Studies in Group Dynamics

February 14, 2012 Comments off

Group dynamics are the influential actions, processes, and changes that take place within and between groups. Groups come in all shapes and sizes, their functions are many and varied, and their influence universal. The tendency to join with others in groups is perhaps the single most important characteristic of humans, and the processes that unfold within these groups leave an indelible imprint on their members and on society. To understand people, one must understand groups and their dynamics.

My interest in groups stems from graduate school days, when I had the good fortune to work with such experts on groups as Bob Ziller, Marvin Shaw, and Barry Schlenker. Also, as an undergraduate, I also worked with Russ Clark, who studies diffusion of responsibility in groups and risky shifts in groups.


Group Dynamics, 6th edition


Group Dynamics Resources Page: I maintain a page of links and topic summaries on my profile pages at the University of Richmond.

Teaching Group Dynamics: When I teach group dynamics I use both experiential activities as well as more traditional lectures/presentations. The powerpoints for the presentations are online at this site.

Revising Group Dynamics: I am (nearly always) working on revising my book dealing with group dynamics. To motivate myself I keep some notes and ideas in the form of a blog at this website.

Recent Studies of Ethics and Morality

December 18, 2011 Comments off

My interest in morality dates all the way back to my dissertation, which examined individual differences in moral philosophy. I have also conducted a number of studies personality and ethics, looking at values, traits, and situational factors as causes of both moral judgment and moral behavior.

You can access descriptions of that work by using the menu tab Ethics at the top of this page. Some of the work that is linked to that page includes

The Ethics Position Theory. I developed a personality measure that assumes people differ in the personal moral philosophies. This measure of these differences is called the Ethics Position Questionnaire (or EPQ). If you are interested in using the Ethics Position Questionnaire in your research, please visit THIS PAGE for background information and a copy of the items.

Personality and Productivity. In work conducted with Ernest O’Boyle, we have explored the literature on the relationship between the so-called Dark Triad–Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy–and other variables, such as productivity and personality.

The Greater Good. I continue to be intrigued by individuals decision to contribute their personal resources, whether time, energy, or money, to a common, shared cause. For background on this topic, please visit the website For the Greater Good of All, a book I edited with Crystal Hoyt dealing with this topic.

I Love Your Reindeer Antlers

December 19, 2018 Comments off

Tis the season for holiday parties and awkward conversations. These social events—if we use the word “social” loosely—are often composed entirely of people who should not be together for any reason, let alone a party. If you are lucky, the sweaters will be charming, the eggnog delicious, and the fruitcake delectable, but more likely: you will find yourself talking for too long to people who are just plain boring.

People can achieve the unenviable status of “party bore” in many ways–they are passive, tedious, too serious, and unemotional but the most distasteful bore is one who talks about trivial, banal topics. People who are boring, consistently, are those who don’t respond spontaneously and authentically with their conversation partners. They don’t listen to what you say so they can’t respond to you: instead, they act the same with everyone, with the result they are predictable and uninteresting. So, we know them at a glance: introverted, anxious, and latched on to someone—anyone—who will listen to them.

There are many ways to deal with boring people, but some ways are kinder and gentler than others. You can, for example, use gimmicks to escape from the bore’s clutches. Always make sure your glass is only 1/3 full at such events—then you can toss the last big down and excuse yourself to get a refill. Pretend that your cell phone has silently buzzed you, and explain that you must take the call. Ask the bore if he or she knows the time, and no matter what she answers, say “oh; will you excuse me?” Out bore the bore, by talking about some subject that you enjoy, but that you know they are unfamiliar with; such as the nuances of English Premier Soccer League or the latest episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Betray a friend, by saying “that is fascinating…Frank really should hear this” and turn the bore lose on Frank. And stay nimble: avoid corners, stay near the buffet table, and monitor escape routes. Do not sit down next to people unless you are absolutely certain they are charming conversationalists.

