Group Characteristics

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.

Group Size

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.

Group Composition

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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  4. Wheelan, S. A. (2009). Group size, group development, and group productivity. Small Group Research, 40, 247–262.


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