A group is defined as a social aggregate of two or more people that involves mutual awareness, interaction, and interdependence of its members. The characteristics of the group shape the beliefs and behaviors of its members. In this entry, two categories of group characteristics are examined, namely (1) characteristics of the group and (2) characteristics of group members.
Characteristics of the Group
Albert V. Carron and Mark Eys examined the many definitions of groups and identified five common characteristics: (1) common fate—sharing a common outcome with other members; (2) mutual benefit—an enjoyable, rewarding experience associated with group membership; (3) social structure—a stable organization of relationships among members; (4) interaction and communication among members; and (5) self-categorization— perceiving oneself as a member of the group. Research in exercise and sport settings was aimed at examining these five characteristics in relation to cognitions and behaviors of its members. A considerable body of research was accumulated about the influence of social structure (e.g., roles and norms of group members) on exercise adherence. In general, the findings support the importance of norms like acceptable forms of behavior and a clear understanding and acceptance of roles to promote exercise behavior. Other research findings pertained to the pattern of communication between coaches and athletes. This research has identified effective verbal and nonverbal communication practices for coaches working with athletes. Research has also begun to focus on self-categorization. Researchers have recently examined how self-categorization influences perceptions, preferences and behaviors in exercise groups.
Kevin S. Spink, Kathleen S. Wilson, and Carly S. Priebe (2010) recently examined all five of the common group characteristics together as a multidimensional construct of groupness in relation to adherence in structured exercise settings. Drawing on previous work, Spink et al. viewed groupness as the extent to which the five group characteristics can be perceived by group members. They hypothesized that perceptions of groupness, as captured by the five group characteristics, would be positively associated with individual exercise behavior. Support was found for this hypothesis as enhanced perceptions of groupness were associated with improved frequency and attendance in exercise.
In addition to the five common group characteristics conceptualized by Carron and Eys, group size was considered important in this context. Origins of group size research date back to Norman Triplett’s first social psychology study in 1898. Triplett examined the influence of others on cycling performance. Since then, research has indicated that as group size increases members report less cohesion, intimacy, satisfaction, and communication, as well as report greater tension, anxiety, competitiveness, being argumentative, feeling more threatened, and displaying more inhibition.
Group Size and Productivity
A topic of considerable interest to researchers has been the relationship between group size and productivity. In 1913, Max Ringelmann investigated the relationship between group size and individual and group performance in a rope-pulling task. Ringelmann’s results, coined the Ringelmann Effect, revealed that as group size increased, relative productivity of each individual group member decreased. Ivan Steiner later examined the research on group size and productivity and developed a model to illustrate the relationship between the two concepts. Steiner proposed that as the number of members in a group increases, the potential group productivity also increases due to an increase in available resources up a point when the group’s productivity plateaus.
Steiner offered two possible explanations for the decrease in individual productivity as group size increases. The first was coordination loss. Steiner proposed that as group size increased, the number of coordination links increased, and it was more difficult to synchronize the efforts of the individuals. The second explanation was the reduction in individual motivation as group size increases. It was hypothesized that as the size of the group grows, personal accountability is reduced, and it is more difficult to motivate individuals. Later work replicating Ringelmann’s classic ropepulling experiment research found support for both explanations.
Based upon the evidence on group size and productivity, it begs the question of what is the ideal group size to maximize productivity? Researchers in many fields continue to struggle with this question. Research in work settings supports smaller groups (three to six members) being more productive than larger groups (more than seven).
Group Size Research in Sport and Exercise Settings
Research on group size in sport and exercise began in the early 1990s in a series of studies conducted by W. Neil Widmeyer, Lawrence R. Brawley, and Albert V. Carron examining group size and cohesion on sport teams. Smaller teams were found to be more optimal for the development of commitment to group goals (task cohesion), while moderate-size groups were best for building strong relationships and friendships among group members (social cohesion). Subsequent work in exercise settings by Carron and Spink found task and social cohesion to be higher in smaller groups. Carron and Spink also found the group-based intervention of team building to offset negative effects of increased group size on cohesion.
Other researchers have examined the influence of group size on affective outcomes in sport and behavioral outcomes, such as attendance and retention in exercise classes. Retention and attendance were greatest in the smallest (n = 5–17) and largest (n = 32–46) exercise classes, but poorest in the medium classes (n = 18–31). Group members’ enjoyment, satisfaction, and belief in team’s ability tend to progressively decrease with increased group size.
