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The Emergence of a Sense of Us

A good community is not created from nothing. Small groups, more togetherness instead of solitary struggle, and a sense of humor foster a strong sense of unity.

Those who observe primates at play will discover interesting facts: for more than 120 hours, biologists Giada Cordoni and Elisabetta Palagi of the University of Pisa observed adult gorillas and chimpanzees at play inside a zoo. They noticed that in captivity, the social chimpanzees spent more time playing than the lowland gorillas whose groups are for the most part dominated by a single male. Their explanation: “In many adult animals, play is thought to reflect a species‘ degree of social cohesion and is usually more frequent in species with low levels of competition and high levels of social affiliation.”
Animal behavior allows only limited conclusions to be drawn with respect to humans. At the same time, our group cohesion, too, benefits both from our urge to play and our sense of humor, found anthropologist Jeffrey Johnson of the University of Florida. On behalf of NASA, he studied the behaviors of teams which depend on each other for extended periods of time – similar to a future mission to Mars or a research station in Antarctica. His conclusions: the storyteller and the person with the sense of humor play the most important roles in these groups. According to Johnson, the sense of humor significantly enhances team cohesion.
Common experiences, common results
What are the other factors that influence a sense of unity – in scientific terms also known as “cohesion” – the force which binds the individual to a community? This question is the focus of the work by scientists in various disciplines – from sports science and business psychology to military science. Group cohesion benefits if membership in the group is highly attractive, if members interact often and if there is competition with other groups. Other important factors of group cohesion include passion for a common goal, group experiences and results – and even individual benefit calculations.
Israeli scientists discovered that synchronous actions will also strengthen group cohesion. They observed that the chants of a group of fans arouse positive emotions (with a simultaneous increase in aggression towards the opposing group of fans). Even just a walk seems to bring people closer together if they walk in step. “People who walk in step with one another are more likely to cooperate”, says psychologist Liam Cross of Edge Hill University in England. He observed that synchronized walking broke down prejudices against the companion. “As our research shows, moving in time together gives people a greater sense of belonging and connection to each other. These feelings, in turn, set the stage for greater cohesion between different groups”, says Cross.
Image source: Stocksy
Successes forge a cohesive team

Shared successes especially appear to weld teams together, found Canadian sports scientist Albert Carron and his group at the University of Western Ontario. The same is true for the reverse: a strong team spirit increases the success of a community. An impressive experiment by social psychologist Lee Ross of Stanford University corroborates the theory. He played the same game with different groups of equal composition. To one group, he introduced the game as a “community game” – a game with the purpose of enhancing community benefit. In this team, around 70 percent of participants later collaborated closely with one another. The other group was instead presented with a “Wall Street Game”, which would reward selfishness. As a result, approximately 70 percent of players subsequently played against each other. The name of the game alone influenced the behavior of the participants. The experiment also shows that those who bet on individual competition may miss a good opportunity.

Small teams – increased innovation

The trend towards teamwork is also firmly established in science; the phenomenon of cohesion has been a subject of study by the international working group “Social Cohesion Hub” since the fall of 2020. Whether large, interdisciplinary teams really deliver better results than small teams is subject to reasonable doubt. Sociologist James Evans and his team at the University of Chicago analyzed more than 65 million published studies, patents and software products launched between 1954 and 2014. His conclusion: smaller teams produce more innovative results whereas larger teams are better at enhancing existing knowledge. “Bigger teams are always searching the immediate past, always building on yesterday‘s hits. Whereas the small teams, they do weird stuff – they‘re reaching further into the past, and it takes longer for others to understand and appreciate the potential of what they are doing”, says Evans.
Those who want to encourage team spirit within a company should therefore not follow every new trend: latest sociological research has discovered that the flattening of hierarchical structures will promote structural egoism. Therefore: the good old hierarchy is absolutely capable of enhancing the sense of unity within a team – and this includes gossiping about the boss.
Image source: Getty Images

TIPS FOR MORE COMMUNITY

How a sense of community can be strengthened – particularly in times of crisis. Recommendations by the “European Federation of Psychologists‘ Associations‘ Support Hub” – a brief summary.

• Communities can strengthen the sense of unity by conveying the following emotions to their members: “What I do seems important to others. I have someone with whom I can exchange thoughts, experiences and emotions. They seem to know me and will care about me when needed. I am not alone.” These sentiments convey to the group member a feeling of belonging to something larger and also of being needed.

• Communal engagement helps strengthen connections between people and helps foster a sense of belonging. People should feel that their involvement is in fact useful and that it contributes to solving a problem.

• People must be allowed to retain a certain level of control over themselves and their environment and be recognized for their efforts.

• Active participation in a social support network during or following a crisis may bring psychological benefits, particularly to young people. It strengthens self-esteem as well as the sense of individual and collective effectiveness.

• The promotion of a collective memory will reinforce both the power and the resilience of a community. To this end, community psychologists in Europe and the USA are collecting ideas, creative moments and individual and collective experiences in order to compile a “New Bank of Community Ideas and Solutions“. With these common memories of our newly developed sense of community, our future communities can be rebuilt in order to become more resilient and more inclusive.