Humans are social animals—they live in groups. These networks among people are powerful in shaping behavior, feelings, and judgments. Groups can lead to destructive behavior such as mob violence and aggression, but they can also encourage loyalty, nurturing of others, and achievement, as found in cancer-support groups. Scientific investigation of how groups affect human behavior began as early as 1898, but the main body of research on group functioning began only in the 1940's and 1950's. The study of groups is still a major topic of scientific enquiry.

D. R. Forsyth defined a group as "two or more individuals who influence each other through social interaction." A group may be permanent or temporary, formal or informal, structured or unstructured. Those groups known as support groups may share any of these characteristics.

Why do human beings seek out groups? Social learning theorists believe that humans learn to depend on other people because most are raised within families, where they learn to look to other people for support, validation, amusement, and advice. Exchange theorists, on the other hand, reason that groups provide both rewards (such as love and approval) and costs (such as time and effort). Membership in a group will "profit" the individual if the rewards are greater than the costs. Yet another set of theorists, the sociobiologists, argue that humans form groups because this has a survival benefit for the species. They hypothesize a genetic predisposition toward affiliation with others. It is within groups that the fittest have the greatest chance of survival.

Whatever the reason for forming groups, all groups have important characteristics that must be addressed in seeking to understand why support groups work. First of all, group size is important. Larger groups allow more anonymity, while smaller groups facilitate communication, for example. Group structure includes such elements as status differences, norms of conduct, leaders and followers, and subgroups. Individuals in groups develop social roles—those expected behaviors associated with the individual's position within the group. Roles are powerful in influencing behavior and can cause individuals to act contrary even to their private feelings or their own interests. These roles carry varying degrees of status within the group—who is influential and respected and who is less so. Groups may have subgroups, based on age, residence, roles, interests, or other factors. These subgroups may contribute to the success of the whole or may become cliquish and undermine the main group's effectiveness.

Groups also have varying degrees of cohesion. Cohesion reflects the strength of attachments within the group. Sometimes cohesion is a factor of how well group members like one another, sometimes a factor of the need to achieve an important goal, and sometimes a factor of the rewards that group membership confers. All groups have communication networks, or patterns of openness and restrictions on communication among members.

Group norms are those attitudes and behaviors that are expected of members. These norms are needed for the group's success because they make life more predictable and efficient for the members. Leadership may be formal or informal, may be task oriented or people oriented, and may change over time. Finally, all groups go through fairly predictable stages as they form, do their work, and conclude. The comprehensive term for the way a group functions is "group dynamics."

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