Groups vs. Individuals: Ruining It for the Rest of Us

Do groups force conformity among their members?

Or do individuals pull up or drag down the groups of which they are part?

My guess is most of us would say “both.”  As to which is more powerful, my further guess is that most of us would say, “It depends.” 

But here’s an outlier study, courtesy of Will Felps,   assistant professor of management at Rotterdam School of Management (by way of U-T and U-Dub), in turn courtesy of This American Life. 

Felps devised a simple study.  He divided a bunch of college students into teams of four, gave the teams a 45-minute task, and a $100 per-person reward for the winning team.  The catch: 1 in each team was an actor, scripted to behave badly—either The Slacker, The Jerk, or The Depressive Pessimist.

OK, place your bets.  Did the teams co-opt the actors, or were the actors converted to the greater team good?


Well, if you believe in the redemptive and influencing power of groups—pay up.  If you believe in the “one bad apple spoils the barrel” philosophy, then collect from your optimistic friends.

Groups with a bad apple performed 30-40% worse than the control groups without one.  And the bad apples didn’t just bring down the average—in at least one case, the whole group descended to the bad behavior of the actor.

Now we know the power of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. 

The interesting question—as always—is, therefore what?

Did the $100 affect things?  Did the ad hoc nature of the teams play a role?  Did the determination of the actors to hew to a consistent anti- role overcome normal tendencies to be socialized?

Or, is it as eecummings said—“sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

These things are usually nuanced, with many cross-ruffing factors at work, but let me say a few words in defense of the power-of-the-individual viewpoint.

The collectivist view, I think, reigns these days.  That is what Felps suggests, and it’s what I see in most business studies.  The role of incentives and behavior is stressed, and the role of things like conscience and personality is de-stressed.

That makes “these days” not unlike the 1950s, the last time we collectively believed in the collective power of the collective.  (Of course, the 50s were rapidly followed by the 60s, if memory serves.  Quite a counter-reformation).

In history, this question gets phrased as the “great man” debate, or “historically significant individuals.”  Did the Union survive because of Abraham Lincoln, or would someone have risen to fulfill Lincoln’s role had he not been there?

Such debates, for the most part, are unanswerable.  But they do get chipped away at as we learn tidbits and refine the theories and the questions more narrowly.

In the meantime, I’m all in favor of the snake theory, hippies, Abe Lincoln, eecummings, and Felps’ faux bad guys.

Why?  They’re just way more interesting.  It’s a simple as that.

Find Felps’ article in a volume of Research in Organizational Behavior,

research by Ashley L. Green