Social Groups in Psychology

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Psychology studies the individual mind, but the interaction of multiple minds in social groups is also important to psychologists and how humans behave. Let's define what a “social group” is and what types of social groups you might interact with every day. 

What Is A Social Group?

Some of the important factors that make a group a “social group” include:

  • Contain at least two people
  • Are bonded together through some similarity
  • Have common goals 
  • Facilitate a sense of belonging (this is sometimes called “entitativity”)
  • Exist in a specific time and space 
  • Have interaction between members 
  • Adhere to a set of written or unwritten rules of behavior 
  • Have a mutual awareness of each other

Group vs Aggregate vs Category

Let’s say you’re at a bar. There are about 100 people at the bar, too. Are you a social group?

Not exactly. Although you’re all present at the bar at the same time, you aren’t working toward a common goal. Not every patron feels a sense of belonging when they step into the bar. If one of the bar patrons tried to influence your behavior, you might not be convinced just because he’s in the same bar as you.   

A number of people existing together in the same place at the same time is called an aggregate. 

Okay, so what about people who feel as though they do belong to a set of people based on specific characteristics? Are all women, men, LGBTQ people, or Jewish people members of social groups?

Not exactly. Not all women exist together in the same time and space. Women from different countries, in different occupations, and of different age groups have different goals and may not feel as though they belong to each other. 

People who simply share a set of similar characteristics belong to a category of people. 

What Social Groups Exist Today?

Today, psychologists and sociologists study many types of social groups, including:

  • Families
  • Friends
  • Companies and organizations
  • Fraternities and sororities
  • Clubs
  • Religious groups

Types of Groups 

Now that we’ve defined a group, let’s look at different examples of groups. 

Primary vs. Secondary

First, I want to mention that there are primary groups and secondary groups. Primary groups, like your immediate family or your sorority sisters, are groups that share personal relationships. Often, people in a primary group love each other. They choose to be in a group with each other. 

Secondary groups are larger. Although everyone in the group may not share a tight emotional bond, all of the members work toward a common goal. Your coworkers, or a group of volunteers at an animal shelter, may be considered a secondary group. 

Formal vs. Informal 

“Primary” and “secondary” are not the only two classifications for a group. Let’s look at the example I used in the “primary group” category. Your immediate family functions in a very different way than the chapter of your sorority. While one of these groups is considered a formal group, the other is informal. 

Formal groups adhere to a specific set of rules and policies. A sorority may be considered a formal group. Students at a university, who adhere to the university’s guidelines, are also in a formal group. Families, political parties, and your Friday night cards group are considered informal groups. 

In-groups and Out-groups 

There are members of your immediate family - and there are people who are not in your immediate family. This distinction is just as important as the distinction between someone in a formal group and someone in an informal group. 

The group that you (or a subject) belong to is an “in-group.” Your immediate family is an in-group. If you belong to Phi Sigma Pi, your fraternity is an “in-group.” If you belong to a political party, that party, to you, is an “in-group.” 

Groups outside of your in-groups are “out-groups.” Other families are out-groups. Students who go to other universities or belong to other Greek life organizations are part of out-groups. People in political parties outside from the one you belong to are in “out-groups.” 

This distinction comes up a lot in social psychology. Why? We tend to treat people in in-groups and out-groups a bit differently. 

Why Are Social Groups Important? 

Without social groups, there would be no social psychology. Then again, without social groups, we probably wouldn’t get very far as a species.

It’s one thing to study how the individual mind works. Are your individual personality traits caused by your genetics or your experience? Should you look at your psyche as a whole, or break it down into individual parts? 

making decisions as a group

But when groups are involved, the questions become a lot harder to answer. We can all think of a time where we were pressured by a group to do something we didn’t want to do. You wouldn’t behave that way on your own, but to fit in with the group, you did it anyway. Sometimes, this behavior is good, like attending a protest or staying at home during a global pandemic. Sometimes, this behavior is not so good. Sometimes, it’s unthinkable. 

How Social Groups Influence You and Others

In 2017, sales of the classic book 1984 spiked. Although the book was written in 1949, it hit the best-sellers list. People believed that the novel’s dystopia wasn’t so far off from what the country was going to experience in the next four years. 

If you haven’t read 1984, it’s time to put it on your reading list. Sure, it’s fiction, but it has had a profound impact on literature and even psychology. 

A few years after 1984 was published, psychologist Irving Janis began to study “groupthink.” Groupthink was a new term, derived from the vocabulary in 1984. Groupthink happens when a group of people get together, and in the goal of promoting harmony within the group, leave rationality and logic at the door. 

You might see groupthink taking place on the news every evening. Examples of groupthink throughout history range from the silly to scary to horrifically violent. It’s easy to sit outside of a group “drinking the Kool-Aid” and judge them for their irrationality. But psychologists who study social groups and social psychology know that being in a group can quickly, and dangerously, cloud someone’s judgement. 

Why do humans commit atrocities? Why do they commit violence? What does being part of a group have to do with it? These are the questions that studying social groups and social psychology hope to answer.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, June). Social Groups in Psychology. Retrieved from

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