Things that bind us

Social and behavioural change is of interest to all of us either as instigators and leaders of such change processes or as members of the target audience. There are a number of sources vying for influence in shaping how we think, feel and behave. Explaining social influence is an area that is central to much theory and research in social psychology.

Social psychology at ANU has a strong international reputation in theory and research on group identity, social norms and social influence, which has direct implications in understanding social and behavioural change.

It is recognised that how we think about ourselves can vary (eg. mother, academic, woman, psychologist, Anglo-Australian, apple user, citizen) and along with such variation comes shifts in the relevant social norms. Such shifts in how we think about ourselves also affect who has influence in affecting what 'we' do and why 'we' do it (eg. the role of leadership, authorites and institutions). As group identity and the meaning of such groups shift and change so to can our own attitudes and behaviours.

One example of recent research that explores these relationships is a project in ACT high schools that is being conducted by Associate Professor Kate Reynolds, Dr Boris Bizumic, Mr Dave Bromhead, Dr Emina Subasic and colleagues.

These researchers were awarded an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant with the ACT Department of Education & Training in 2008 and are working with four high schools over a three year period conducting longitudinal research. "When people take on a particular group identity they feel they belong, are connected to others and are understood," says Reynolds, who is from the ANU Department of Psychology. "They also internalise the norms, values and beliefs of the group and are more likely to act in more unified ways to achieve their shared goals."

Reynolds believes that the findings will have widespread implications. "They highlight the relevance of social psychology in addressing issues in social and behavioural change in schools and the critical role of group identity. The findings also have direct policy implications and should be central to the training of teachers and school leadership."

The results, Reynolds concludes, "encourage us as researchers to explore other areas where understanding group identity and the creation and maintenance of particular social norms could be an important part of the solution to complex problems".