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David Pincus
David Pincus Ph.D.

One Bad Apple Spoils the Bunch

Bad Apples: Toxic individuals who suck you dry...

Back from vacation. And thanks to everyone who has been reading about Chaos and Complexity theory and psychology here. The response has been larger and more positive that I ever would have expected from a topic that is a bit frightening even to most other researchers. And as always thanks to SCTPLS and Clint Sprott for the fractal of the day pictured to the left.

So I think we've all earned a shorter and more digestible blog entry this week, now that you have most of the basics covered. Let's turn to the universal experience of "BAD APPLES" - as in "One bad apple spoils the bunch." Bad apples are those acquaintances, family members and co-workers whose mere presence can suck the life right out of you. They also kill the ‘good energy' of the larger group.

I became interested in bad apples and the unique and interesting conflict they generate just like you - I worked for a few, I became acquainted with a few, I experienced them in my family dynamics from time to time, and though it is buried deep in my subconscious mind - I may have even taken on the role of the bad apple from time to time myself. On second thought, no I haven't...

Anyway, when I got into doing relationship research from using dynamic systems methods, it became apparent that "bad apples" represent one of the key ways that individual flows of information (self-conflicts and the like) can impact group flows of information (group conflicts and the like). They also provide a key for understanding how organizational consultants, group therapists, and family therapists work with individuals to improve group processes and also how one may work with group processes to assist with individual growth. Understanding bad apples also may help us to stay calm when we run into one of them and to realize that they REALLY ARE as destructive as they seem - unless of course the bad apple is you, in which case please leave this blog immediately! (Just kidding...please no stalking...No, I wasn't talking about you...sorry for apologizing so much...).

For the sake of brevity, I'll just describe one experimental study I did in this area. You can read it if you are interested in Small Group Research, April 2008. What we needed to do was to turn someone into a bad apple and see what impact this had on group dynamics. So we formed groups of strangers, four female psyc students to be exact. They were told to get to know one another during four, ½ hour conversations. We used the first 2 conversations to get what is called a "baseline:" the typical dynamics as they would unfold naturally given the girls' personalities and their fits with one another. Then during the break between conversations 2 and 3, we gave bogus feedback to one of the group members, telling her that the other members found her cold and abrasive. The actual feeback was longer than that - but that's the gist. We sent her back into discussion three with instructions not to share her feedback with any other group member. And we also made sure that she disagreed with the feedback, thus creating an internal conflict within her - "Am I really cold and abrasive? Or is it them?" While unlikely, we may have gotten someone who was really cold and abrasive and knew it. During conversation four, the "bad apple" was given permission to bring up the feedback with the other members, allowing for the possibility for some degree of conflict resolution.

What we found first is that all of the turn-taking in the conversation patterns fit a fractal pattern (see "Chaos Theory and Batman Part II). In other words, there were complex branching patterns in the repetitions of who talked to whom and in what order. Many patterns happened only once or twice in the discussion, like the small branches on the outskirts of a tree. Exponentially fewer conversation patterns repeated many times, like thick branches or the trunk of the tree near its center. We've replicated this result many times, in family, group therapy and in these experimental discussions and the result is always the same. This means that conversations are complex, evolving, self-organizing systems. They evolve in a similar manner to other living systems (in geology, biological evolution, chemical systems, botany, and more). There are too many implications there to cover here; so back to the bad apple part.

In conversation three, the bad apple sucked the branches right off the tree. The scenario always reminds me of the little Christman Tree from the Charlie Brown special. The little tree is somewhat symbolic of Charlie Brown, who in addition to being a clinically depressed child, was also a bad apple. Back to the research, the discussion shifted significantly in the rigid direction. Just like a sick plant, the foliage fell off of the group process. Of course, being good scientists we replicated the experiment - six times, each with a different group. We added to the design as well, inducing internal conflict into 0, 1, 2, 3, and in one group all four members. We also continued to examine what happened when groups discussed the false-feedback during discussion four, to see if the branches would grow back when the conflict was resolved.

Overall - they did. The level of induced and unresolved conflict across the 24 different discussions was significantly correlated with the complexity of the group's dynamics. It is also interesting to note that the bad apples did not report being particularly upset by the false feedback, there was no obvious conflict to either myself or any of the participants, and no major shifts were observed in their levels of participation. So the "bad apple effect" on group dynamics in the real world situations is probably far more powerful than what we observed here experimentally.

Conclusions - "Bad apples" are people who are internally conflicted. These internal conflicts tend to spread up to the level of the group, decreasing the groups' complexity, flexibility, and their ability to grow and adapt. On the more positive side, conflict resolution spreads as well, up from inside us and into our relationships, and down from our relationships to make us more internally flexible as well.

Implications - Expect conflict. Embrace it as a human condition. It is a means to our peril, as well as to our future resilience. And if you run into a bad apple, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!

So much for being brief; I'll keep working on it. As always - comments, suggestions and questions are greatly encouraged.

-Dr. Dave

About the Author
David Pincus

David Pincus is a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University in Orange, CA.

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