New Chinese social psychology model to measure group impression

By ZUO BIN / 03-23-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A group of university students dance at the Sakura Avenue in Xuchang University, Henan Province, on March 14. University students are an important social group in China. Photo: CFP

Birds of a feather flock together. Members of society can be divided into different groups according to their physiological and psychological features, as well as social attributes. Relations between individuals and groups, intergroup relations, and evolution of the relations shape the basic landscape of social operation. 

Since the reform and opening up, particularly since the start of the new era, social groups in China have evolved continuously. While new social groups emerge, traditional social groups are being transformed and updated. Impression evaluation of social groups in contemporary China will affect the general health of the nation’s social mentality and social harmony. Therefore, developing Chinese social psychology and constructing Chinese theories which evaluate the impression of social groups are of guiding significance. 

Social groups in China and the West

In psychological studies at home and abroad, groups known to the public are usually defined as clusters of at least three people, who share common goals and codes of conduct, and interact with each other. However, groups defined on the basis of the number of members and their common goals are essentially “task groups” or “teams.” 

In research of social groups, clusters, teams, and social groups are not strictly differentiated. In most cases, the terms are interchangeable and mixed. This indiscrimination leads to filtering of groups’ social attributes and ignorance of broader social groups, confining group studies to work groups and small teams (groups). 

However, studies of small groups will inevitably be trapped in the “in-group and out-group” analytical framework, paying attention only to group members’ psychological identity, while revealing the effects of “in-group favoritism” and “out-group discrimination.” Researchers can become obsessed with mental mechanisms associated with relations between in-groups and out-groups and intermediate mediating variables. 

Objectively, we have seen that numerous social groups have been classified by society according to physiological features, language, occupation, trade, geography, cultural symbols or criteria, and so on. We have known social groups such as teachers, migrant workers, scientists, university students, the disabled, celebrities, and patients with depression, and have a certain impression of each group. Applying the framework of “small groups” or “task groups” is obviously inappropriate in an analysis of these social groups.  

It is noteworthy that overseas studies of “group impression” focus much on blacks, whites, Hispanics, HIV-infected patients, LGBTQ groups, and the like, through the lens of social categories and social strata. In Chinese society, groups which have more common public references include migrant workers, “left-behind children,” elders, university students, “rich second generation,” and internet users. In the West, groups’ social backgrounds are not highlighted as much as in China. Thus it is necessary to understand and define Chinese social groups in Chinese social situations. 

The formation and development of social groups are closely related to the evolution of labor division in society. By nature, groups must perform certain social functions. As social beings, a social group can only be noticed by the public when its size or the number of its members is large enough. 

Therefore, based on their social attributes, we tend to define social groups as clusters of a certain number of people with the same social identity and behavioral features, which will have a certain impact on society. 

Objective and perceptual attributes 

As social beings, social groups have objective attributes, which are embodied by their members’ features and are independent from the influence of human subjective thinking or ideology. These attributes are reflected by demographic statistical indicators, such as number of members, gender, age, ethnicity or race, level of education, and income. 

Similarities and differences between social groups, in terms of objective attributes, determine basic group classification. In everyday life, we have established a mechanism which automatically classifies social groups based on their objective attributes and then evaluates group impression. Objective attributes play a foundational role in individuals’ perception of groups and impression evaluation of them. 

According to the Marxist view of psychology, human psychology is reflective of objective realities. The reflection is not passive, but involves agency. Impressions of social groups are based on subjective perception and psychological evaluation of their objective attributes. People form a framework for the impression through their perception of groups, which is a perceptual attribute of groups.  

There is, by no means, only one group in society. Social groups are in mutual or multifold reference relationships with other social groups. At a certain moment in time, social groups’ objective attributes are absolute, but they will change relative to associated social groups and situations. This is another perceptual attribute of social groups. 

A review of theories on perception and stereotypes of social groups reveals that groups’ perceptual attributes are manifested in their substantiality, size, status, and the example representative of each group. 