Or, if all that sounds like too much work, just take a few Tylenol before every party. You aren’t speaking metaphorically when you say, “That was painful,” after spending ten minutes talking to Edgar about the relative merits of Craftsman tools moving to Lowe’s or Aunt Susie’s trials and tribulations with her dog Trixie. When neuroscientists had volunteers take acetaminophen or a placebo daily for three weeks they discovered the pills weren’t just pain killers–they were also social pain killers. Those who took the real pills did not report having more fun at parties, but they just didn’t care as much when a social encounter got gummed up.

But rather than fight or flee, why not tend and befriend? The true bore–those who are self-absorbed, unemotional, or too serious–may be beyond all help, but most of us are struggling conversationalists who will be warmed by a smile from someone who listens. Call them by name, make it clear that they have your undivided attention, and help them move their story along. Stay active in the conversation, and keep searching for that one topic that you both care about—it must be there somewhere, and it can be found if you raise new topics rather than let bores remain bogged down in their narrow topical trench. Ask questions instead of making sure your own voice and opinion is heard and, of course,  give that compliment. Everyone deserves a “you must be so proud” or “how did you manage to” or “what a great idea. It is the holiday season, after all—so why not gift the give the gift of compassion to those who need comfort and joy rather than a quick dismissal? Why “bah, humbug” when you can say “It was really great talking to you.”

Categories: Social Processes

To My Valentine: The Science of Love Letters

February 12, 2016 Comments off

In 1779 Benjamin Franklin, when serving as the U.S. envoy to France, fell in love with Anne Catherine Helvétius, the widow of the Swiss-French philosopher, Claude-Adrien Helvétius. In an attempt to win her affections, Franklin sent her many letters expressing his love, admiration, and passion for her. In one he claimed that in a dream he was transported to the Elysian Fields, where he discovered that his late wife and Madam Helvétius’s late husband had married one another. It would, he suggested, only be fair if they avenged this union by themselves marrying. In another, more passionate plea, he wrote “If that Lady likes to pass her Days with him, he in turn would like to pass his Nights with her; and as he has already given her many of his days…she appears ungrateful never to have given him a single one of her nights.”

The lover’s mind, as Alfred Lord Tennyson explained, “lightly turns to thoughts of love” with the arrival of Spring and its harbinger: St. Valentine’s Day. But this holiday brings a responsibility: the crafting of a “written missive that defines and describes the current and/or desired nature of an amative relationship between the sender and recipient”–in other words, a love letter. This burden is lightened, to some degree, by the availability of pre-built greeting cards, red roses, candy hearts, and the Love You! app for your smart phone, but the traditional love letter makes it possible to convey one’s love for another in a more coherent and influential way (and, as Marcus Cicero pointed out, “a letter does not blush”).

But what should you say in your love letter to your Valentine? Should lovers craft sentimental love poems, confess their undying commitment in flowery prose, or pen flirtatious notes that hint at the sexual pleasures found in each other’s arms? Did Ben Franklin’s sly request for a night together endear him to the widow, or would a letter like Kahlil Gibran’s to Mary Haskill be more likely to curry favor in the recipient’s heart: “You are like the Great Spirit, who befriends man not only to share his life, but to add to it. My knowing you is the greatest thing in my days and nights, a miracle quite outside the natural order of things.”

Fortunately, theory and research offer some suggestions to the love-besotted crafter of persuasive prose. Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg’s theory of love, for example, suggests that the ideal love letter should include content relevant to love’s three basic components—intimacy, passion, and commitment.

The three-factor theory of consumate love (Sternberg).

Intimacy is the emotional component: the “close, connected, and bonded” feelings lovers experience. Passion is the motivational component. Like passionate love, it includes physical attraction, sexual desire, sexuality. Sternberg’s third component, decision/commitment, speaks of one’s hope that the relationship will be long-lasting. Words like loyalty, responsibility, faithfulness, and devotion characterize commitment. The consummate love letter would, in theory, combine all three elements.

To test Sternberg’s theory we developed a dozen different love letters and asked men and women to read and evaluate each one’s success in expressing love. Some of the letters were filled with expressions of tender intimacy: “You are my best friend,” “I can share any secret with you,” and “I feel so close and connected to you.” Others confessed ardor and passion: “You are a wonderful lover,” and “Our nights are pure, physical pleasure.” Still others spoke of commitment—a desire for a long-term relationship—or a worry about what the future might bring. And some letters included two of these elements, and one—the super-love-letter—combined all three.

