Chapter 3: How groups function

Examining the phenomenon of “cults” or “new religious movements” is a difficult endeavour. How can these terms be defined without labelling groups as “good,” “bad,” “manipulative” or “violent”? To avoid seeing these groups simply in those terms this chapter proposes to return to basics. Since cults or religious movements are groups which bring together a variety of individuals who share common values, the study of “cultic” phenomena should start by an understanding of group functioning.

In daily life, groupsfn 21 can provide a reassuring space for social participation and exchange, but also for exclusion and psychological brutality. We will, therefore, examine the elements that influence group functioning and individual experience of members in order to understand why some experiences are harmonious and others problematic. In order to shed light on this question, this chapter provides an introduction to a general understanding of how groups function and their effects on the experience of individual group members.

We will look at the internal and external functioning of groups. The term “internal functioning” is used to describe the internal group dynamic, that is, its structure, socialization process and the relationships among group members. “External functioning” refers to relationships between groups and other organizations.

Internal functioning

To understand the structure of a group and its effects on the members, certain concepts such as norms, social roles, communication and intragroup relations, are presented in this section.


In daily life, whether at school, at work or during leisure time, individuals generally respect various norms, rules or laws in order to adapt themselves to the environment or group to which they belong. But what are norms? How do they influence the daily lives of members? The following section provides some answers to these questions.

Definition of a norm

Norms are rules or behavioural models that are established and accepted by individuals who belong to the same culture or group.fn 22 Since they reflect the group's values, they may:

· Define the nature of interpersonal relations promoted among members or with non-members;

· Determine the skills required by each individual in order to accomplish specific tasks in the group;

· Establish acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the group.

To find out what norms the group has adopted, it is important to ask questions about its core values, conduct and practices.

A punishment and reward system may be a good indication of the norms preferred by a particular group.

The role of norms in a group

The purposes of norms are:fn 23

· To help the group reach its objectives. As members share the same code of conduct the group's norms dictate the responsibilities and obligations of each member. This combination of choices, decisions and behaviours generally fosters a harmonious functioning among group members;

· To foster relationships among members and internal group cohesion. Norms indicate what attitude members should adopt in various circumstances. They may, for instance, help members settle a conflict by providing them with possible resolutions to problems or misunderstandings. As a result, misunderstandings can be avoided and harmonious relationships among members preserved;fn 24

· To help members gain a better understanding of their experience. By suggesting or prescribing acceptable and unacceptable attitudes or behaviours as well as the roles and functions of each group member, norms enable members to better understand the behaviours of their co-members. Norms also allow members to identify those who do not respect the rules enforced in the group.

How group norms affect individuals

In daily life, each individual develops a unique and personal way of judging situations and people.fn 25 A person's judgment may be shaped by participation in group life and the internalization of rules that exist in the group.fn 26

The influence that a group may have on a member's perceptions or representations of reality is not, from the outset, good or bad. It is, however, important to understand that becoming a member of a group and adopting its rules and practices changes an individual's view of the world in different ways. A group's ability to assert its influence over a member may, however, vary depending on the individual and group in question.

The following section describes the different influence processes that can exist in a group.

Adapting to the group: from socialization to conformism

A person who decides to become a member of a group must necessarily adapt to life in the group by subscribing to its values, norms and beliefs.fn 27 One of the processes in which individuals model their behaviour on that of the other members is known as socialization.fn 28

Coordinating the behaviour of group members in their interactions with one another reduces the chance of disagreement and conflict among members and, ultimately, fosters a sense of unity, cohesion and true companionship.

Once the members have adopted similar values, practices and behaviours, four changes may occur within the group:fn 29

· Sense of unity: relationships among group members become more harmonious and a sense of belonging to the group develops. Members are proud to identify themselves with the group and its participants;

· Stability: once conflicts are resolved and harmony is maintained, the number of members stabilizes;

· Satisfaction: group cohesion and the satisfaction of members who participate in the life of the group are closely related. The greater the sense of belonging to the group, the more its members are happy to live within it. They feel privileged to be recognized as participants of this particular group;

· Internal dynamic: groups with strong internal cohesion enjoy greater influence over their members. When internal cohesion is strong, members more readily accept the goals, objectives and norms imposed by a leader or by co-members.

