Research on small group communication has a long history of examining how participation in groups affects perceived reality. Groups often create a shared reality in which to work, interact, and complete their tasks. As Herbert J. Simon (1976, 23) states, “A man does not live for months or years in a particular position in an organization, exposed to some streams of communication, shielded from others, without the most profound effects upon what he knows, believes, attends to, hopes, wishes, emphasizes, fears, and proposes.” There are three major approaches that address how the perception of reality is a social process within groups: social comparison theory, social proof, and shared mental models.
Research on social comparison examines how people check their perceptions of reality against similar others in order to establish a social consensus of the correct interpretation of an event or opinion (Festinger 1954). Many issues people face do not have an objective or correct answer. Therefore, perceptions of the correct view often will be based on communicating with others to learn their positions. Social corroboration from one’s group often increases one’s confidence in one’s view of reality. However, lack of validation from the group often leads people to abandon their view and conform to the majority opinion. The desire for social corroboration and a shared social reality often leads to groups rejecting or punishing dissenters and minority opinion members who may upset group consensus (Schachter 1951).
Similar to research on social comparison, research on social proof explores how others’ behaviors may shape a person’s social reality through informational social influence because one assumes that what most people are doing or believing must be true and correct. With social proof, people rely on the behavior of others to form opinions or gain information, and fail to rely on their own internal collection of knowledge or information. Social proof becomes more compelling as more and more people engage in a specific behavior or espouse a certain viewpoint. At some point social proof can cause what is known as a “social cascade.” In a social cascade, many people behave or think in a certain way because of the weight of a few influential people, who early on influence subsequent opinion. As more and more people follow the opinion of these few influential people, the viewpoint becomes more compelling because of greater social proof, and may turn into a social movement (Sunstein 2003).
Finally, research on shared mental models and sense-making examines how group members create a shared view of group processes, norms, and roles that helps coordination and performance. Through a process of sense-making, group members come to share subjective meaning of ambiguous stimuli and uncertain environments. Communication is the vehicle by which collective sense-making occurs. Through communication of opinions, information, and individual perceptions, group members can discuss their view of the situation or learn about norms or roles that others hold. This helps them influence one another and build and maintain a shared mental model of the situation and group processes (Roberson 2006). Shared mental models are the common understandings that individuals in the group have of the environment, norms, task, and one another’s responsibilities. Researchers have found that groups with stronger shared mental models often have improved performance on tasks (Cannon-Bowers et al. 1993). Not only do groups influence a shared social reality, but shared cognition plays a significant role in group processes and influences a group’s performance and decision-making. Having shared cognition in the group allows for coordination of movement, facilitates communication and consensus, and promotes the maintenance of the group.
- Cannon-Bowers, J. A., Salas, E., & Converse, S. (1993). Shared mental models in expert team decision making. In N. J. Castellan (ed.), Individual and group decision making. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 221–246.
- Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.
- Roberson, Q. M. (2006). Justice in teams: The activation and role of sensemaking in the emergence of justice climates. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 100, 177– 192.
- Schachter, S. (1951). Deviation, rejection, and communication. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 46, 190–207.
- Simon, H. J. (1976). Administrative behavior, 3rd edn. New York: Free Press.
- Sunstein, C. R. (2003). Why societies need dissent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.