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Whether it’s a day trip to a museum, a hiking excursion or a full-blown, multi-day tour of another country, we often find ourselves in groups of strangers while traveling. And while most people are pleasant — or at least try to be — something invariably happens when a bunch of humans get together. It can reduce us to the roles we played in the families in which we grew up. And that (depending on what your family vacations were like growing up) can be exhausting, anxiety-inducing, distracting and even painful.
Even if you personally have nothing but fond memories of annual summer trips to the Cape, the people with whom you are sharing a group experience may not have had such sunny experiences. Without knowing it, this can make your long-awaited vacation quite stressful.
This is just one of the strange psychological effects a group trip can have on an individual traveler. There’s also group influence.
After all, a group tour is basically an organized crowd. Craig Parks, a psychologist at Washington State University, wrote in his book “The Social Psychology of Small Groups,” that conformity to group norms exerts a huge amount of pressure on individuals. Parks noted that “Conformity describes that situation in which a group is somehow attempting to bring about behavior change in individuals. Groups can also affect individual behavior without meaning to do so.”
That’s fine if the individual agrees that a beach day is better than a museum tour, but when the group-think overrides what the individual wants, you can find yourself bored in a bathing suit without any desire to swim. Or spending hours examining frescoes when you’d rather be shopping, eating, strolling through the city — anything else, really.
To make sure your next group outing is a positive experience, consider these five psychology tricks before hopping on the figurative (or literal) bus.
Don’t keep it in the family
According to the family systems theory proposed by Murray Bowen in 1966, there are principle roles played out across all families: individuals may assume the role of caretaker or the family scapegoat; the lost child — outcast, if you will; the clown; the hero or golden child; and the mastermind (a manipulator).
In the families in which we grow up, we don’t often get much choice as to who we want to be, and no system is particularly pleasant. It’s almost too easy to slip back into those roles when we’re with our families — and groups, even of total strangers, can mimic these dynamics with almost frightening ease. This can unconsciously dictate how we interact with our fellow tour members.
Be aware that people tend to revert back to their roles in their family of origin. That awareness or insight can help you avoid the pitfall of assuming your former role as the family jokester or the group “mom.” It can also help you identify the roles of others in the group and predict how they may react (or interact with you).
We all fall into habits, guided by old emotions, and tend to respond or be guided by the past. But if we observe ourselves and others and take a logical approach using cognition, we do not have to regress to earlier unpleasant roles we took on in our families just because, somehow, they seem familiar now.
Establish a goal
Stay focused on the group’s primary goal. If it’s not clear, chat with your guide and ask him or her to clearly establish a goal with all members of the group. Once a goal is established by the group — see as many things as possible, relax and move at a leisurely pace, get back in time for dinner — and agreed upon, be conscientious about personally assisting in the group’s efforts to reach that goal.
According to a 2017 article by J. Lukas Thürmer, Frank Wieber and Peter M. Gollwitzer published in Frontiers in Psychology, “by identifying as a group member, one self-regulates in the service of a group…” therefore helping the group pursue and achieve a collective goal. Identifying and collectively striving for a singular goal can improve group performance. Therefore, after making sure the group is united with a shared objective, members can work together for the best possible outcome.
Thürmer, Wieber and Gollwitzer also noted that “research on conflict resolution shows that positively interdependent goals lead to cooperative interaction, such as helping and talking to each other.” Ultimately, steering the group to agree to a goal can, in addition to keeping your vacation on track, help the group avoid disputes.
Learn to cope
The Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA published a list of coping strategies that includes seeking support, problem solving, relaxation, humor and adjusting expectations. Although the Institute notes these strategies are designed for dealing with crises, they can easily apply to hostile group situations as well. The variety of strategies provides you with versatility — and all demand your active participation.
For example, you can attempt to make allies within the group who share similar sentiments or opinions, thereby improving the likelihood that your desires will be heard and acted upon. You can try to defuse a toxic conflict with a solid joke, or modify your expectations of the experience. Sure, maybe it’s not what you hoped for, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad. If your fellow travelers are moving at a snail’s pace, for example, accept that you’re being tasked with taking a more leisurely version of the itinerary and try to relax — it could very well be a good thing, at the end of the day, if you simply choose to see it as such.
Try to be helpful
Similarly, Irving Yalom, one of the godfathers of group psychotherapy, developed what he called “Eleven Therapeutic Factors” that can be applied to group trips, too. Though there’s some overlap with the Semel Institute’s coping strategies, there are a few tricks that can be especially helpful on unpleasant group trips.
Among them? Altruism. If you see someone struggling to keep up and they’re slowing the group down, for example, don’t roll your eyes. Instead, offer to carry a bag or reduce your own speed and start a conversation with them. You may help the entire group or, at least, you can know you did the right thing. And if the group leader is struggling to keep order, step up and try to wrangle your fellow travelers. Whether or not you’re successful, you’ll feel good about your efforts.
Yalom also put emphasis on the power of hope. Yes, it’s corny, but consider this. In addition to making you feel more optimistic about the tour’s outcome (with enough concentration), being vocal about your hopes for the experience from the beginning can help get all members of the group aligned. In therapy, simply putting faith in the treatment is “significantly correlated with a positive therapy outcome,” Yalom wrote.
If you’ve been roped into a group experience, don’t go in expecting a massive failure. Instead, discuss outright your “positive expectations” to increase your fellow group members’ “belief and confidence in the efficacy of the group mode.”
All of these strategies and tactics can be of enormous help as you plan and experience tours and other group activities. You might even discover that being in a group is better than being on your own.
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