We discovered that, when it comes to love letters, commitment conquered all. The letter that proclaimed “I know we will be happy together for the rest of our lives” and “I couldn’t imagine a world without you in it” was rated much higher, in terms of expressing love, than one that made no mention of commitment or, even worse, explained: “I am really happy being with you, but who knows what’s going to happen.” Adding language that spoke of closeness and caring increased the letter’s good impression with readers, but it was commitment that left readers feeling loved and in love. One woman said “I think he is really comfortable and at ease with me, it gives me a sense of being absolutely secure and comfortable.” A 20-year old man explained “This woman is in love with me and shows total commitment and loyalty to me.”

And what about expressing passion in a letter? Frisky letters, which went on for too long about the sender’s sexual passions, were viewed negatively; they seemed like lust letters instead of love letters. One 20 year-old woman concluded the “relationship appears to be purely physical, with no sentiments or emotional commitment.” Another complained “I don’t want my love letter talking about how crazy sex makes my partner feel.” But what about men? Did they prefer a letter with sensual details to one that spoke of closeness and commitment? No. Men were not as embarrassed by the provocative letters as were women, but they too gave them low ratings.

We also discovered that a message of commitment need not be delivered in a traditional love letter or a card: email will do. In a second study volunteers were told that at some point in the next week they would be receiving a love letter by email. All they needed to do was read it and imagine how they would react if they got such an email from someone they were dating. Once again, it was the message that spoke of the relationship, a future together, and years of happiness ahead that turned the email into a love email.

Unexpectedly, the super-love-letter that combined all three of the Sternberg model elements was not judged as uniquely loving. In the language of statistics, rather than amplifying each element of love, we obtained only main effects, without a hint of an interaction.

To summarize our findings in the language of candy conversation hearts, all the letters said, at some point, “I love you,” but the strongest letters added “Be mine forever” and “Best friends.” The “Hot lover” letter was more likely to backfire than win a heart.

This research, in its small way, is a reminder of the value of the scientific study of interpersonal relationships. There are those who consider the study of liking and love to be a frivolous pursuit. For example, some years back Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin discovered that the National Science Foundation was funding studies of attraction and love. Outraged by what he felt was useless research, Proxmire insisted that “Americans want to leave some things in life a mystery, and right at the top of the things we don’t want to know about is why a man falls in love with a woman and vice versa.” But the study of relationships yields the knowledge needed to strengthen those relationships and enrich people’s lives. People, when asked about sources of lasting happiness and satisfaction, put their relationships with others at the top the list, far higher in importance than career accomplishments, financial security, and material possessions. Health and well-being are linked to physical factors, but also to the quality and reliability of one’s relationships with others (Reis, 2011). Researchers, by studying relationships, find solutions to many of the most basic problems people face as individuals and as a species: divorce, violence, prejudice, conflict, and loneliness. Certainly many questions are worth studying scientifically–it would be good to know, for example, more about the moons around Saturn, the penguin’s top swimming speed, or DNA of the drosophilae–but is there really anything more important than understanding the whys and wherefores of our relationships with others?


Reis, H. T. (2011). “It’s Not a Matter of Life and Death.” Personality and Social Psychology Connections. Retrieved from

Social Psychology’s Three Little Pigs

September 21, 2015 Comments off

At the 2015 meeting of the American Psychological Association held in Toronto, I joined with two other fellows of Division 49 (Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy)–Andy Horn and Rex Stockton–to deliver the Fellows Addresses.  In that presentation, I stressed my usual message: That in many cases psychologists overlook the impact of group processes, and so they fail to understand fully the causes of human action. I also reiterated one of the great strengths of Division 49: A strong emphasis on integrating both basic and applied research.  This theme of “unification” is illustrated in what I call the Parable of Psychology’s Three Little Pigs.

