Picking Teams on the Playground: A review of Hitti et al. (2013)

Hitti, A., Mulvey, K.L., Rutland, A., Abrams, D. & Killen, M. (2013). When is it okay to exclude a member of the ingroup? Children’s and adolescents’ social reasoning. Social Development. doi: 10.1111/sode.12047

teamspickingWhen I was a child, at school in the UK, we used to pick teams on the playground. Allan Ahlberg reflects on this in his poem Picking Teams, published in Please, Mrs. Butler:



When we pick teams in the playground,
Whatever the game might be,
There’s always somebody left till last
And usually it’s me.
I stand there looking hopeful
And tapping myself on the chest,
But the captains pick the others first,
Starting, of course, with the best.

Maybe if teams were sometimes picked
Starting with the worst,
Once in his life a boy / girl like me
Could end up being first!


Social exclusion and rejection are typically labeled in school policy as a form of bullying, and picking teams in this way is less popular than it used to be, because it  could exacerbate problems surrounding social exclusion (e.g., Sleap & Wormald, 2006). The emphasis in anti-bullying policy advice is on inclusion. Yet, might there be occasions when children consider it better in the long-run to exclude a child (and when adults might agree with them)? As a case in point, consider that school exclusion is one of the more popular methods of dealing with bullying, as I discussed in this blog post.

The above question is the one considered by Hitti and her colleagues (2013). They tested 381 children between the ages of 9-13 years, finding that the acceptability of social exclusion from a peer group, following rule breaking  decreased with age, but, interestingly, also changed according to the rule that was broken. Where the rule concerned dress code, exclusion was viewed as much less acceptable than when they had allocated money between groups unequally, and broken a “fairness” rule. The authors claim that no research has yet looked at when children think exclusion might be legitimate.

The specific claim here then, is that the type of rule, or group norm, that is being violated matters. And for some rules, exclusion is OK. Let’s look in a bit more depth at how they arrived at that conclusion. This was an interview study for nine year-olds, and a survey study for 13 year-olds. Participants were shown a group of eight children of the same gender and asked to choose a group symbol and, from a list of activities, the kind of things that they get up to together. They were told about the groups’ norm, ‘Your group does x’ ‘The other group does Y’, and were given vignettes to read:

Dress Code Rule-Breaking

These are groups that are given special shirts that they wear to the school assembly.
 This way everybody knows which group people belong to. In the past, your group has
 worn their green and white club shirts. In the past the other group has not worn their red
 and black club shirts because they think it’s not ‘cool’. . . . Stephanie, who is also in your
 group, wants to be different from the other members of your club. She does not wear her
 green and white club shirt to the first big assembly of the year.

Money Allocation Rule-Breaking

The Student Council . . . [has] $100 to give out to the groups. . . . In the past, when your
 group has talked about it they have voted to give $50 to your own group and $50 to the
 other group. In the past, when the other group has talked about it they have voted to give
 $80 to their own group and $20 to your group. . . . Sally, who is also in your group, wants
 to be different from the other members of the club. She says that your group should get $80 and the other group should get $20. 

Following this, children were asked for reasons to justify the (il)legitimacy of exclusion of the ingroup deviant. To my mind, it is these findings that are the most interesting part of the research, as I’ll explain below.

So, what was it about the rule violation that led to the legitimacy judgments?  Participants were told that the ingroup deviant was excluded for (for example) distributing money equally, rather than in the ingroup’s favour, which was the group’s rule, – but what does this actually constitute, rule-wise? In other words, is the exclusion justified in terms of behaving out of sync with ingroup norms, or for behaving in line with the out group’s norms (because, in this case, it is the outgroup  that has a rule for equal distribution of money between groups)? Children’s reasoning makes reference to both possibilities:

‘She’s going against what the group wants.’

‘She’s acting like she’s in another group’

Research on the black sheep effect (e.g., Abrams, Rutland, & Cameron, 2003, Abrams et al., 2013)  tells us that ingroup members think deviants should be punished more severely than outgroup deviants, for the same crime: it is possible that behaving in line with outgroup members represents more of a threat, than simply not following the group rules (for example, by distributing all resources to a charitable cause, thereby following neither groups’ rules). This may be particularly threatening where children can choose to be in one group or another (and when there is mobility across group boundaries) – as opposed to groups which we don’t choose, like race.

A further potential avenue for exploration surrounds the initial instigation of the ingroup norm – which is said to come from the school, for shirt-wearing, and the result of an ingroup vote for money allocation (see the vignette above). Thus, the  child who deviates by not wearing the shirt is breaking a school norm – was it this, rather than the in group norm, that served as the  basis for the participants’ responses? Some participants mentioned this in explaining why the child shouldn’t have been excluded ‘he was doing what the school wanted’. The relative weight of peer group versus school norms is a current topic in this research area, with findings suggesting that peer group norms trump school norms…..(see Nesdale & Lawson, 2011). In the other instance, the deviant is going against a collective, democratic decision: what if this norm had instead also come from the school?

