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Why and How do Humans Group?

Why and How do Humans Group?

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand causes and dynamics of group formation. 

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As human beings we seem to have a very natural need to form ourselves into groups. Think about it. If I ask you how many groups do you belong to, you could probably list quite a few. I'm Marlene, and today I'd like to talk with you about why and how we as humans form groups.

So why we form groups is probably pretty simple to answer. It seems as though we need to be in groups in order to survive. We really can't live on our own. I mean, there are some animals that do this, but not very many. When you think about it, most animals organize themselves into groups. You have a pride of lions, wolves are in packs, there are even families of birds. And primates, who are the closest to us in an evolutionary manner, they form themselves into social groups that are quite similar to ours.

So as human beings we need each other. We need each other to survive. It's inbred. So we form groups. Now, how do we do that? How do we form groups? Well, we form groups around certain shared things. And the first one, which is pretty obvious, I think, here, is family. That's the very first group we belong to. And for most of us we continue those family ties and bonds throughout our life.

Then the next three here, values, goals, interests, when we find we share any of these things with others, we quite naturally will form a group. So groups are formed around shared values, goals, and interests. So if you think about the groups you belong to, for values it might be faith based, or it could be a cause you support, something that's very important to you. Others who share those values, you feel like you're part of that group because you feel a similarity.

Or a goal, this could be a professional goal. We have a lot of professional organizations people belong to because they share a particular goal professionally. Could be a personal goal, maybe you want to lose weight or become more physically fit, so you join a group. You join Weight Watchers, and so you're part of that group. Or interests, think about the interests you have and others who share those interests. You feel like you're part of that group. Maybe you go to yoga, you love yoga, or you're a long distance runner. Maybe you run marathons. Everybody who runs a marathon with you is part of your group.

And the interesting thing here is that we feel that we're more similar to people in groups who do the same things we are than we are to those who are not in the group. So there's this sense of similarity. We're more similar to members of our group than those who don't belong. Now, this is true even if we haven't met people in the group.

Now with the internet there are a number of online groups. In fact, I was reading about one recently where people who are looking for coupons, ways to save money, have actually organized themselves into a group and pass on tips on how to use coupons, how to find coupons. They have a name for themselves. And they feel this similarity. And they probably don't know everybody in this group, but there's that sense that we are alike in terms of this coupon interest.

This could be anything. We could all identify with this. Think of the college you went to. You meet somebody who graduated, who's an alum, it's like, oh, you went to the same school I did. A sports team, you don't know everybody in the stadium cheering for your team, but you're part of the same group. So if we feel that we have this similarity with people who share a value, an interest, a goal, that means people who don't share that value, interest, and goal, we think of as a little bit dissimilar. Oh, you don't do yoga? Well, there's a little dissimilarity there.

So this is the beginning of in-groups and out-groups, in-groups and out-groups. Now, the in-group is any group that we define ourselves as being part of, because we feel like we're similar to people in that group for whatever reason, value, interest, goal. So then there's the out-group. And the out-group is just the people who are not sharing that value, interest, or goal. Oh, you don't do yoga, as I said, then you're not part of this group.

So it doesn't necessarily mean there's animosity here. I think when we hear the term in-group and out-group we think of some animosity. And it doesn't necessarily mean that. It's just this sense that this is us. If we define ourselves as part of this group, this is us. And if there's an us, there has to be a them. So this is them, those who aren't in our group.

This starts early. We hear our kids go to school and there is peer group, peer group pressure. And kids form themselves into different groups. There's the debate team, and the football team, kids interested in music, interested in science. So peer group pressure, just that term shows how powerful groups can be, and at a very young age we begin to form these bonds.

Now, the fact that we do have in-groups and out-groups and this sense of similarity and dissimilarity can lead to conflict, can lead to conflict between groups. I think we see that. We can see quite a bit of tension, for example, for values, say, we see politically. Oh, you are Republican, you're a Democrat, in-group, out-group, but there can be real tension. There can be tension, just very kind of mild tension that can build between groups.

OK, I'm a bicyclist. I like to commute on my bike to work. So I get on my bike every day and commuting down the road. Someone else does not commute on their bike, a lot of people don't, and they're in a car. Well, there's a little bit of tension here between those who are driving cars and those on bikes, in terms of safety, and bike lanes, and environment, and whatever the issue is. There's a little bit of tension here between these two groups.

There might be tensions even within a group. So you are a vegetarian. And you have a certain values here and interests and goals around food, and you share those with other vegetarians. But there might be some people who are a little bit more strict. They're vegans. And so there's a little bit of argument here about what it means to really eat in this particular style. Should it more like the vegans or more like the vegetarians?

And so there might be a little bit of conflict. It doesn't have to be great animosity, but a little bit of conflict. Or people within your group, you might find if it's a group for a cause, perhaps there's some shared goal here, and you're working together with people in this group. There's a similarity. You share this. But somebody's not quite carrying their weight. They're not participating in the way that you or others think they should be. There's conflict.

So not only can you have conflict erupt between groups, an in-group and an out-group, but it can erupt within a group, conflicts within a group here. So as humans we will form ourselves into groups. I think we've done it forever. We're going to continue to do it. But just to understand how we form these groups and how easily we can come to identify ourselves with others based on these shared values, goals, interests, or family. And how easy it is, then, to see others as maybe outside that group. And how that interplay can, at times, lead to conflict, and sometimes conflict that will escalate. So thank you for joining me today, and I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know

Groups in which a given person defines herself or himself as a member.


Groups in which a given person does not define himself or herself.

Shared Interests/Goals/Values

An interest/goal/value shared to some degree by members of a group.


A perception that members of your in-group are more like you than members of your out-group.