Psychology’s Three Little Pigs

Not-so-long-ago in a not-so-far-away land lived three little pigs. These three little pigs grew up in the same neighborhood, attended the same schools, and shared the same passion: houses. The three were fascinated by the various types of structures inhabited by pigs the world over, and they whiled away many a happy hour puzzling over the nature and design of such dwellings. They could think of nothing more meaningful than dedicating their lives to the scientific study of houses and the ways they can be improved and repaired.

As they grew older, however, the pigs gradually grew apart in values, beliefs, and goals. The first pig became intrigued with understanding how houses worked, and embarked on a systematic study of foundations, arches, doors, and windows. So he bought a big armchair in which to sit and develop theory. He converted his pig pen into an elaborate laboratory where he could test out hypotheses, and erected a large sign for all to see. The sign read: Scientific Pig. Using his armchair and laboratory, he developed a particularly interesting theory about round houses that had no windows or doors. Although no one had found any of these houses, other scientifically minded pigs thought the work was interesting.

The second pig was also interested in the theory behind houses, arches, and doorways. The second pig, however, wanted to use this knowledge to improve houses; to repair misshapen houses and possibly make houses of tomorrow better than houses of today. So this pig put a sign in front of his pen that read “Practical Pig,” and began helping other pigs build and repair their houses. Soon, Practical Pig had made so much money from third-party payments that he could afford to build a breathtakingly beautiful house of sticks on a large tract of land in the country.

What, in the meantime, was the third pig doing? Well, it seems that he too was trying diligently to understand the nature of houses. Although Scientific Pig and Practical Pig no longer spoke to one another, the third pig often visited each one to talk about houses and ideas for improving them. When Scientific Pig would describe his studies of round houses, the third pig would ask what the studies say about the structural dynamics of houses in general. And when Practical Pig would talk about building houses out of sticks, the third pig would ask why sticks rather than stone? After many conversations and much research on houses, the third pig managed to build a house that, although it lacked the beauty of Practical Pig’s house, was more useful than the round houses that the Scientific Pig studied. The Third Pig didn’t put any kind of sign in front of his house at all. He knew that wolves can read.

One day a pig-hungry wolf did come to town. When he came to the first pig’s pen the wolf said, “I am hungry, and must have pig for breakfast.”

Scientific Pig, rising up from his arm chair said, “Why eat me? Can’t you see the long-term importance of my work on round houses?”

“No,” answered the wolf as he bit off the poor Scientific Pig’s head.

You see, although the first pig had fashioned a marvelous round house of straw and mortar with strong arches and walls, it had no windows or doors. It was a fine model to be used for testing predictions about houses, but it didn’t protect him from the wolf. The third pig had warned him that building houses with doors would yield both better data as well as safety from predators, but he hadn’t heeded his friend’s warnings.

Sadly, the second pig was also eaten–leaving behind many client-houses that could now never be properly repaired. Practical Pig had build what seemed to be a safe house, but he had used sticks for the walls. Although the first pig had found that “weight-bearing, rigid barriers fashioned from the woody fibers of trees and shrubs can be rendered discohesive through exposure to focused atmospheric pressures of excessive magnitude,” the Practical Pig felt that the first pig’s studies were so artificial that they didn’t have any relevance for “real” houses. In fact, he had let his subscription to JPSP (Journal for Purely Scientific Pigs) lapse, so he didn’t even know about the problems with sticks. So when the wolf huffed and puffed and blew, the house tumbled down and the second pig fell victim.

The third pig survived, of course. When he saw the wolf approach he ran into his house and locked the door. The wolf pushed on the house, but the foundation and structure were too strong. He tried blowing on the house, but the stone walls held secure. He tried climbing on the roof, but the carefully crafted masonry gave him no purchase. The hungry wolf, relented, then left the pig in peace.

The moral of the story is taken from the monument that the third pig erected to the memory of his departed childhood friends. It read:

Knowledge cannot prosper,

When Science is One-sided.

The basic and applied must be

United not divided.

Source: Forsyth, D. R. (1988). Social psychology’s three little pigs. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 3, 63-65. Reprinted in M. R. Leary (Ed.), The state of social psychology: Issues, themes, and controversies (pp. 63-65). Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.