Although group cohesion can have positive effects on the life of the group, its intensity can sometimes have a negative impact. Some group members may become intransigent with regard to those who demonstrate deviant behaviour. Consequently, the slightest nonconformist behaviour may lead to sanctions.fn 30

Members who disregard the group's norms tend to be less valued by the other members. In some cases, those who deviate from the norm and create friction in the group may expose themselves to:fn 31

· Hostility;

· Isolation from the other members;

· Being the scapegoat for the group's problems;

· Rejection by the group.

Behaviour based on an established set of norms may, therefore, have a positive effect on the group, its functioning and interactions among members. It may improve the group's productivity,fn 32 but it may also lead to the isolation and rejection of deviant members.


When individuals integrate into the life of a group, they often adopt the values, norms and behaviours valued by the group in order to be accepted. People who model their behaviour on other group members can be described as conformist.fn 33

Unlike socialization, in which individuals adapt to group life while preserving their autonomy ¯ conformism requires individuals to accept a set of group requirements and modify their behaviour to duplicate that of the other members in order to be accepted.

Conformism can be described as a process of submission to the majority which can reveal a need for security, a search for identification through membership to a group or a strategy for avoiding conflict.

Here are three processes through which individuals adapt their behaviour to group norms: fn 34 acquiescence, internalization and identification.

Avoiding conflict through acquiescence

In some cases, the possibility of conflict arising among members or the possibility of being recognized as a nonconformist influences group members to acquiesce to the demands expressed.fn 35

Members may feel peer pressure, prompting them to acquiesce to the demands expressed by individuals in the group. In this case, when individuals are eager to please group members or to make friends, they may acquiesce to the requirements imposed by the members in exchange for their friendship.fn 36 The more individuals are attracted to a group or to its participants, the more eager they will be to adhere to requirements, even if they are contrary to their personal philosophy of life or beliefs.

In this context, conformism may be short lived. Members may acquiesce to the group's demands in public but refuse to conform to group norms when they are no longer in contact with other members.fn 37


Individuals may also modify their behaviour if they believe, for instance, that the group is right or holds “the truth.fn 38

Individuals, who have internalized the opinions, preferences or actions of the group into their own value system, accept the group's norms and demands both in their public and private lives.


The process of identification occurs when individuals consciously or sub-consciously agree to give in to group pressure because they want to attain the qualities or characteristics that certain members possess.fn 39

Violating norms

Despite the influence a group may have on its members, some participants may adopt behaviour that interferes with the group's activities. Under these circumstances, the group is likely to react to the nonconformist who may be subjected to different forms of pressure designed to modify his or her behaviour.fn 40


The violation of a norm elicits different reactions depending on the importance of the norm to the group.

If a person breaks a new rule or one that is of less importance to the members, the reactions and sanctions may be minimal.fn 41 However, if a person breaks a well-established rule that is deemed important by the members, the group's reaction and the ensuing sanctions may be more stringent.

In order for one or several norms to be transgressed, there has to be:fn 42

· An established norm;

· A person who transgresses the norm;

· A person recognized by the group as nonconformist.fn 43

A person can violate a norm without provoking a reaction if:

· There is no witness to confirm the violation;

· The person's deviant behaviour is recognized as involuntary or unintentional.fn 44

Consequently, the sanctions and severity imposed on individuals who are recognized as a nonconformist varies according to the nature of the deviant act committed. The greater the violation committed in the view of group members, the greater the sanction will be.fn 45

A person who violates the rules of the group may be perceived as an evil force or a threat to the group's equilibrium. In this case, the other group members may have a negative or even hostile reaction to the individual. The deviant member may be ignored for a period of time, isolated, insulted or even expulsed from the group.fn 46

It is important to note that, the reactions and sanctions of members vary from one group to another.

