The Capability of the Collective

The teens shuffle through the black-scuffed halls of the Fox Creek arena, swing open the thick rink door, and glide in, blades cutting grooves into the icy surface. Gathering in the middle, they toss their sticks into a haphazard pile. One jersey-clad youth slides sticks towards alternating nets, and the owners follow. This age-old tradition determines the teams of the game—and in part, Dr. Jay Van Bavel’s future career.

“We’d randomly assign people to groups, and what I would notice—I had this one really good friend named Jaron, and we were both super competitive and we both loved sports—whenever we were on the same team, we would get along famously. Then, when we were on opposing teams, we’d almost always end up arguing with each other,” Dr. Van Bavel laughs. “I was always wondering how you can take people who get along so well, and then put them on opposing teams and they can’t get along at all!”

This curiosity led him to his area of expertise. As a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, an affiliate at the Stern School of Business in Management and Organizations, and the director of the Social Identity and Morality Lab, he researches how group identities, values, and beliefs shape our brains and behaviours.

On June 7–8 at APEGA’s Nexus conference, Dr. Van Bavel will explain the science behind cooperation, group identities, and team performance, and why the success of the group is the ultimate goal. He’ll teach attendees how to create organizational norms that amplify understanding and positive human interactions.

The causality of expression

When he worked at the Northern Alberta Alliance on Race Relations after earning his bachelor’s degree in psychology, Dr. Van Bavel visited schools to debunk the prejudices and stereotypes of Grade 10 students. “We would do skits and get them talking, and they would share a stereotype they had. Often, we would debunk it, and it wouldn’t change their beliefs or prejudices at all.” He says that’s when he started to realize a lot of people’s beliefs and feelings are not driven by knowledge—even when falsified, they’ll cling to the feelings they hold about groups.

In The Power of Us, a book co-written with Dr. Dominic Packer to encapsulate learnings about groups and how they interact with one another, Dr. Van Bavel shares a list of what he considers the facets of his own identity. He is a father, a hockey goalie, a social media addict, and a kid from Fox Creek, Alta., to name a few. “A big part of our personality is shaped by our identities,” he says, explaining your personality shifts as you interact with different groups. He’s more playful with his children than he is at work, where his traits that lend themselves to leadership are more prominent. “We have different ways of being triggered by the identities we have in the situations we’re in, and different ways of expressing ourselves based on these identities and situations.”

He believes a combination of nature and nurture determines how we interact within group dynamics. “We have biological dispositions, which is nature, and they manifest in different ways depending on the situations we’re in.” He says in psychology it’s called the person-by-situation interaction. “You have different personalities that are pretty stable, but they get expressed differently in different situations.” Dr. Van Bavel explains it’s a powerful way to consider human behaviour—the crux of how you act is not based on how you’re hard-wired or the situation at hand, but the interaction of both together. “Some people interacting in certain situations can be really powerful, some situations can actually kind of override your personality, but for the most part, situations are modestly powerful and just nudge you in one way or the other.”

Dr. Van Bavel explains hockey is a prime example: the norm is to be aggressive. To be a good player means you can hit or take a hit, but if you perform the behaviour out of the context of the group—if you hit someone off the rink—instead of spending two minutes in a penalty box, you’d be charged with assault.

He says often groups will contextualize what is good or bad in a given situation. In hockey, the collective has determined aggression isn’t bad within the game. This normalization of group behaviour extends far beyond sports. In political groups, social groups, and even on social media, there are norms of conduct each member is expected to adopt—but they don’t necessarily have to be the same agreement of traits the larger group adheres to. “You can have a hockey team that decides it’s not going to be aggressive and amplifies those alternative traits.”

Enhancing the aggregate

Dr. Van Bavel stresses these group norms and collective traits shape your behaviour, whether you know it—and accept it—or not. “I like to think of it as a gravitational force. You’re pulled by your group membership. Most of us don’t realize it because it’s just like the air we breathe, but the groups we’re part of are shaping us in ways that we’re not often aware of.” He wants his work to illuminate these effects so we can harness this pull in a healthy way.

There’s been a shift in organizational culture in the past few years, he explains, citing research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on why employees resign. “They found the single biggest predictor of why people left organizations is it was considered a toxic workplace. It’s actually 10 times more important than a salary raise in terms of whether you stay or go.” He says this realization is leading to mass social transformations, including zero tolerance for sexual harassment, racism, bullying, and toxic behaviour. “We’ve reevaluated as a collective and decided these things are not appropriate or healthy—they’re a liability, and we’re rooting them out.”

While most workplaces are shifting to eradicate many of these explicitly toxic behaviours—some faster than others—Dr. Van Bavel indicates there’s still a host of subtle barriers to healthy group interactions, and we’ve yet to fully understand their impact. He explains informal team building events at which only one gender is welcome to attend, such as golf weekends with the “boys,” can build walls in a workplace. “We need to create environments where everybody can participate and contribute and create more networking opportunities where there’s no gender bias.” One way to avoid feeding this toxicity is to consider existing gender ratios in professions and examine what can be done to make them equitable places to grow successful careers.

A team for the win

Dr. Van Bavel works at creating a healthy culture in his 60-person graduate program lab, where he uses research findings to generate a positive group environment. “If the evidence is good, I put it to work.” To actively work against the inherent power dynamics of academic environments and to give his employees comfort in disagreeing with his opinions, he began holding back his thoughts until everyone else on his team had a chance to weigh in. “People feel freer to share and provide critiques, which is great because then I see all the different opinions and update my thinking, grab the best ideas, and use them for the project.” He explains this process minimizes groupthink and creates a safe space for self-expression.

He also crowdsources using anonymous polls. “I’ve created procedures and practices and policies and systems that help good ideas that are widely valued rise to the surface. Ideas that are held aggressively by one or two dominant and powerful people don’t win.” He says this imparts the power to all, in lieu of a few.

In short, he explains, we are all better as a team. “One of my favourite studies is about how really successful team leaders are hired to new companies where they turn out to not be that successful. Their initial success was because they were surrounded by a great team.” Dr. Van Bavel expands that if you want the same result, you need to bring the whole team over. “We attribute a lot to individuals, but sometimes it’s about the groups that we belong to, and how they bring out the best in us—or the worst.”

Now, when Dr. Van Bavel’s goalie stick is flung to land on the opposite side of those he holds dear, he tempers his group gravity to pull more friendly fire than aggression. When the buzzer sounds the end of the game, the players retreat to the locker room and all the hockey sticks, irrespective of team, lean jumbled together in the corner.

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