President-Elect Column

The Ubiquity of Groups

Craig Parks, PhD
Craig Parks, Ph.D.

One of the many attractive features of Division 49 to me is that we are one of the few divisions that focuses on an entity that everyone deals with: Groups. It is impossible to get through your day without performing as a group member, often many times a day. Most of us work with other people. Almost all of us are part of teacher-student or therapist-client (or both) relationships. We all regularly engage with our groups of friends. We get involved with community groups, special-interest groups, political associations, recreational teams…the list goes on.

Despite this, the research on group processes and dynamics is in silos. The social psychologists (my cohort) are over here looking at why group discussion is so inefficient. The group therapists are over there studying therapist-client interaction dynamics. The organizational psychologists are in the far corner looking at work groups. The sport and exercise researchers are back there testing whether particular compositions of exercise groups are better or worse at encouraging members to stick with the workout program. The especially unfortunate result of such isolation is that we miss golden opportunities to work together and learn more about principles that are common across the various types of groups that intrigue us. It would be fascinating, for example, to know whether composition is as influential on member behavior in a workplace group as it is in a workout group. Does Leader-Member Exchange theory describe how a group therapist interacts with his/her clients as well as it does a work supervisor and his/her subordinates? Could Yalom’s ideas about the therapeutic factors associated with group psychotherapy be used to help social psychologists move past the stubborn problem of task group inefficiency? Dozens more cross-domain questions like these can be generated without too much thought. Yet it is rare to see such projects undertaken.

The groups’ area has not always been so segmented. In the mid-1950’s, Morton Deutsch augmented his research into the social psychology of conflict by becoming a licensed therapist, in order to better understand the entire spectrum of human behavior. Deutsch’s advisor, Kurt Lewin, helped lay the foundation for modern group therapy with his development of T-group procedures. In writing The Social Basis of Consciousness, Burrow drew upon a number of concepts that would be familiar to a social psychologist today: Power differentials, socialization of norms, trans active memory, shared cognition. Rogers wrote about how his person-centered therapy approach could be applied to problems of group conflict, leadership, and more broadly, interpersonal relations. How these connections fell apart is too complicated of an issue to take up here, and at any rate is mired in more philosophical politics than any of us cares to think about. The important point is that a call for those who are interested in different types of groups to start looking at each other’s bodies of work is hardly unprecedented.

The response that many researchers might have to such a suggestion is that it is a huge challenge to keep up with all of the developments in one’s area of focus—how can one possibly also keep abreast of what is being published in these other areas? This is indeed an issue. I am to the point where I consider myself “up to date” if I have merely scanned the tables of contents of the many journals that I receive. I only visit clinical, counseling, sport, or management journals on rare occasions. But this is exactly why I place such value on Division 49. I know that every year at APA I will get to spend time with other members, who are studying groups of types other than those that I study (groups of unacquainted individuals who are confronted with mixed-motive collaborative tasks, in case you were wondering), and hear about what they have been working on. I am consistently struck by how easily I can ask questions about their work, and how many suggestions for my own projects they provide to me. As importantly, I consistently come away from our conversations with a different perspective on the dynamics of human cooperation, and some of these perspective shifts have been profound. At one of my first divisional meetings, I was telling someone, a counseling psychologist, about my interest in learning how to encourage people to be more cooperative more frequently, and he asked me whether Carl Rogers’ ideas were of any value for the problem. All I knew of Rogers was what I had learned as an undergraduate, so I collected some references from my new friend. The outcome of this reading was a conviction to more strongly integrate personality variables into my thinking, which eventually resulted in my contributing a chapter on the interface between personality and social-group processes to the Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology. This is a piece I would have never dreamt of producing before my chance encounter.

I would love for Division 49 to become a place where, once a year, all of the psychologists who are curious about any type of group come to share ideas and learn from one another. Undeniably there are hurdles that have to be cleared in order for this to happen. Those philosophical issues I alluded to earlier will not dissipate overnight. But I am convinced that some outreach on our part, some effort to show members of other divisions that we share common ground, can indeed result in more people coming into our tent. My goal for my year as president is thus to start building these connections. Such would benefit not only those of us in the division, but psychology as a whole.