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The role of group membership in culture

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The role of group membership in culture

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There is a lot to be said for the power of the collective, and membership of this group on our individual psyche.  A recent study from researchers at the University of Ottawa for instance found that when we’re ostracized from a group, it does more damage to our mental well-being than direct harassment.

The whole field of group psychology is a fascinating one.  A second study for instance, highlights how the value and identity of a group is less defined by those safely ensconced in the core of the group as by those at the margins, by the people who just about squeeze into it.

The research, conducted by academics from the University of Pennsylvania, explored the way people communicate their membership of a group to determine if there are differences in communication based upon the different status of members of the group.

After all, it’s fairly well established that membership of certain groups carry with them a great deal of prestige, both in a personal and social sense, so do those that only just make it into the group play up their membership more than those that are more secure in their position?

They wanted to test this hypothesis on both an organizational and an individual level.  For instance, one experiment saw the team analyze the ‘about’ section of various universities.  They found that so called master’s universities, which offer some masters level degrees but often few doctoral level studies, would emphasize their status as a university, using the word in 62.2% of self-reference in their about page.  This compared to a 46.4% inclusion rate for national universities that offer a full range of programs, and are thus more established as universities.

They found a similar effect when looking at airports.  When an international airport was relatively small, they would emphasize their international status significantly more than their much larger peers.

Individual egos

What’s more, the exact same effect was found at an individual level too.  The researchers asked a group of students to describe the university they were studying at.  Some were asked to provide a private statement, whereas others in the group were asked to make a public declaration about their university.Here’s the catch.  The participants were pulled from Harvard and Pennsylvania universities.  Harvard is the embodiment of an ivy league university.  Pennsylvania on the other hand, whilst also an ivy league university, is much less well known as a member of the elite club.As expected, the Penn students were much more likely to mention “Ivy League” when describing their university than Harvard students were.

The researchers conclude by suggesting that this phenomenon is likely to occur in a wide range of situations.  They suggest that whenever there are marginal members of high profile groups, those people will make a much bigger deal of their membership than those who are more established, and confident, in their status.

“We believe that effects like those illustrated here are widespread, although it is sometimes difficult to collect the appropriate data,” they conclude.

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