd. He takes social scientist Scott Page’s diversity prediction theorem (collective error = average individual error — prediction diversity) a step further to identify the 3 conditions which must be in place to know when crowds will predict well.
diversity, aggregation and incentives: Each condition clicks into the equation. Diversity reduces collective error. Aggregation assures the market considers everyone’s information. Incentives help reduce individual errors by encouraging people to participate only when they think they have insight. The web brings diversity, aggregation and incentives together in a way that is instantly accessible and useful. Groups online improve performance of so many things: from search results, to social media, to community-driven destinations like Wikipedia.
Rule 8: …but people will loaf
In other circumstances, though, people in groups demonstrate a tremendous capacity for loafing. Another social psychology pioneer, Max Ringelmann, found in the 1890s that participants in a tug ‘o war only put in half as much effort when they were in a team of 8 than when they were on their own. It seems that when hiding in the group is easy, for example when tasks are additive and each person’s contribution is difficult to judge, people will slack off to an impressive degree.
This passage instantly made me think of Nielsen’s participation inequality, which explains that in most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action. All large-scale, multi-user communities and online social networks that rely on users to contribute content or build services share one property: most users don't participate very much. Often, they simply lurk in the background. In contrast, tiny minority of users accounts for a disproportionately large amount of content and other system activity.
Rule 9: The grapevine is ~80% accurate
Intelligence, rumor, gossip and tittle-tattle is the lifeblood of many groups. It travels at a tremendous pace in big organizations because people love a good bit of gossip, but what are ‘they’ talking about and can you believe what ‘they’ say? Simmons (1985) analyzed workplace communication and found that about 80% of the time people are talking about work and a surprising 80% of the information was accurate. Other studies have come up with a similar figure, suggesting that while details are inevitably lost along the way, the grapevine is mostly accurate.
A good ex of this is the Twitter community and how the group as a whole is able to consistently break news before trad sources. Twitter is essentially a massive, connected grapevine after all. Several folk there called the pandemic early & often while some larger media brands kept insisting all was fine, towing the company line at the time. For many a watershed moment of loss of trust for US institutions, let’s hope they’re paying attention and work to repair things. Groups on the internet do both positive work holding power accountable but can also degenerate into angry, troll-ish mobs which are unproductive and showcase the worst of humanity.
Rule 10: Groups breed competition
While co-operation within group members is generally not so much of a problem, co-operation between groups can be hellish. People may be individually co-operative, but once put in a ‘them-and-us’ situation, rapidly become remarkably adversarial.
Social rivalries are as old as the Web itself. The fact that they happen between personalities on say, TikTok and Instagram is now is not new, they’ve been around since forums and boards reigned supreme. Now there’s ‘normal’ people/celebs engaged in rivalries whereas it used to just be nerds fighting on obscure topics. It’s beyond of course, (politics, anyone?) as many decided to join tribal groups who think opponents are evil and won’t engage with them in a civilized way, or even treat them as human. I sincerely hope we start to do better on this one and at least start to be more civilized again.
So what do you think, is there still a difference in physical group interaction/participation vs digital? My sense while researching this piece is the internet amplifies aspects of group dynamics. And, distinctions between digital/physical groups continue to shrink.
Hot Takes is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.