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LEGO and the importance of shared identity

by Elaine Smith Mar 2 / 15

Students given the task of building cars and airplanes out of LEGO did better when told that the instructions had come from someone with a shared group identity.

CIFAR Global Scholar Alumna Katharine Greenaway (University of Queensland) conducted the experiments with colleagues from UQ, including CIFAR Senior Fellow Alexander Haslam, and Australian National University to see how communication is affected by group identity. They found that communication works best if the recipient believes the sender is a member of the same group. But the work also shows that group boundaries can be malleable.

“We’re constantly re-thinking and re-organizing our identities, depending on who is around us and what situation we find ourselves in,” says Greenaway, who is in the Social Interactions, Identity & Well-Being program. “We can think of ourselves in multiple different ways at any given time.”

Communication forms the backbone of human interaction, and communication failure can have profound consequences, Greenaway says. The explosion that destroyed the Challenger space shuttle in 1986, for example, was partly due to management ignoring information from engineers.

In the first experiment, university students were each told that a questionnaire had determined that they were deductive reasoners. Each student was given identical written instructions to build a LEGO car, and told the instructions had come from either another deductive reasoner or from an inductive reasoner.

Students who thought they received instructions from a member of the same group perceived those instructions to be clearer and made fewer mistakes in their finished cars than did those who received instructions from a member of another group.

For the second experiment, researchers told some of the deductive reasoners that their instructions came from inductive reasoners who also went to the same university. These students considered the instructions clearer and their LEGO models – airplanes this time — had fewer mistakes than those of their counterparts who weren’t aware of the shared university group membership.

“The superordinate identity changed the way the student perceived the person giving them the instructions,” said Greenaway. “This has important consequences for inter-group relations; it shows that people can re-construe outgroup members as part of a shared group, and so improve the way people communicate with one another. This could potentially improve communication in many life domains, from race relations to workplace relations, and even interpersonal relationships.

“If you don’t feel like you’re on the same team, your ability to work together can be compromised.”