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In his new book, Social Psychology and Organizations, Professor J. Keith Murnighan surveys contemporary issues related to the dynamics of organizations.

J. Keith Murnighan

Social Psychology and Organizations

J. Keith Murnighan's new book sheds light on the complexity of human interaction

By Matt Golosinski

8/23/2010 - As a discipline that studies how people think, feel and behave in social situations, social psychology offers key insights into the interpersonal dynamics of organizations. It draws from psychology, sociology, economics and anthropology to explore how people make decisions every day.

In his new book, Social Psychology and Organizations (Routledge Academic), Kellogg Professor J. Keith Murnighan surveys the latest thinking in this field. Chapters address leadership, power, diversity, conflict and decision making — all critical to running organizations, be they government agencies, family businesses, nonprofits or global multinationals.

“Organization, broadly, is what our field is about,” says Murnighan, an expert in group dynamics, leadership and negotiation who joined the Kellogg School in 1996.

“Our objective is to figure out why people do things that might appear crazy at first, but which really aren't,” he says. As a result, Murnighan, the Harold H. Hines Jr. Professor of Risk Management, is interested in "normal people, particularly the people who make organizations work.”

Even normal people, though, sometimes do things that seem initially bizarre. Yet, on closer inspection, their behavior becomes more coherent: “Very few of us act irrationally on purpose,” Murnighan says.

Murnighan's book, co-edited by David De Cremer and Rolf van Dick, provides the framework to understand individual and institutional behavior. Written primarily for an academic audience, the text includes contributions from some of social psychology's top thinkers, among them Katherine Phillips, associate professor of management and organizations, and Adam Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management.

The book distinguishes itself with original essays that shed light on each contributor's career-long research. What's more, those scholars were given free rein to produce material that most excited them.

“For some books, the editor contacts a contributor and asks, ‘Would you be willing to write on this topic?’” says Murnighan. “We called and asked, ‘Would you be willing to write a chapter on what you do?’ We had a very enthusiastic response. People like having the opportunity to look back at their work and re-contextualize it.”

The book’s insights include findings on how diversity can enhance an organization and how power relationships govern all aspects of institutional life. Counterintuitive findings on decision making, such as those presented by former Kellogg doctoral student Don Moore (PhD ’00), offer food for thought.

Moore, now an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon and a visiting associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley, revealed how people don't always fully consider their competition when making decisions. In an experiment where individuals were given a choice of two tasks, one easy and the other difficult, most chose the path of least resistance. The critical flaw in this approach was forgetting that everyone else also would likely choose that path, resulting in greater competition than would have been the case had they chosen the more difficult task.

“If all of your competitors also gravitate toward the low-hanging fruit,” Murnighan explains, “you might do better choosing the harder task.”

Social Psychology and Organizations is something of an updated sequel to Murnighan's 1993 book, Social Psychology in Organizations. A lot of research since then has investigated the complexity of human interaction in a world increasingly linked by technology. As one example, Murnighan points out that cross-cultural studies have “absolutely mushroomed” in recent years.

“It’s fantastic because the insights now are not so straightforward as before, when you might hear ‘the Japanese are shrewd bargainers.’ Today we see more variation and opportunity for work that will pave the way to greater global understanding.”

This prospect informs Murnighan’s own research and much of what social psychology attempts to achieve.

“Essentially, we're trying to build a model of how and why people behave,” Murnighan says. “We want to learn why they depart from rational thinking, how we can predict these things, and how we can build organizational systems that allow people to perform better and feel better about their collective performance.”