Characteristics of the Group Members
The characteristics of group members individually and collectively (referred to as group composition) have been a topic of considerable interest to researchers and practitioners alike. Group members can differ in age, sex, ethnicity, education, and social status. Further, members can vary in physical size, attitudes, motives, needs, mental and motor abilities, and personality traits. Researchers in social psychology have been interested in understanding how the level of diversity of individual characteristics of group members has implications on group functioning and member cognitions, affect, and behavior. Work in this area has prompted researchers to examine the contextual exercise preferences for adults. In an exercise environment, there is growing support for individuals to prefer to be active with others of similar age and gender. Overweight individuals, in particular, report a greater preference for same-gender exercise classes (versus mixed-gender classes) than normal weight individuals. Research was aimed at examining how intragroup perceptual similarity in surface (age, ethnicity, or physical condition) and deep-level (attitude, beliefs, or values) qualities are related to perceptions of cohesion and exercise adherence within exercise classes. Surface level qualities, notably age, were associated with social cohesion and exercise attendance, while deep level qualities were associated with task cohesion. Collectively, these findings highlight how similar we perceive ourselves to be in relation to other group members in terms of various individual characteristics like age can have important implications in terms of our exercise preferences, cognitions, and behavior.
Widmeyer and John W. Loy developed a conceptual framework for group composition suggesting that the properties of sport groups can be considered from three perspectives: (1) amount of group resources, such as skills or personal attributes, present among group members; (2) the variability like homogeneity or heterogeneity in the resources of group members; and (3) compatibility between and among group members.
Strong empirical evidence supports the first perspective as higher individual measures of task ability and motivation have been associated with greater team performance. In regard to Widmeyer and Loy’s second perspective, variability (e.g., homogeneity vs. heterogeneity in group resources like member attributes) can be considered beneficial or detrimental, or even both depending on the nature of the group and its task. For example, in basketball, effective teams ideally have heterogeneity in playing skills—guards who are gifted at ball handling and forwards who can rebound. Variability in sex, age, and race has also been examined. Among the identified variables, the relationship between race and playing position has been investigated extensively. To date, no conclusive evidence exists to support a relationship between race and playing position.
An area of future consideration in relation to Widmeyer and Loy’s first two perspectives is the amount and variability in team personality composition. In work groups, researchers have found higher mean levels of extraversion and emotional stability contribute positively to social cohesion.
Researchers have also focused on the variance in team personality composition. This latter approach is based on research suggesting that averaging individual team member personality scores may mask important information, such as the negative effect of a single team member on a group. As such, researchers have used a minimum scores method to examine the personality scores of individual team members. Using this approach, a minimum rather than average score is established for each personality trait for the group. Additional research with work groups revealed minimum levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness to contribute positively to both task cohesion and team performance. Future research in team personality composition in sport and exercise settings is needed.
Widmeyer and Loy’s third category is compatibility in group resources. Compatibility is described as the ability of an individual to fit (e.g., function effectively and in harmony) with other group members. Across social, work, and sport group settings, compatibility contributes to enhanced individual satisfaction and performance. Research on compatibility in sport has predominantly focused on compatibility of coach–athlete relationships (referred to as coach–athlete dyads), member abilities, and group roles. A behavioral approach has frequently been used to examine the compatibility of coach–athlete dyads and teams. This has often involved observations of coach and athlete behaviors. Early work used William Schutz’s fundamental interpersonal relations orientation (FIRO) theory to evaluate compatibility of the coach and athlete. Schutz proposed that in interpersonal relationships, individuals need to express three needs—inclusion, control, and affection. More recent work utilized a novel video observation and analysis approach titled state space analysis to examine coach–athlete interactions in youth sport teams over time. The state space approach was adapted from work in psychology examining parent–child relationships.
Collectively, behavioral approaches have attempted to shed light on the compatibility of coach–athlete dyads and group members to achieve effective performance.
Understanding the characteristics of a successful team is a topic of interest shared by researchers and practitioners alike. Further research and the continued integration of theory from other fields, such as organizational psychology or group dynamics, is needed in order to develop a better understanding of the role of group characteristics in sport and exercise settings.
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