Explaining group dynamics

by Dorian Minors

March 29, 2022

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt: From our friends to our lovers, there are always imbalances in a relationship. William Schutz has a theory about why. He breaks it down into three things that determine how you pick your social networks, how well you click with people and whether or not things fall apart.


Group dynamics are often thought to be a complicated thing to explore. But a 50-year-old model explains much of it with only three things: a need for Belonging, for Affection, and for Control.

It seems unlikely that our science of the mind is close to entirely predicting human behaviour. But it’s fabulous at heuristics that map our common patterns. In 1966, William Schutz observed one such pattern—that three core things seemed to explain very well the way groups of people form and maintain themseves:

  • The need for Belonging
  • The need for Affection
  • The need for Control

The need for Belonging

The need for belonging refers to a deep-seated human drive to be associated with other people. It’s increasingly obvious that wellbeing crucially relies on having some kind of community around us. In fact, loneliness is emerging as one of the single greatest threats to human health, both mentally and physically.

But this need for belonging is not so vague as a need for ‘connection’. For Schutz, it is a purely functional need. Each of us is driven to seek out and maintain a certain amount of connections. These connections must also be of a certain quality. We will be driven to connect until those connections and their quality fulfil us with a satisfactory sense of a social network.

This drive for numbers appears to come from some unconscious knowledge that no single connection can necessarily relied on in isolation. We must have some sort of group in case an important connection closes for whatever reason: a fight; a move; a death.

This is something we can easily observe ourselves. It’s a common experience to find, at the close of a close intimite relationship, that we have let many of our other connections slide. We might then enter a frenzy of socialising, or perhaps enter a process of withdrawal should the realisation of what needs to be replaced overwhelm us.

Though most obvious at these times, Schutz suspects that such a drive is always active, managing our desire to connect in the background. For example, when someone feels like they belong, they think faster and better, are happier and are physiologically healthier. A lack of a sense of inclusion is closely related to depression and if one consistently fails to connect, then it is not uncommon to see them withdraw entirely from social life, believing they are socially inept. This then leads to more social failures and it becomes something of a vicious cycle.

Thus, the need for belonging injects itself into our relational interactions, guiding us to reach out more or less depending on the number and quality of our connections. Speaking of quality, let’s move on to…

The need for Affection

This need for quality connections is something Schutz labelled a need for Affection. We have a desire to be liked and have a sense of psychological closeness, and it is through quality relationships that this need for close bonds is fulfilled. Quality relationships are those characterised by warmth and are expressed with generally non-verbal cues; touching, orienting one’s body towards the other, standing close, and so on.

These sorts of cues fill our need for affection and are extremely important for relationships. These cues help people to become more confident about other relationships and make them build healthier relationships in the future. If one lacks relationships that provide these cues, they may end up creating dysfunctional relationships in the future. Consider, as an example, the stereotypical ‘clingy person’. Or perhaps they may start to develop a fear of affection which will eventually stop them from forming affectionate relationships; the ‘cold’ people. As we’ve talked about in other articles, this can happen as early as infancy. Once this process begins, it can be difficult to change patterns of behaviour.

Physical affection and warmth are also super important for our physical health.

So far, so sensible. But it is the third drive that Schutz describes which is most attention-grabbing.

The need for Control

Schutz noticed that in addition to certain number and quality of relationships, all people desire to have some kind of influence over our relationships. This might be in the form of relationship creation (i.e. how close we allow people to get), or in the form of controlling the development of formed relationships (i.e. how quickly we accelerate things).

If we lack this sense of control, we experience a sense of being taken for granted which can lead to feelings of hurt and humiliation. It can appear to us to be a violation of our relationship expectations—how we expect to be treated by our friends and partners. As such, this need for control can be very problematic for us when we’re trying to make and maintain relationships. Wanting too much control can make us undesirable to be in a relationship with but not having enough will make us unhappy. It can often be hard to find the balance.

Understanding the things we do to gain control in relationships can help us find that balance and maintain stable and happy relationships and Schutz and his colleagues categorised them nicely into two groups.

Dominance behaviours

To show our dominance, we tend to do things that make us appear bigger. We’ll sprawl in our seats, take up more space, use big hand gestures and the like. We’ll wear clothing and accessories that make us seem bigger; stripes, boots, hats and high heels. We also tend to try to dominate conversations. We’ll talk longer and more elaborately (regardless of how much elaboration is needed), we’ll interrupt or speak loudly. This is all because these things help us take control of the conversation—they allow us to dominate the dialogue space, and typically others are content to let this happen. Interestingly, the higher status people are, the more they display these characteristics. It’s not yet clear as to whether their dominance behaviours were the key to their status, or a result of it.

Relational Behaviours

Relational control behaviours are typically more underhanded than dominance behaviours. This is because we more often engage in these if we feel we are not in control or are losing control. We might hide how good we are at something, so later we can show it off unexpectedly. We might ‘over-help’: taking over a task from someone when they just wanted some pointers. Funnily enough, in cases like this, the person trying to control the situation will often resent this; they’ll feel victimised even though they were the one who exerted their control.

Another relational control behaviour is unnecessary granting permission, in which one party declares they are going to do something and the other grants permission (even though it was unwarranted). The classic example would be someone informing their partner they won’t be home for dinner, and the partner responding by granting permission even though it was never up for discussion. This gives the illusion that the only reason the first party can do the activity is because the other permitted it: forcing ownership of the situation from one to the other.

Needs and group dynamics

Not all people need the same amount of belonging, affection and control. For example, men often prefer more control, whilst women often prefer more affection.

These needs also differ throughout our lives. Teenagers and older generations feel the need for more belonging and more control than our younger and middle years.

In teenagers, this comes from their dual concerns of adolescent status jockeying and individualising from authority figures: two common developmental preoccupations.

For the elderly it is because the older we get, the smaller our network. Also, the elderly are experiencing a similar need for individuation. They feel independent but are increasingly reliant on the help of others.

In contrast, in our middle age, we generally seek more affection; we’ve typically worked out how to meet our control needs and form the right quantity of relationships, so affection—quality—is all that remains.

We are thus met with group dynamics with stereotypical characteristics, along age lines. Groups of teenagers are large, messy, and the dynamics of hierarchy are ever-present. Groups of elderly are smaller, but with similarly hierarchical features and are often quite promiscuous with the frequent arrival and departure of new members of the group. Groups of the middle aged are often more stable, with fewer people coming and going and a less obvious hierarchical aspect, but they are often comprised of even smaller, more affectionate groups—couples typically, or a pairing of of the single people into dyads.

And while it seems obvious that the best groups should match in terms of their needs, this isn’t always the case. For example, a group of people with lower control needs combined with a smaller number of people with a higher drive for control is frequently an ideal combination. More to the point, for Schutz, the key to stability is not so much the output, but the input. The perception that the need is being met, rather than some objective measure of that on the ground.


Schutz’s three needs aren’t proscriptive of course, but they certainly do map well to common group dynamics. A way to step beyond reactively fixing the communities we seek to form around us, towards building them the right way from the outset. What more than that can we ask for from a model a half-century old?

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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