When a group first forms, whether in a social, business, or educational situation, there’s an inevitable awkwardness. You’re not really sure whether you can trust these strangers to respect and like you, and until you find out, it will be hard to move forward with the tasks at hand. Teachers, camp counselors, college dorm assistants, and volunteer coordinators all tend to build up their favorite repertoire of tricks to get the members of a group to engage with each other.
Perhaps you’ve got your own tried and true get-to-know-you questions to get a group to cohere. What you might not realize is that some of the best icebreakers take advantage of the principles of social psychology.
The basic principle behind an icebreaker is one that is well-understood in psychology: Good relationships are based on honest self-disclosure and sharing. Bonds between people start to form when they gain insight into what others are thinking and feeling.
The now-famous “36 Question” quiz that is being touted as a way to find out if you love someone or not was actually based on a social psychological experiment in which strangers were encouraged to share at an increasingly deep level of self-disclosure. The questions start out ascertaining superficial information (such as, What’s your favorite movie?) and then progress to more and more personal levels. At the deepest level, you might ask the person whose family member’s death they would find most disturbing. You might, at this deepest level, also share a personal problem you’re having at the moment and ask your conversation partner for advice on how to handle it.
The 36-question quiz is in some ways an extended icebreaker, but it’s specifically intended to bring two people closer together. In a standard icebreaker, you use that principle of self-disclosure to get larger numbers of people (perhaps 4 or 5 at the least and 10 to 12 at the most) to feel in sync as a group. From there, you can move on to tasks that the newly-cohered set of individuals is ready to tackle as a team.
To work effectively, then, an icebreaker has to establish a level of self-disclosure that will allow the strangers or newcomers in a group to feel that they can trust each other. They’ll each have revealed something about themselves and, at the same time, have learned the ways they are similar to and different from others in the group. Further, they’ll have gone through a mini journey of self-discovery that in itself might help them feel more connected to the identity that the group is trying to establish.
One general principle to follow in icebreakers of any kind is that you respect people’s decision not to self-disclose if they’d rather not, as this would violate the respect for the individual that is essential for group trust. If participants feel unsafe, they’ll retreat or quit, which is the opposite of the goal. Second, it’s best to ask people to make a decision in the either-or choice questions rather than to say “both,” or “some of each.” Start by announcing these principles, and then remind participants, if necessary, to adhere to them.
Here are the icebreakers, and the psychological principles behind each:
This contrast, from a classic Simon and Garfunkel song called “El Condor Pasa (If I Could),” requires that you decide whether you’d rather be the acted or the acted-upon. People who are more independent and “agentic” (meaning wanting to be the agent) are more likely to initiate change; the “nails” are happy to go along with group decisions. Stereotypes based on gender suggest that men would rather be nails (e.g. Li Kusterer et al, 2013). After obtaining the answers to this question, whether in an all-male or all-female group, it might be worthwhile to explore why we hold these stereotypes and how group members can overcome them.
Also from the Simon and Garfunkel song, this contrast asks group members to disclose whether they’d rather be “tied up to the ground,” as the song explains, or whether they’d rather “sail away.” Those who prefer an earthly existence, we might imagine, are less prone to fantasies and daydreaming. They can keep the group literally grounded in reality and practicality. The sparrows, which imagine themselves soaring upwards, are the ones who might lead the group into new areas. They can help prevent groupthink, in which a group gets so enmeshed in its characteristic ways of thinking that it loses the ability to come up with fresh ideas.
We know from extensive psychological research that people commit deception all the time, from white lies to outright fabrications. In this icebreaker, you practice detecting deception with the members of your group while, at the same time, gaining factual information about them. This icebreaker tends to produce a great deal of humor which, in turn, creates a positive emotional experience and bonding.
The basic optimist and basic pessimist are the yin and yang of any group. Many people will try to wiggle their way out of this one, because the answer of “half empty” may be considered socially unacceptable in our positively-slanted world. However, this question when answered honestly gives group members a sense of the emotional temperature and helps them understand how much of a balance they will have between the rosy-glassed and the cynics as they approach the group’s tasks.
This is a familiar phrase, the stuff of plays, movies, and games (“6 Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon”), but it actually originates from the work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram. This number has been revamped to 4 (Daraghmi & Yuan, 2014). In any case, for this icebreaker, you can ask participants to contribute the name of a person they know who they think other members of the group may not know personally. Over the course of the next few minutes, you can see how long and how many steps it takes for each member of the group to arrive at the name of a person they all have in common. The process itself can be interesting, but by the end, you’ll also all realize that you share more than you realized when you first met.
The basic difference that this question taps is whether you see yourself as an introvert or an extrovert. Every group needs some of each, though the introverts might feel that they’re something wrong with them for not being “social” enough. This icebreaker will give the group a sense of whether it’s got an uphill battle in front of it (all talkers or all listeners is far from ideal) and will also allow the introverts to feel that their contributions are worthwhile and important, even if they don’t put those contributions out there quite as often as their talker counterparts.
Our sense of identity is revealed in the stories we tell about our lives, and in answering this question, group members also share the public image with which they most closely identify. You might want an action hero to portray you, or perhaps you would prefer a great thinker. Whoever the celebrity, your choice provides insight into the kind of person who inspires you the most. In answering this question, participants learn about each other’s role models but also must give some thought into the influences on their life stories and values.
We all have a persona that we try to maintain in front of people we don’t know very well, and increasingly feel comfortable in revealing the person behind the mask as our relationships get closer. In this icebreaker, everyone has to show the side they’d rather hide, at least to some extent. Even if people choose not to reveal the truly most embarrassing moment they’ve ever experienced, they’ll at least be letting down some of their public guard that will allow the group’s relationship to proceed to a deeper level.
We all leave a life footprint, which is the impact we have on others by virtue of our own existence. This icebreaker is particularly useful for giving a socially sanctioned voice to people who might not otherwise shine attention on themselves. You’re not bragging if everyone else has permission to take credit for something they’ve done. Plus, you’ll realize as a group that you’re a pretty effective bunch.
The first response you have when threatened tells a great deal, according to Lavy et al. (2015) about your attachment style. If you’re likely to flee, you may be more insecurely attached, meaning that you’ll be more likely to worry about being ignored or making mistakes. Those who will stay and fight, according to this view, are more securely attached and will therefore not feel threatened if their opinions are rejected or ignored. This exercise will help those who would “flee” to feel that they can admit to their insecurities and still be accepted by the group.
Daraghmi, E. Y., & Yuan, S. (2014). We are so close, less than 4 degrees separating you and me!. Computers In Human Behavior, 30273-285. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2013.09.014
Lavy, S., Bareli, Y., & Ein-Dor, T. (2015). The effects of attachment heterogeneity and team cohesion on team functioning. Small Group Research, 46(1), 27-49. doi:10.1177/1046496414553854
Li Kusterer, H., Lindholm, T., & Montgomery, H. (2013). Gender typing in stereotypes and evaluations of actual managers. Journal Of Managerial Psychology, 28(5), 561-579. doi:10.1108/JMP-01-2013-0012
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015