One of the local high schools has an interesting fundraising tradition for their marching band. Each instrument section goes out as a group and “infests” someone’s yard with pink plastic flamingoes. Then, they request a donation to clear up the infestation. The kids get to bond while collecting funds for the band, and the sections engage in a friendly competition to see who can collect the most money.
How does this kind of group identity influence people’s commitment to a goal like raising funds?
This question was explored in a paper in the August, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Ayelet Fishbach, Marlone Henderson, and Minjung Koo. They suggest that people’s commitment to a group affects commitment to a goal differently depending on how the goal is framed.
When people do not feel strongly that they are members of a group, then just being part of the group does not give them a sense that the goal is important. Instead, they try to estimate how important the goal is to the other individuals. The best way to do that is to see how much progress the group members have already made on the goal. The more progress that has been made, the more strongly these people will commit to the goal.
Those people who feel more strongly attached to the group have a commitment to the goal just because they are part of the group. For them, they are interested in helping the group succeed, and so they are more motivated by seeing how far there is to go to reach the goal than by seeing how much progress has been made so far.
In one study, college students were told that they were going to be assigned to a group that had to generate ideas for a project. They were shown the group members who had already been selected and those members were either all from the same school as the participant, or they came from different schools. Having students who came from the same school gave the participants a greater sense of belonging to the group.
Participants were told that the goal for the group was to generate at least 50 ideas for a marketing campaign. Half of the participants were told that the group members who had gone so far had generated 24 ideas total. The other half of the participants were told that after the initial group members had gone there were still 26 ideas left to be generated. Then, they were asked to come up with ideas for the group.
Consistent with the proposed influence of group membership on motivation, when the group consisted of students from many different schools, participants generated more ideas when the progress was framed in terms of the number of ideas already generated rather than the number of ideas yet to be generated. When the group consisted of students from the same school, then participants generated more ideas when they were focused on the number of ideas yet to be generated rather than on the number of ideas generated so far.
As another example, participants from a university in the Midwest read about wildfires in California. The description either focused on California as being distant from the Midwest (saying Californians and referring to the victims using the pronouns “they” and “them”) or they focused on the group identity of Californians and Midwesterners as Americans (and using pronouns like “we”).
People who read the description using the pronouns “they” and “them” were more interested in giving money to help the victims of the wildfires if they were told how much money had been collected so far than if they were told how much remained in the goal to raise $10,000. Those people who read the description using pronouns like “we” and focusing on common group membership were more interested in giving money if they were told about the amount that remained to be collected rather than the amount collected so far.
These results demonstrate why it can be so difficult to figure out how to motivate group members. The level of motivation that group members have for a goal depends both on how strongly each person identifies with the group and how people think about progress toward the goal.
For the high school band, of course, everyone seems strongly committed to being a part of the group. For them, then, it is probably best to focus on how much remains to be done to achieve their goal.