Categories: Applications Tags:

The Bathsheba Syndrome: When a Leader Fails

February 14, 2012 Comments off


Another leader—no, an entire cadre of leaders—has been found to be a moral failure. Legal authorities have charged Jerry Sandusky, who retired as the defensive coordinator for the Penn State football team in 1999, with the sexual abuse of children who he targeted through his involvement in the charitable organization The Second Mile. Additionally, a number of other administrators and leaders at Penn State University—the university’s president Graham Spanier, vice-president Gary Schultz, athletic director Tim Curley and long-time football coach Joe Paterno—face charges or have been fired from the university because of their failure to take action when Sandusky’s crimes were brought to their attention. Time, research, and investigation will inform fully our judgment of who is guilty and who is innocent, but the indictment states many at the university were aware of Sandusky’s crimes but did not intervene as required by law and by moral standards.

Sandusky and the…

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The calling

January 8, 2010 Comments off

When I worked for a construction company in the 1970s I spent many a lunch hour talking with the veterans about their experiences working all kinds of jobs. They had clear opinions about which jobs to avoid and which ones to seek.  Avoid, they recommended, road crewing during the summer months in Florida.  Keep away from “call backs,” where the boss sends you out to correct problems cause by other employees. Seek, instead, jobs that are done in the shop or ones that required the use of heavy equipment. Such jobs were always described with the catch phrase “good work, if you can get it.”

When I migrated from the world of construction and took a position as a college professor and social psychologist, I found myself on the right side of the “good work if you can get it” divide.  Granted, professoring is still work.  There are politics of the office, bosses who make demands, paychecks to cash, and duties that must be fulfilled.  Nor is it a glamorous occupation, as Hollywood’s depictions of Indiana Jones-like professorial types would suggest.  But depending on one’s goals and perspectives, it is a personally fulfilling pursuit.  It is an elite profession that requires special training and skill, and for much of the time if feels more like a “calling” than “work,” for it involves (a) learning and practicing the skills valued by the profession; (b) seeking immersion in a community whose members are similarly dedicated to these goals; (c) sacrificing time, effort, and pleasures so that the demands of the discipline are met, and (d) striving for goals that go beyond personal desires and needs and instead benefit other people and society as a whole.

This sense of satisfaction with the “good work” stems, almost entirely, from my reverence for social psychology. As an undergraduate displayed a dilettante’s interest in many topics before I strayed—by accident—into a course in social psychology.  As the professor (Dr. Russell D. Clark, III) moved through the material I was thrilled that my own ruminations were shared by a vibrant, expressive community of scholars. Their view contrasted so sharply with convention wisdom, for many people seem to return time and again to explanations of human behavior that stress personality and predilections as causes of behavior. My 6th grade teacher, for example, was certain that each one of her pupil’s destiny was already determined at the age of 12, with our aptitudes and temperaments had already set us on our life’s course.  My mother and grandmother, both astrologists, similarly believed that one’s outcomes depended little on the actions of others, but rather on the predetermined course set by the planets. Yet, here was a field that confirmed that other interpersonal and not intrapsychic events shape people’s outcomes. I became a professor because that is what social psychologists become.  I am a social psychologist, first, and a professor, second.

But this detached fascination is complemented by a belief that social psychology offers important insights into many of the problems of living in the modern world: collective violence, cults, destructive obedience, intergroup conflict, mental illness, overcrowding, pollution, and prejudice are all examples.  In my studies of prosocial behavior (actions that benefit others rather than the self), my students and I find that morality is as much a quality of social groups as a characteristic of isolated individuals.  Studies of our social identify model explain how individualistic qualities–traits, beliefs, skills, and so on–are melded in the self-concept with qualities that spring from membership in groups, including families, cliques, work groups, neighborhoods, tribes, cities, countries, and regions.  And my studies of the functions of groups–the rewards that people gain by joining with others in a group–explain why sociality is so common, particularly in times of challenge and stress.  This general approach to understanding how individualistic needs are coordinated with, and in many ways, met by, membership in groups, forms the theoretical basis for my analyses of how group psychotherapy can be improved.

Categories: Personal