The importance of deviant or nonconformist members

The deviant member plays a particular role in the group since he or she becomes a symbol, representing behaviour or ideas that are ill-advised or prohibited in the group. This person may, therefore, serve as an example of what members must not do.

Roles in a group

A role consists of a set of behaviours, conducts or functions expected from a person in a group.fn 47

Roles are varied and enable the activities and tasks of each member to be differentiated. Some, for instance, are assigned administrative, management, publicity or basic tasks to be performed for the group.

Each role requires specific skills. The concept of roles implies specialized tasks within a specific group. Some group members will never have an opportunity to assume certain roles within the group because they have been identified as not having the necessary skills. In some groups, for instance, a woman's role is limited to educating children, while men assume the role of provider.


To understand group functioning, it is also important to examine the status associated with the roles established in the group. Each role may enable access to a particular social position. Power and prestige vary according to the role being performed. For instance, in a large restaurant, the roles of head chef and waiter are not assigned the same powers, privileges and responsibilities. Similarly, the social situation of a child, a women or a man in a group may vary in terms of the roles they are allowed to assume.fn 48

Evaluating the power of individuals in a group

Individuals can have power in a group if they possess one or more of the following:fn 49

· The ability to reward and punish deviant members;

· Knowledge valued by the group;

· A skill coveted by the group;

· Privileged information;

· Exemplary behaviour;

· Seen by the group as a good advisor;

· Influence over other members' choices, decisions and behaviour.

Members and their personalities

Although several members occupy similar roles in a group, each one has a unique personality. The diversity of individual personalities has a definite impact on how the group functions.fn 50 Here are some of the variations that exist among members:

· Active or passive attitude or behaviour in the group: not all members share the same level of involvement in the group. Some play an active role and express their opinions while other members are more timid and less vocal during discussions. Group members can be anywhere in between these two poles (active and passive);

· Positive or negative attitude in the group: not all members of a group are congenial and sociable. Some members appear to be congenial and warm, while others are indifferent or cold. Some may constantly disagree with their co-members, while others are more friendly and open to new proposals. Sociability, therefore, varies a great deal from one member to another;

· Attitude or personality that causes the group to advance or to stagnate: members invest differently in the activities of the group. Some take their involvement seriously, while others are more focussed on their own needs than the attainment of common objectives.

Some members help the group attain its objectives by: fn 51

· Fostering cooperation among members, through their behaviour;

· Seeking to respond to requests made by members;

· Coordinating the actions of group members;

· Facilitating the group's orientation or restating its objectives;

· Stimulating the group and enabling it to progress.

Other members occupy roles that tend to maintain positive social interactions among members by: fn 52

· Supporting and encouraging others, and praising the work or personalities of co-members;

· Maintaining harmony among members and minimizing tensions and disagreements;

· Helping to reconcile diverging opinions and proposing new options.

There are also individuals whose roles can become problematic for the group and its pursuit of common objectives by: fn 53

· Rejecting the ideas of co-members and thereby preventing the group's advancement;

· Competing for prestige;

· Discouraging discussion among members and encouraging long monologues.

Leadership and the leader

Leadership can be defined as a process of social influence by which an individual is able to solicit and obtain the participation of group members in performing a common task.fn 54 A person who has this power to influence others is called the leader.

Acting as the leader of a group means that this person has authority and responsibilities that differ from those of the other members. Consequently, the status of group leader is unique since he or she may: fn 55

· Influence or control interactions among members;

· Encourage others to quickly adopt his or her ideas;

· Make decisions on behalf of the group;

· Impose sanctions or punish members who do not contribute to accomplishing a task.

