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Being part of a group improves perceived personal control and health

by Robin Yee May 29 / 15

Strong group identification improves health by enhancing people’s sense of control over their personal lives, new research has found.

The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was led by CIFAR’s Global Scholar Alumna Katharine Greenaway (University of Queensland). Her co-authors on the paper included Associate Director and Senior Fellow S. Alexander Haslam (University of Queensland), Senior Fellow Nyla Branscombe (University of Kansas) and Global Scholar Alumna Renate Ysseldyk (Carleton University), all of CIFAR’s Social Interactions, Identity and Well-Being program.

The paper describes a series of studies on how group identity affects people’s health through their sense of control in their lives. Using questionnaires, the researchers found that people with a strong sense of national, community, political or student identity had higher life satisfaction and reduced depression rates.

The researchers also used an experimental technique to make subjects think about themselves in different ways and determine how that thinking influenced them. In one case they influenced participants’ feelings of personal control in their lives by asking them to recall and write about a time when they either had total control of a situation, or a complete lack of control. The team then measured the life satisfaction and depression reported by participants.

Greenaway found that strong identification as part of a group tended to increase how much control people felt they had over their lives, and as a result led to greater life satisfaction and lower depression. Those who were primed to feel a low sense of control were seemingly ‘protected’ by a strong group association, relative to those who had no association, or only a weak one.

“Perceived personal control is the sense that we can achieve the outcomes we want in life. It’s a basic building block of well-being,” Greenaway says, adding that there is well-established research on its links with improved physical health.

As researchers better understand the mechanisms at work, they are developing a so-called “social cure.” Greenaway explains, “Our findings suggest that health interventions don’t need to be at the individual level in order to be successful, and may be even more effective when delivered through groups. Not only does it mean that by building group bonds we can build individual capacity, it is also more cost-effective in terms of time and money.”

“CIFAR was absolutely critical in this work,” says Greenaway. She applied to work with Haslam with this project in mind, and Branscombe and Ysseldyk helped them develop the studies. “This is the greatest strength of CIFAR as I see it, connecting bright minds from all around the world to investigate questions with transformative potential. It’s some of the strongest evidence I’ve seen for the power of groups in improving people’s lives.”