Group Embeddedness

Humans are social animals. One reason we have been able to survive as a species is our ability to form cooperative, functioning groups. By coordinating with one another, multiple people are able to accomplish a variety of tasks that would be impossible to do alone, ranging from the simple act of carrying a heavy object jointly to the complex social behaviors that make up athletics, school, work, and family life. How, though, do these groups function? And what factors can make them function more effectively? These are questions posed by a variety of empirical disciplines, including social, organizational, sports, and educational psychology.

intellectual humilityFactors that I have investigated relating to these questions are the personalities, beliefs, and virtues of the individuals who compose these groups. For example, researchers have become increasingly interested in the concept of intellectual humility – the extent to which a person owns his or her limitations, has a low self-focus, and is receptive to the contributions and criticisms of others. As the quote by Carl Sagan implies, the entire scientific enterprise (in addition to education generally) seems to necessitate that practitioners possess this trait. How, though, can we assess the intellectual humility of the people we work with? Do groups reach consensus regarding the intellectual humility of its members, and does this consensus relate in any way to how people actually describe themselves? Perhaps most importantly, I am interested in whether the composition of a group in terms of this trait (e.g., is everyone high in humility, low in humility, or is there a diversity among members) actually predicts how well or how poorly a group functions and performs.

psychology of religionI have also investigated similar questions in a very different context: faith communities. Much of religious life is characterized by taking part in a community of believers, and so it makes sense that the attitudes, beliefs, and piety of fellow congregants will strongly influence individual parishioners. For example, individuals very often model their spiritual lives on people they view as exemplars for their faith, i.e., those with high levels of religious commitment, belief, and virtue. However, here too we can pose the question of whether groups actually reach consensus regarding these impressions of who among them is holy and worthy of being a spiritual model for others. Is spiritual modeling characterized by a large number of individuals looking up to a singular “saint” in the community, or is this process driven primarily by unique, reciprocal peer-to-peer feedback? If the latter possibility is true, it suggests that having a diverse range of individuals to model after, particularly in terms of religious orientation and virtue, may be more beneficial than belonging to a highly homogeneous body.