Each group seeks specific qualities in a leader. Based on the interactions of its members, the group reaches a consensus with regard to the leadership qualities valued, sought or expected:

· In some groups, the behaviours and attributes sought in a leader are extremely specific and leave little space for any form of personal expression. The person who assumes the leadership must therefore remain effective, or risk losing his or her position;

· Other groups may grant the leader more latitude. The leader may therefore be allowed to modify the group's requirements and reconfigure the leader's role based on his or her personality and skills.

When members recognize the unique quality of the leader, his or her influence on the members can increase over time.fn 56 The leader of a group can influence members' choices, decisions and behaviour through mystic powers that he or she claims to possess and that are accepted by the members. For instance, a spiritual group leader can declare to the members that he or she has the ability to communicate with God. Since no one else in the group has this ability, the members may attribute disproportionate importance to the ideas and suggestions put forward by the leader.fn 57

The leader's personality

While it is difficult to recognize qualities specific to a leader, certain characteristics are often associated with leaders who are able to maintain their role at the helm of a group:fn 58

· The ability to create emotional ties with group members: effective leaders often have the ability to quickly forge friendships with group members, and tend to favour warm interpersonal relationships. This helps to ensure better internal functioning of the group;

· The ability to structure the group: leaders tend to be creative in their methods for managing the group and intragroup relations;

· The ability to promote production: leaders favour a task-oriented approach and succeed in motivating members to pursue common objectives;

· The ability to show compassion: leaders are or appear to be tolerant and compassionate when conflicts arise among group members.

Aside from specific personality traits, a leader's success may also depend on his or her ability to facilitate the attainment of the group's objectivesfn 59. In order to focus members' attention on attaining objectives, the leader may stimulate them by identifying a common enemy. This creates a sense of belonging to the organization and a desire to rally against the group's enemy.

The role of leader varies from one group to the next. To understand the full scope of a leader's power in a group, it is important to observe, among other things, his or her ability to make decisions on behalf of the entire group as well as his or her power to impose sanctions on group members.

Group communication

In a group, each member becomes versed in the language used and understands the cultural references employed by co-members. Participants in groups usually share common linguistic keys which allows them to understand each other.fn 60 Take, for example, this conversation between two teenagers:

Nancy says to Julie: “That's a wicked T-shirt you're wearing!” Julie understands that Nancy really likes her T-shirt, even though the word “wicked” means “unpleasant” or “evil.” Teenagers understand that this slang term really means “fantastic” or “beautiful.”

Two members from different groups can have difficulty understanding each other even though they speak the same language because the meaning attributed to certain words can vary from one group to the next. Furthermore, cultural differences such as norms and philosophies on life impede fluid communication and language comprehension between members of different groups.fn 61 Sharing a common language enables members of the same group to understand each other and creates an additional bond uniting them.

The decision-making process in a group

Group life involves making decisions together. The decision-making process varies among groups. Decisions may be:

· Imposed by the group's authority. This is a quick approach which can also be useful to resolve routine issues. However, when employed abusively, members may gradually feel manipulated by the leader(s) of the group. The fact that the other members are not consulted can hamper the group's effectiveness and members' motivation;

· Made by the group's authority, following consultation with members. This solution enables the points of view of several members to be taken into consideration before choosing the most appropriate solution;

· Made by a person labelled a specialist. This method of functioning may be effective if the person's judgement is satisfactory to the other group members. However, the very choice of a specialist can be a source of conflict and controversy. A specialist's decisions may be contested or rejected;

· Made by the majority of the group. This process may be satisfactory to the members, but may create conflicts with the group's minority who disagrees with the decisions adopted;

· Formulated by a minority of individuals in the group. This process is effective when the decisions being made are of no major consequence, but may become a source of conflict if the decisions have a direct impact on the daily lives of the majority of group members;

· Adopted through consensus. The participation of all group members may increase the quality and popularity of the decisions being made. However, since this process can take a long time, the group's productivity may be reduced. Furthermore, tensions among members can hinder the chance of finding solutions to difficulties encountered during the decision-making process.

