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

5 replies
  1. Paul Hebert
    Paul Hebert says:

    The question this begs in my mind is:  Does this work in reverse?

    Do teams rise to the level of the "outlier" who builds teamwork, workds harder than the rest, etc.? 

    Most companies would have the need to raise the level of performance and this study shows me how to not lower it – I’m curious if putting one top performing outlier in a group raises the group performance?

    Any thoughts?

  2. Thomas Swift
    Thomas Swift says:

    Seems to me that the question "do groups force conformity" is not the same as "do poor performers lower the overall performance of a group."  When phrased in the latter way, I think everyone would argue "of course they do."  It’s hard to win the Stanley cup if your goalie is a nincompoop.  The old fashioned solution to the problem is pretty simple…

  3. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    I may have stumbled across a partial answer to Paul’s question about positive outliers raising group performance.

    The Economist reports on a study about how crowds function to escalate or de-escalate violence

    • If three individual step up to de-escalate the situation, a violent outcome becomes unlikely.
    • The  crowd determines the outcome as much as the protagonist and the target do.
    • A bigger crowd is more likely to suppress a fight (contrary to expectations).

    Granted, it crowd violence isn’t the same thing as workplace productivity, but I wonder if the role of the "good apples" might not be similar.

    (Economist: The kindness of crowds, via MindHacks: Far from the madding crowd.)

  4. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    I would say that this tells us more about how agent-provocateurs/stooges effect team behaviour than it does about how natural groups/crowds work.  I would also suspect that long term groups tend to have much more effect on their members than do short term ad-hoc groups.

    The book on this to read is Zimbardo’s "Lucifer Effect".  And the simple answer is that groups tend to behave the way they’re designed to behave and the way social cues tell them to behave.  Put random people in prison guard jobs and they will almost always act like prison guards.

    BUT yes, powerful outliers either way can effect them IF the institutional strength isn’t too strong.  A single powerfully charismatic person can overcome an institution’s biase IF they are in a strong position of authority or if the institution’s bias is not too strongly ground in.  This is especially the case in newer institutions where culture has not had a chance to set.


    Good provocative piece on an age-old question.


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