The Social Dynamics of Thinking

Social dynamics can refer to the behaviour of groups that results from the interactions of individual group members as well as the study of the relationship between individual interactions and group level behaviours.

It is often assumed that the act of thinking is highly individual. Better thinking or poor thinking is located inside the brain or mind.


As a result of that assumption, any manner to improve thinking will be sought inside the brain or mind, either by an improved state of mind or better-thinking techniques. Or perhaps by food or physical activity. Or by drugs or cognitive or philosophical coaching to prevent biases. Anyhow, located inside the individual.

This is highly doubtful. Some groundbreaking research has shown that group dynamics have a profound and often destructive influence on individual thinking. The question arises whether the social environment can be changed to improve thinking.

Solomon Asch

In what is now called the Asch conformity experiments (1951) groups of eight male college students participated in a simple “perceptual” task. In reality, all but one of the participants were actors, and the true focus of the study was about how the remaining participant would react to the actors’ behaviour.

The actors knew the true aim of the experiment but were introduced to the subject as other participants. Each student viewed a card with a line on it, followed by another with three lines labelled AB, and C (see accompanying figure). One of these lines was the same as that on the first card, and the other two lines were clearly longer or shorter (i.e., a near-100% rate of correct responding was expected).

Each participant was then asked to say aloud which line matched the length of that on the first card. Before the experiment, all actors were given detailed instructions on how they should respond to each trial (card presentation). They would always unanimously nominate one comparator, but on certain trials, they would give the correct response and on others, an incorrect response. The group was seated such that the real participant always responded last.

Asch measured the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view.  On average, about one third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority on the critical trials. Over the 12 critical trials, about 75% of participants conformed at least once, and 25% of participant never conformed. In the control group, with no pressure to conform to confederates, less than 1% of participants gave the wrong answer.

Irving Janis

Irving Janis (1918-1990) made important contributions to the study of group dynamics. He did extensive work in the area of “groupthink,” which describes the tendency of groups to try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without sufficiently testing, analyzing, and evaluating their ideas.

His work suggested that pressures for conformity restrict the thinking of the group, bias its analysis, promote simplistic and stereotyped thinking, and stifle individual creative and independent thought.

Stanley Milgram

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1963. They measured the willingness of study participants, men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience.

Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a “learner.” These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real. The experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of men would fully obey the instructions, albeit reluctantly.

Philip Zimbardo

The Stanford prison experiment was a 1971 experiment that attempted to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison officers. It was conducted at Stanford University between August 14–20, 1971, by a research group led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo using college students.

In the study, volunteers were randomly assigned to be either “guards” or “prisoners” in a mock prison, with Zimbardo himself serving as the superintendent. Two of the “prisoners” left mid-experiment, and the whole experiment was abandoned after six days. The results seemed to show that the students quickly embraced their assigned roles, with some guards enforcing authoritarian measures and ultimately subjecting some prisoners to psychological torture, while many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, by the officers’ request, actively harassed other prisoners who tried to stop it.

Happily, there are critics of the research designs, the interpretation of the results and the ethical complications of the research as mentioned above. However, a must-read for anyone who is interested in Thinkibility as a subject, in particular, thinking in a social context.

Group dynamics have a profound and often destructive influence on individual thinking. The question arises whether the social environment can be changed to improve thinking. A question for social design? Ideas?





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