The way in which groups arrive at decisions is, therefore, crucial since it can be a source of conflict or harmony among the members.

Mistakes in decision-making

Mistakes in group decision-making can result from strong group cohesion. The effect of cohesion on decision-making is referred to as the “Janis” effect,fn 62 after the name of the author who described this phenomenon.

The “Janis” effect occurs when a group tries to establish a consensus around a solution considered to be the most acceptable. In order to safeguard the group's cohesion and avoid any discussion that could lead to conflict, members prefer to adopt a more simplistic but consensual solution than a complex one that could trigger a conflict.

In some groups, maintaining a climate of complicity is so important that participants avoid taking initiative or making counter suggestions in order to prevent any potential conflict. The initial solution, even if it does not seem adequate, is often retained. In this situation, the group is blinded by group loyalty which tends to stifle any critical or independent thinking. Added to this are other conditions in the decision-making process which favour the “Janis” effect:

· The group does not explore alternative solutions.

· The group does not consider all the objectives of the task being accomplished or does not determine the objectives that must be attained.

· The costs and consequences of the decision are not explored. Truths are quickly affirmed without any proof of what is or is not adequate or effective.

· The search for information is superficial. The members forget or disregard incoherent aspects of their decisions and are only interested in the elements that correspond with their common vision.

· The group is not interested in the difficulties that may be encountered during implementation of the program or project. The group minimizes, or even disregards, any ideas pertaining to these difficulties under the pretext that these situations are extremely rare.

Two major factors can be found in the context of a problematic decision-making process:

· Collective illusion of morality, rationale, unanimity or invariability leads the group to believe that its role is of such high moral calibre that it is incapable of making any mistakes.

· Collective censorship reigns and is self-imposed as well as imposed on others.

As a result, members do not express their ideas in order to preserve the group's harmony.

Reasons for becoming a member of a group

Human beings search for ways to understand their life experiences.fn 63 In this search for meaning, the beliefs transmitted by a group or its world vision may help some people find the answers they are looking for or bring new meaning to their daily lives.fn 64

In a crisis situation, becoming a member of a group enables a person to relieve the tension or stress they are feeling. By joining a group, individuals who have been confronted by a disturbing event, such as the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship, may be better able to understand the event and come to terms with it. For instance, becoming a member of a spiritual group that believes in the existence of life after death may provide an explanation for a person who is grieving the loss of loved one.fn 65

Even though individuals cannot, for instance, bring a deceased child back to life, the beliefs transmitted by the group may allow them to interpret this event in a new light. In this situation, death perceived as unjust takes on a new meaning. An unacceptable death becomes a less painful reality and, in some cases, a tolerable event.fn 66

The group offers a framework to help people interpret their problems from a different standpoint. Once they have adopted the group's doctrine or philosophy, difficult challenges may no longer be perceived as insurmountable and, indeed, may take on a new meaning.

In a crisis, some people may find it easier to manage their emotions by being part of a group that provides plausible explanations for their problems and suffering. The group therefore responds to the needs of the person in exchange for the individual's commitment to join the other members in pursuit of the group's objectives.fn 67

For some people, belonging to a group allows them to adopt a more harmonious approach to daily problems. Unemployment, for instance, is no longer perceived as a disaster, but as a challenging opportunity for individuals to acquire new skills.

Integrating into group life offers some people a chance to better adapt to stress, physical and psychological exertion, ageing or death.fn 68 Joining a group can also help some people overcome drug addiction and alcoholism.fn 69

Becoming a member to satisfy a need

A group of people may also share certain beliefs in order to respond to hardships.fn 70 The various types of hardships experienced by an individual prior to joining a group may include:

· Organic or physical. Individuals who are suffering from a disease or live with someone who is suffering from physical problems may turn to a group for help. Belonging to a group can respond to this type of suffering by offering the promise of a remedy or of a healthier lifestyle.

