In his or her social world, a person continually encounters collections of individuals in various social contexts. Sometimes a person perceives these other people to be a meaningful group; other times, as a mere aggregate of persons. What determines when a person sees other people as meaningful groups, and what are the consequences of perceiving people as a tightly knit group versus a loose collection of individuals?
In 1958, Campbell theorized about the nature of groupness, which he called entitativity. He proposed that groups could be considered meaningful entities if their members were similar and in close proximity and if they shared common goals and common outcomes. At an intuitive level, it seems obvious that individuals who are similar in some respect (e.g., skin color or nationality), in close proximity (e.g., neighbors), and who share a common fate (e.g., members of a basketball team) would be more likely to be perceived as a meaningful group. Yet empirical support for these ideas was not provided until decades after Campbell’s original suppositions.
Although the factors proposed by Campbell seem important for perceiving groupness, there is such a diverse array of groups in one’s social world that a more systematic differentiation and understanding of what entitativity means for each group seemed necessary. Research by Lickel and his colleagues in 2000 addressed this issue. Participants in their study rated a variety of different groups on different stimulus cues thought to be related to entitativity. Statistical analyses revealed that the extent to which the members were a meaningful group (entitative) was most closely related to the extent of interaction among group members, how important group membership was to them, whether the members shared similar goals and outcomes, and the extent of similarity among members.
When participants were asked to sort the groups into as many different categories as they wished, it was found that participants consistently sorted the various groups into four specific types, and each was characterized by a specific pattern of the aforementioned cues. The first group type, intimacy groups, consisted of family members and other small groups whose members interacted a lot and are very important to the members. The next type, task groups, comprised committees, coworkers, and other smaller interactive groups that exist to get a job done. The third group type, social categories, consisted of groups such as gender, racial, and national groups, which are large and whose members are similar but do not have extensive interaction. Finally, loose associations are made up of people who go to the same school and other groups that are large in size, easy to join or leave, and typically not as important to their members. In addition to the cues that characterize each group type, Lickel and his colleagues also found that the group types vary in level of perceived entitativity. Intimacy groups are perceived to be highest in entitativity, followed by task groups, social categories, and loose association groups.
As a person maneuvers through his or her social worlds, how might these factors influence the way the person perceives groups? Later research has shown that perceivers spontaneously categorize people into these group types and are more likely, for example, to confuse members of a task group (e.g., a jury member) with another task group member (e.g., a coworker) than to confuse a task group member with a social category member (e.g., a Presbyterian). These within-group-type errors occur with each of the group types, suggesting that perceivers organize information about group members based on the type of group to which they belong.
Once a person categorizes people into groups, there are a number of consequences for the way he or she processes information and forms impressions about the groups. Unlike individuals, about whom a person routinely seeks to form meaningful and coherent impressions, group members are generally thought to be less entitative targets. If a person sees an individual person acting in a rude way, he or she might assume that the person is rude. In contrast, if a person sees a member of a group behaving in a rude way, he or she would probably be less likely to assume that the group as a whole comprises rude individuals. Research has shown that perceivers engage in more integrative processing when considering individual targets in contrast to group targets. That is, perceivers are more likely to infer dispositional qualities, assume consistent actions over time, and attempt to resolve any inconsistencies in the behavior of individual, in contrast to group, targets.
Yet groups vary in their level of perceived entitativity. If perceivers engage in integrative processing of entitative targets (such as individuals), then the same processing should occur for highly entitative groups. In one representative study, researchers varied the entitativity of individual or group targets and found that participants did engage in more integrative processing for both entitative individual and group targets and less integrative processing for groups and individuals that were described as low in entitativity.
A consequence of engaging in more integrative processing of highly entitative groups is that perceivers will spend more time thinking about information presented by groups that are high, in contrast to low, in entitativity. In fact, research has demonstrated that perceivers are more likely to be persuaded by highly entitative groups than by groups low in entitativity. These results were attributed to an increase in elaboration of strong messages when presented by high entitativity groups. In contrast, less attitude change was found when messages were weak or presented by groups low in entitativity.
Another consequence of integrative processing is that once a person perceives a group to be highly entitative, he or she is more likely to see individual group members as similar to each other and hence as essentially interchangeable. Attributes learned about one group member are assumed to be characteristic of other group members as well. This generalization across group members is important because it is a basis for stereotyping the group. Research has also shown that perceivers make more extreme or polarized judgments about highly entitative targets.
The groups that people encounter in their social world are diverse and ever changing. Yet from this sea of diversity, they perceive meaningful, entitative groups in their midst. Regardless of the type of group, perceptions of entitativity allow people to categorize aggregates of individuals into meaningful units. In this way, they are able to process information more effectively and to better maneuver through the complex social world in which they live.
- Campbell, D. T. (1958). Common fate, similarity, and other indices of the status of aggregates of persons as social entities. Behavioral Science, 3, 14-25.
- Hamilton, D. L., & Sherman, S. J. (1996). Perceiving persons and groups. Psychological Review, 103, 336-355.
- Hamilton, D. L., Sherman, S. J., & Castelli, L. (2002). A group by any other name…: The role of entitativity in group perception. In W. Stroebe & M. Hewstone (Eds.), European review of social psychology (Vol. 12, pp. 139-166). Chichester, UK: Wiley.
- Hamilton, D. L., Sherman, S. J., & Rodgers, J. S. (2004). Perceiving the groupness of groups: Entitativity, homogeneity, essentialism, and stereotypes. In V. Yzerbyt, C. M. Judd, & O. Corneille (Eds.), The psychology of group perception: Perceived variability, entitativity, and essentialism (pp. 39-60). New York: Psychology Press.
- Lickel, B., Hamilton, D. L., Wieczorkowska, G., Lewis, A., Sherman, S. J., & Uhles, A. N. (2000). Varieties of groups and the perception of group entitativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 223-246.
- Sherman, S. J., Castelli, L., & Hamilton, D. L. (2002). The spontaneous use of a group typology as an organizing principle in memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 328-342.