The three reasons why everyone is so 'cliquey'

November 5, 2018

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The psychology of cliques has a pretty stereotypical pattern. It's been well-described since the 80's. There are three phases, and often they end in collapse.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


the people make the place
Ben Schneider wrote that in 1987. In fact, it was the title of his paper. He was talking, essentially, about clique formation. Now, Schneider is an organisational psychologist, so the content of his work runs very dry and he talks in terms of the selection process of organisations. But his model applies to groups everywhere. It’s called the Attraction, Selection, Attrition Model and it tells us that groups become cliques because of the people.

Phase One

The first stage is ‘Attraction’. Schneider says that people will be attracted to different groups, activities and organisations based on their interests and their personalities. What attracts them is not necessarily what they’ll be doing, but the environment that exists there. So, high energy people might join a skiing club. Or perhaps, if you’re looking for more low-key intellectual types, you’d check out a book club. When it comes to work, it might be the gym that works for you; lots of health focused and people-centric individuals coming together. Think 'Wolf of Wall Street'; a group of ambitious and driven people attracted to a high-energy, high-risk and high reward workplace (also, drugs... lots of drugs). As Belfort remarks:
they were drunk on youth, fueled by greed, and higher than kites

Phase Two

The next stage is 'Selection'. Groups and organisations will tend to select people who match their attitudes, values and culture. Both this and the last stage relate heavily to one of the most important aspects of interpersonal attraction, similarity. Organisations will choose those who seem 'compatible'. Like Leo said:
give them to me young, hungry and stupid

Phase Three

The final stage is 'Attrition'. This talks about the fact that if someone doesn't feel comfortable in the environment that exists in the group, they'll tend to leave. When they leave, what's left behind are the people that are the most similar because those people feel comfortable. Now you have a clique. A select, group of completely homogenous (the same) people who tend to repel people with different attitudes and values and the group becomes comfortably stable. Which is a problem. In his book Belfort noticed this:
in the restaurant [they] carried on their time-honored tradition of acting like packs of untamed wolves

Don't get stale

See, the problem with just letting this slide is the same reason Ben Schneider and many others have spent so long researching it. Over time the group will rotate through these three phases, in no particular order. The group will become more homogenous, and thus more comfortable. In doing so, the group grows complacent. It becomes stale. The same people have the same ideas. There's no innovation. So organisations start to lose out to their 'disruptive' competitors. Clubs and groups implode, with too many of the same people clamouring for the same positions. An excellent case study here is Apple. In 1997, they were on the brink of bankruptcy due to this kind of complacency and a stale production culture. When they hired back Jobs in 1997 (and with a little cash injection from Microsoft), they shot back up to the powerhouse they are today.

Schneider, and his peers, suggest solutions:

  • join groups with diversity. It's likely that they'll attract more kinds of people which will keep them fresh.
  • If one is already in a group, one should try to open it up to new people with new ideas.

And lastly, if one is looking for a new group, or a job, one might try picking something a little out of the comfort zone. 'Disruption' is a sexy idea in the business world, but it remains a key driver of successful cliques wherever they appear.

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