· Economic or material. Individuals may be experiencing financial difficulties or may have material needs. The group can share its resources.

· Social and community. Individuals may feel that their relationships with others are unfulfilling. The group offers the possibility of engaging in positive interpersonal relationships, particularly through active participation in community life.

· Moral. Individuals may experience confusion with regard to their value system which they may consider to be contrary to socially accepted values. A group may provide them with another moral code to fill this gap.

· Existential or psychological. Individuals who are dissatisfied with their lives or their roles in society may be distressed and searching for the meaning of life or for an intense emotional connection. The group may, in these circumstances, provide a lifestyle that responds to their existential angst or sense of emptiness or boredom.

Becoming a member for reasons of similarity, reciprocity or social status

Given the diversity of groups, what factors influence a person to choose a particular group over another? Here are some of the reasons that can motivate a person's choice:


Individuals may decide to join certain groups due to similarities they feel they share with the group. This attraction can be based on values, lifestyle or physical appearance.fn 71


Individuals who feel a sense of value through their participation in the group, or who are complimented by the members for their skills, personality or appearance will be more likely to join a particular group, as opposed to another one which is critical of their lifestyle or personality. Conversely, a group will celebrate the arrival of a new candidate if it feels that the individual's skills will contribute to achieving the group's objectives.

Social status

A group's social status may be a determining factor in encouraging a person to become a member. A person may decide to become a member because the group is considered to be prestigious in the eyes of the community.fn 72 A person who becomes a member of an influential group becomes, by association, a prestigious and important person.fn 73 Limited spaces in a group may heighten some people's desire to join the group.fn 74


Individuals often choose a group based on the groups available in their community. Obviously, they cannot become members of groups that do not exist or which are unknown to them.fn 75

Interpersonal relationships in a group

This section describes the different types of relationships that exist between members and their leaders in Eastern style groups.

Leader-follower relationship

Relationship with a good guru

It is difficult to describe the leader of a group as good or bad. Every guru or leader can have harmonious or problematic relationships with certain members of the group.fn 76

A “good” leader:fn 77

· Has good knowledge of the group's writings;

· Has been the disciple of several masters, and asks many questions during the learning process;

· Lives according to his or her teachings.

The condescending guru

This type of leader has a paternalistic attitude toward members of the group, and is overprotective and secretive about the leader-follower relationship. Although the leader's intention is to protect and reassure members, in exchange, he or she sometimes demands extreme submission from members. In this situation, spiritual or personal growth occurs through the leader's teachings and the leader-follower relationship. The objective of the group is to promote the leader's spiritual growth so that the participants can share in his or her higher knowledge.

The spiritual abuser

The spiritual abuser may be described as a leader who uses spiritual, biblical or other writings to inflict feelings of guilt on members. The leader uses divine language or prayers to address social, psychological or health problems.

The swindler guru

Swindler gurus can be described as leaders who constantly ask their followers for money. These leaders live in luxury while their disciples lead an ascetic life, sometimes below the poverty line. This type of guru often does not accept questions from members and expects them to follow whatever he or she tells them.

Interdependent relationship

For some, a unique bond is created between the leader and the follower.fn 78 This relationship is born out of the following complementary needs between the leader and the members:

· Leaders feel the need to be elected and vested with a mission. They see themselves as guides, leading their followers to salvation.fn 79 This need to be elected is fulfilled by the members' fervent commitment to follow a leader.

· Members, for their part, want to be recognized as different from the rest of the population through their membership in the group.fn 80 They feel the need to associate with a person whom they consider to be inspiring in order to follow an ideal. fn 81

These complementary needs and aspirations can create a powerful bond between the leader and the follower who may, over time, become mutually dependent.

In some relationships, the member becomes increasingly dependent on the leader. Membership in the group can eventually encroach on all aspects of an individual's life. Gradually, the members lose their ability to judge and become completely subjected to the leader.

