The strength and nature of the links between people and groups vary both between and within people. Some people are more strongly drawn to groups than others, and most people are members of many different formal and informal groups, but strongly linked to some and only nominally linked to others. Strong links can take many forms, three of which were discussed in this chapter. People might have emotional links to groups, especially groups that serve as sources of support and protection (attachment). People’s sense of who they are is often determined at least in part by the social groups that are important to them (identity). People might be committed to remain as a member of a group for any number of different reasons, ranging from wanting to be a member to having to remain because of limited opportunities to move to other groups (continuance commitment).
Strong links to groups usually have positive physical and mental health benefits, but groups can often be a critical factor in initiating and sustaining patterns of unhealthy behavior. It is no coincidence that behaviors such as smoking and drinking often start in teenage and young adult years; teens and young adults are particularly susceptible to peer pressure. However, your friends, family, and coworkers may end up encouraging unhealthy behaviors such as overeating and substance abuse, all in pursuit of having a good time together. Strong links to groups can also foster engagement in the group’s pursuits—that is, a feeling of strong identification with the goals of the group and strong satisfaction with helping the group succeed. Engagement can be beneficial to both individuals and groups, but it can also be manifested in terms of workaholism and over-involvement in one important group, to the detriment of other groups that are also important in your life.
Strong links to groups can increase cohesion, but that cohesion can lead to some dysfunctional behaviors. Research on groupthink has a somewhat rocky history; groupthink is one of the most widely cited concepts from social psychology, but there is little genuine empirical support for many aspects of Groupthink Theory. Nevertheless, this research has contributed important insights, especially to the importance of keeping groups from developing a narrow focus on their preferred framing of events and preferred solutions and keeping an open mind to opposing points of view.
Loyalty to groups is beneficial in many ways, but like cohesion, it can have its downsides. Strong loyalty to groups can open the floodgates to many forces that contribute to misbehavior, ranging from over-identification with your group and disparagement of other groups to a willingness to overlook or excuse misbehavior by members of groups you are loyal to. Chapters 8–12 will examine ways in which becoming a member (especially a committed member) of formal organizations (e.g., businesses, the military, the priesthood) can create pressures to misbehave and can lower the usual barriers to engaging in these behaviors.