"Sociologists have known for a long time that groups tend to come together when they face adversity," social psychologist Stephen Benard, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University Bloomington, said in a statement. "What our research highlights is that there is a downside to our tendency to stick together when things are tough -- powerful group members can exploit that tendency to distract us from competing with them."
A crisis at work can bring out the best in colleagues, often inspiring more cooperation and self-sacrifice, but Benard and Pat Barclay of the University of Guelph in Ontario found the benefits are not shared equally, with higher-ranking group members having the most to gain by perceived threats to the group.
The researchers created three-person groups and had them play a cooperative group game in which people could pay money to increase the perception of threat to their group.
They found people with higher-ranking positions paid more to manipulate the threat and the action helped maintain their privileged positions.
"With this approach, we find people in high-ranking positions are more likely to manipulate apparent threats when their position is precarious, compared to when it is secure," Benard said.
This does not necessarily mean the next crisis at work is a ploy by the boss to boost her job security.
Social science predictions involve the average person, in general, not specific people or situations.
"When groups face potential threats, it's important to judge those threats carefully," Benard said. "On one hand, you want to be alert to the fact that other group members might have an incentive to exaggerate the threat. On the other hand, it's also important not to underestimate threats that could be real."
The findings were published online in the journal PLos.
Kate Middleton recycles dress at movie premiere
Jordana Brewster on Paul Walker: 'He was an enormous presence in my life'