Dependence on a leader becomes problematic when both the members and the leader cannot imagine life without the other.fn 82 In some cases, leaders feel that it is their duty to preserve the members' fervour. To maintain this bond, the follower may be obliged to respond to all of the leader's demands. In this extreme interdependent relationship, group members can commit criminal acts.fn 83

Group relationships: possible effects on members

The following sections deal with the negative effects of group life.fn 84

Feeling depersonalized

Members can feel a sense of loss of identity as they become anonymous in the group. Co-members do not recognize them for who they are, but in terms of what they expect from them.

Feeling threatened

During the course of their membership in the group, some members may at times feel that they are being judged by co-members in terms of their behaviour, attitude or choices. Members who feel threatened in this way may decide to:

· Conform;

· Revolt;

· Leave the group.

Feeling dependent

Individuals who participate in group life tend to forge ties and to conform to the demands of others. They also have a tendency of internalizing common rules and images and feel that they belong to a community. This dependence can range from cooperation to fusion. Sometimes members fear the loss of love and support from the other group members and may agree to all of the demands made by the group so as not to be rejected.

Group illusion

The illusion is created through statements such as: “We are happy together; we have created a strong group; we have a good leader.fn 85 This illusion serves to replace individual identity with group identity. This esprit de corps promotes close relationships among members who all feel important even though they are essentially identical. This state of mind is often accompanied by feelings of euphoria. Two conditions are necessary in order for a group illusion to be created:

· Scapegoat: this allows the group to transpose its internal aggression onto an external body and to enjoy group life free of conflict. The group may perceive another group or non-member as the representation of evil, while the group and its members represent good.

· An egalitarian ideology: this favours the melding of individual differences into a single identity.

External functioning or intergroup relations

Relationships between groups can foster a sense of social value, and provide advantages for communities, but can also serve to alienate certain groups or their members by promoting relationships based on prejudice, discrimination and conflict. This section examines the question of intergroup relations.

Creating prejudice and its effect on group relationships

Prejudice in intergroup relations can be explained by two factors: competition between groups for access to available resources and the social identity theory.

Intergroup competition

Intergroup competition can play a significant role in creating prejudicial or discriminatory ideas, attitudes or behaviour. According to conflict theory, resource scarcity and intergroup competition to acquire them are the source of prejudices against members of opposing groups. When groups engage in this kind of competition, negative or prejudicial attitudes toward their competitors can be observed among group members. fn 86

Social identity of members

Social identity theory explains that the mere fact of belonging to a particular group or specific social category encourages the development of prejudices toward members of other groups.fn 87

In fact, participating in group life is designed to help members build a positive self-image. To achieve this, groups compare themselves to members of other groups. This comparative evaluation process is designed to satisfy the need to establish a positive identity. As a result, group favouritism emerges as individuals spontaneously consider their co-members to be of high-calibre and denigrate the members of other groups. Depending on the situation, members of adversary groups may be perceived as perverse or amoral. This perception sometimes leads to prejudice or discriminatory behaviour.

A sense of group cohesion can therefore serve to accentuate differences between groups.fn 88 Gradually, the group may divide the world into two categories - us and them:fn 89

· “Us” being group members.

· “Them” being non-members or members of another group who share distinct values, ideas, etc.

In short, when members of a group develop prejudices against members of another group, they also create a glorified image of themselves. By comparing themselves with other groups that are perceived, for instance, as mean-spirited, they feel more confident about their own skills and their ability to overcome any obstacle along their path.

This glorification can be useful in building a strong team spirit. It may, however, become problematic when it leads to the manifestation of discriminatory behaviour.fn 90

Stereotypes in groups

Stereotypes are more or less consensual beliefs that individuals share with regard to the behaviour and personality of a group.fn 91 By definition, stereotypes are generalizations that serve to attribute a specific set of personality traits to members of a particular group and accentuate the differences between groups.

