Learning & Development

The Impact of Social Dynamics on Training

Social dynamics play an often subtle role in people’s everyday lives. Whether the context is the classroom, the office, the grocery store, or the local watering hole, humans tend to modify their behavior based on their perceived place in the social hierarchy of those present.

The same kind of effect is present in other animals, as well, such as the little mice that researchers are so fond of conducting experiments on to consider the possible correlations to human behavior.

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What Mice Can Teach Us About Social Hierarchies

Writing for Outside, Alex Hutchinson shares information about a new study from Massachusetts General Hospital researchers on the role of social hierarchy in competitive behavior. The study’s findings, he says, have implications across a range of disciplines such as “sociology, ecology, psychology, economics, and political science.”

In the study, researchers grouped mice into “nests” of seven individuals and conducted races with the mice in which four out of the seven mice in a nest would race at a time. “Since each race involves four of seven mice in any group, the mid-ranked mice are sometimes racing against mostly higher-ranked mice and other times facing mostly lower-ranked ones—and they adjust their competitive behavior accordingly,” explains Hutchinson. “So it’s not the case that the mice are inherently winners or losers; their behavior is situation-dependent.”

The Impact of Social Rank

The researchers used miniature electrode arrays to tap into the part of the mice’s brains that relates to social hierarchy to determine their social rank within their seven-mouse nest, and that position was strongly correlated with how a mouse would fair in its race. “The mouse looks around, sees who it will be racing against, and unconsciously decides how hard it’s going to try before the gate has even opened to start the race,” Hutchinson continues.

Because this study was performed on mice, it’s important to use some caution in applying the results to humans. Still, it’s logical that social hierarchy, or the perception of social hierarchy, may subconsciously impact how much effort humans put into a task, which is certainly something for managers to consider.

Do some employees with a perceived submissive rank in the social pecking order avoid speaking up in meetings or volunteering for assignments, for example? Managing people is largely about understanding personal relationships, and social hierarchies can play a significant, if not obvious, role in those relationships.

The impact is worth considering.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.