Substantiality means a social group is perceived as a real, independent group, rather than individuals. Although size is an objective attribute, the perceived size is inseparable from reference to other groups. Size affects people’s understanding of groups’ cohesiveness, stability, persistence, and heterogeneity. Group status refers to subjective social and economic standing based on the group’s social prestige, class, resources, wealth, and other factors. On the cognitive level, the representative example carries a group’s iconic incident, language, attitude, values, and behavior, playing a unique role in evaluating group impression. For instance, if a celebrity exemplifies the group of entertainment stars, his/her words and deeds become the immediate clue for assessing this group. 

Position and contribution

Foreign psychologists have proposed many models for evaluating group stereotypes based on individualistic social cognitive theory, such as the stereotype content model with warmth and competence as the two basic dimensions of social perception, the two-dimensional model of agency and communion, and the three-dimensional model of morality, sociability, and competence. 

In the West, group studies are oriented toward individualism, and groups are seen as independent entities similar to individuals. In Chinese culture, by contrast, interdependence between individuals reminds us to analyze social groups from the perspectives of “others’ position” and a “common position.” Due to varying definitions and research perspectives of groups in the East and the West, it is not advisable to interpret Chinese social groups by blindly applying foreign models of impression evaluation. 

The social division of labor and social roles have provided us with better cues to understand impression evaluation of social groups. Members of different groups play different roles. Impression evaluation of social groups depends directly on how norms and goals for members’ roles are realized. Social roles are defined as positions within social relations, and how social roles realize social functions suggests a group’s social value and contribution. 

With this as a point of departure, in combination with impression surveys on Chinese social groups, we have built a two-dimensional model including position and contribution for impression evaluation of social groups. 

Position is the ordinate of the coordinate for impression evaluation. Assessing the position of a social group, relative to other groups in society, it is the result of people’s overall evaluation of the group’s objective and perceptual attributes. Position is reflected by the amount of social resources occupied by the group, such as identity and power recognized by society and the level of its social and economic status, and is evaluated through potential resources, like group members’ abilities, qualities, and cultural knowledge. 

Contribution represents the abscissa. It appraises the degrees to which the group’s social functions are realized and social members’ needs are satisfied. Contribution, positive or negative impact on people (including group members) and society, is a criterion for people to determine the degree of a group’s “good or bad impact,” reflecting the nature of impressions the group has left. Indicators measuring a group’s contribution include how many social contributions it has made, how it conforms to social values, how many benefits it has brought to society, and how the group is needed by society. 

When making psychological links with a social group, people tend to first confirm the group’s objective and perceptual attributes, as well as its position, and then evaluate the benefits and interests it has brought to society and its members. As two basic dimensions, position and contribution can separately or jointly reflect impressions of the social group. 

First, combinations of people’s evaluations of a social group by position and contribution dictate the coordinate points of the group’s impression evaluation. Simply put, position can be graded as high, middle, and low, while contribution can be rated as good and bad, or large, medium, and small. People’s impression of a social group is the combination of the two dimensions. 

Second, social contribution determines the nature of impressions. Public perception of a group’s social contribution carries the largest weight. 

Third, position is the effect regulator and magnifier of contribution. For example, a high position can magnify a group’s social contribution, and negative impact, too. 

Group impression is an important theme in the social psychology knowledge system, but the content model for group stereotypes and the theory of impression formation are predominantly products of Western social culture. Compared with individualism and individual orientation, which prevail in Western society, Chinese culture attaches more importance to people’s social attributes, emphasizing interconnection and collaboration between individuals and between groups. 

The two-dimensional model of position and contribution for impression evaluation of social groups highlights the groups’ social attributes and functions. It is a preliminary summary and refinement of a series of pertinent empirical studies on impression evaluation of social groups in contemporary China. Nonetheless, more efforts are needed to further verify and improve this model, construct Chinese theories and methodologies for impression evaluation of social groups, and make continuous explorations for the development and innovation of social psychology. 

Zuo Bin is dean of the Department of Psychology at Sun Yat-sen University, director of the Social Psychological Research Center at Central China Normal University, and president of the Chinese Association of Social Psychology.