Stereotypes distort reality:fn 92

· Group members perceive members of other groups as identical. Members of group A will say, for example, that members of group B are all evil and self-serving. These prejudices can develop even if the members of group B share the same physical and personal features as those of the members of group A.

· By overestimating the differences between groups, members see themselves as unique individuals, while they consider participants of other associations to be identical.

It is much more important to examine how members apply stereotypes than to focus on the stereotypes themselves. Stereotypes become destructive when they lead to racism and discriminatory behaviour toward a group and its members.

Discriminatory behaviour

Discriminatory behaviour can be an attempt to restrict the rights of members of adversary groups. Some situations widen the gap between groups and create a context that lends itself to discriminatory behaviour, such as:fn 93

· A group that defines itself as autonomous and self-sufficient and considers relations with other groups to be futile.

· Members who belong to a different language group, for instance, or who enjoy a different institutional role and status.

· Conflicting interests between groups, for example gains by one group which imply a loss for another group.

· When the members of each group believe that they have the only true, rational and fair solution.

Identifying an external scapegoat

The group may also adopt discriminatory behaviour toward a person or a group in order to free itself from existing internal tensions. The group therefore projects all of its tensions onto a scapegoat who is considered to be the cause of all the problems within the group.fn 94 The scapegoat serves as a call to arms that rallies and unites group members in order to tackle the problems created within the group by this negative force.fn 95

Escalating conflicts

The intergroup problems described in this section (competition and discriminatory group identity) can sometimes heighten intergroup conflicts. This escalation results from growing negative attitudes and behaviour toward other groups.

Due to mounting confrontations and tensions, groups become fearful and feel increasingly threatened by their enemy. They may, therefore, feel the need to react to the enemy group.fn 96

In extreme cases, the group may adopt a defensive attitude toward the behaviour and reactions of an enemy group and may, as a result, become more vigilant with regard to the enemy. While observing the opposing group, members may gather evidence in order to prove the other group's ill intentions. The accumulation of evidence may modify or legitimize discriminatory behaviour toward the other group.

Intergroup conflictsfn 97

Intergroup conflicts can take various forms. In a community, the divisions between group interests can lead to polarization and hostilities. Low-intensity conflicts between ethnic, racial and religious groups can be expressed by prejudice, discrimination and social protest.

Intergroup conflicts are not always the result of unfounded perceptions or misunderstanding; they may be based on real differences with regard to power between groups, access to resources, values or significant incompatibilities. Sources of conflict may however, be exacerbated by the subjective process through which individuals interpret the world and by group functioning in relation to perceived differences and threats.

The differences perceived by groups with regard to access to resources may lead to destructive conflicts. This type of conflict can be described as a social situation in which two groups confront each other. The groups may be opposed due to the incompatibility of their perceptions, goals or values and may, therefore, take steps to control each other. Antagonistic feelings can emerge from this dynamic and prompt one group to take extreme actions to control the group perceived as dangerous or problematic.

Sources of intergroup conflicts

Conflicts can be economic when groups vie for the same, often limited, resources. To avoid losing these resources to other associations, some groups may adopt violent strategies.

Conflicts can be based on values which involve opposing beliefs and preferences. These conflicts may arise around the meaning of values and the corresponding behaviour.

A variety of groups with different practices and beliefs co-exist daily within a community. Relations between these groups can create a climate of misunderstanding and incompatibility which, ultimately, can lead to hostility and discriminatory behaviour.

Conflicts may arise from issues of power when groups seek to maximize their influence and control over others. This type of conflict may be perceived as a struggle for domination and control over other groups. fn 98


Group functioning and the experience of members may vary according to the:

· Group's objectives;

· Norms that shape behaviour;

· Role and status acquired by each member;

· Presence or absence of a leader;

· Leader's style of authority;

· Type of sanctions condoned by the group;

· Communication among members;

· Decision-making process;

· Bonds that unite members.


©Info-Cult 2006