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Strength in Numbers

By: Meenakshi Devi Bavanani

Numbers have power, especially in human relationships. Anyone who has ever had to face mob fury will testify to the terrifying omnipotence of people power …




Some interesting studies have analyzed this phenomenon from various angles. For example, Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim wrote an excerpt from their research for Sports Illustrated explaining why home teams win more than visiting teams in just about every sport.

Not because players perform better when their own fans are cheering them on. In basketball, free-throw percentages are the same, home and away. In baseball, a pitcher’s strike-to-ball ratio is the same home and away. Nor do the rigours of travel have an effect on the out-of-town team. Teams from the same metro area lose at the same rate as teams from across the country when playing in their rival’s stadium.

Apparently, the real difference is the officiating and lies in the mind set of the referees. The umpires don’t like to get booed. So even if they are not aware of it, they call fewer fouls on home teams in crucial situations. They call more strikes on out-of-town team batters in tight games in the late innings. Moskowitz and Wertheim show that the larger, louder and closer a crowd is, the more the umpires favour the home team. It’s not a conscious decision. They just naturally conform to the emotional vibes radiating from those around them.

Another interesting aspect of human relationships is an observation made by researchers in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Johanna Peetz and Lara Kammrath that people are more likely to break promises to those who are close to them, than to those with whom they have a distant relationship. Why? The researchers surmised that one tends to make more lavish promises to the ones they love – for example, “I’ll swim the deepest ocean for you, I’ll climb the highest mountain, I’ll love you forever!” Words hard to back up in a real world.

Turning to people management, common sense might lead one to believe that one can motivate another to work harder by rewarding them on an individual basis. The social scientists says that’s just not so.

A large body of research suggests it’s best to motivate groups, not individuals. Organize people into a group and reward everybody when the group achieves its goals. Susan Helper, Morris Kleiner and Yingchun Wang confirm this insight in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. They compared compensation schemes in different manufacturing settings and found that group incentive pay and hourly pay motivate workers more effectively than individual incentive pay.

Why do most people perform better in groups?

Joachim Huffmeier and Guido Hertel in the Journal of Experimental Social and Psychology report studied relay swim teams in the 2008 Summer Olympics. They found that swimmers on the first legs of a relay did about as well as they did when swimming in individual events. Swimmers on the later legs outperformed their individual event times. In the heat of a competition, it seems, later swimmers feel indispensable to their team’s success and are more motivated than when swimming just for themselves.

The individual intelligence in affected by the type of group the individual is embedded within. Researchers led by Thomas W. Malone at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management have found they can measure a group’s IQ. This group IQ is not well predicted by the median IQ of the group members. Measures of motivation didn’t predict group performance all that well either. Instead, the groups that did well had members that were good at reading each other’s emotions. They took turns when speaking. Participation in conversation was widely distributed. There was no overbearing leader dominating everything. We see that a group of people form a unit which radiates an intelligence which is not necessarily the sum of its parts.

People’s perceptions can also be affected by what they eat! Which suggests a rationale for inviting someone with whom one wishes to bond to “join one for dinner”. An interesting study in the journal Psychological Science, Kendall Eskine, Natalie Kacinik and Jese Prinz gave people sweet-tasting, bitter-tasting and neutral-tasting drinks and then asked them to rate a variety of moral transgressions. As expected, people who had tasted the bitter drink were more likely to register moral disgust. This suggests that offering chocolates to someone you have offended may help you get out of a tight spot!



About the Author:

Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani is the resident Acharya of Ananda Ashram in Pondicherry, India. She is also the Director of the International Centre for Yoga Education and Research (ICYER), the Director of Yoganjali Natyalayam, and Editor of Yoga Life, a publication of Ananda Ashram. For more information, visit:
Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani ; Amma;


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