Further interesting questions remain. The participants are told that the in group deviant was present when the exclusion decision was made. This reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, wherein conferences are held among the schoolchildren about whether to send a child to Coventry. What is the effect of publicly versus quietly dismissing the in group deviant?  How does the deviant child  respond? Does the outgroup know of this exclusion? What do they make of it? Would they be more likely to accept this ingroup deviant into their fold? Would the children, given the option, suggest that this should be the case, rather than exclusion into the ether?

This research suggests that children aged 9-13 years perceive something different about appearance versus allocation rules. The best kind of research is fertile research, that asks more questions than it answers, and this is undoubtedly the case here.There is so much we still have to find out about children’s reasoning in groups.



Science (Careers) and Serendipity

One might be forgiven for thinking that science is a strange context in which to talk positively about serendipity. As Haslam and McGarty point out in their paper, ‘A 100 years of certitude’ (research) scientists spend a lot of time and effort explicitly trying to reduce the effect of chance on their results. The greater the role of chance in the result, the less significant it is. The less likely it then is to get published. And if a scientist doesn’t publish….they perish.

In spite of this, and as Haslam and McGarty argue, science is littered with examples of serendipitous findings. Ryan’s research into the glass cliff (now a major research program) started when a colleague put a newspaper article in her pigeon hole.  And research on the narrative of scientific discovery (e.g., Atkinson, Bachelor & Parsons, 1998) has shown that serendipity has a big part to play.

At the Research Careers Pathways Event earlier this week, run by Oxford Brookes University, serendipty was brought to the fore. Not so much in terms of research findings, but in the routes that the speakers had taken to get to their current job. The advice that seemed to come time and again was to say yes to opportunities: it might lead to being in the right place at the right time.

PFD1573Alice-Down-the-Rabbit-Hole-PostersReflecting on this, I was stunned at how reliant on chance my career thus far has been. By chance, an external examiner read my third year research project, and had  PhD funding he thought I could use to extend that work, into a novel area (that chanced to map into his research area). I was aiming for a career in teaching  the time. By the examiners’ of my project, I got to do that, too, albeit in a different context to the one I imagined….. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, I tumbled into two research areas that complemented each other, and findings that got curiouser and curiouser…..

By chance, I landed my previous post-doc position, when another candidate turned it down for a better offer. By chance, I had the most amazing Erasmus student to supervise during her PhD and have set up international research collaborations through collecting data with her.

My research focus, and research career certainly seem to have an element of serendipity about them, without which, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post, at this time, or at this desk. Maybe I just see my career as serendipity because that’s the attitude I take (see Wiseman, 2004) while so-called “unlucky researchers” don’t expect things to go well, or grasp at opportunities…. Or is to say that my research career has been serendipitous just a tautology? Is it true for all researchers? The event, at least,  suggests it’s not just me….

Twelve Days of (an Academic) Christmas

After the popular carol, and the passing of twelfth night this morning, I thought readers might like to see what an academic gets up to over the twelve days of Christmas…so here’s a peek at my Christmas break.

First Day of Christmas


Nativity at St. Columba’s URC

This year, I hosted Christmas for some of my family for the first time. My father joined me, and my brother (who was working in Durham over the holidays) drove himself down to Oxfordshire for the 24 hours’ or so leave he had. Nothing out of the ordinary happened: church, Christmas lunch, crackers, Queen’s speech…and I’m glad to report that my cooking didn’t poison anyone (although that might be largely down to my brother’s catering skills, rather than mine….) .

Second Day of Christmas

Waved good bye to my brother at doesn’t exist o’ clock this morning, for his drive back up to panto-land. The essays and exam scripts I have to mark are sitting menacingly in a corner of my living room….but my father’s still here, and it’s Christmas….spent the day crocheting, and watching DVDs.

Third Day of Christmas

Off to see some relatives in deepest Oxfordshire today. Had very lovely time by blissful log fire, playing games with three boys under twelve, and re-discovering my finger skateboarding capabilities. Essays and exam scripts are still in the corner, and still beckoning, but I’m resisting them for now. Besides, the Christmas decorations I borrowed need to come down, to go back home with my father.

Fourth Day of Christmas

teaAfter waving good bye to my father, and tidying the flat, and doing the laundry, to try and deafen the sound of the scripts, I finally give in to their wailing, and lug some to the nearest coffee shop. Mark some stunning third year essays. Maybe marking isn’t so bad after all.

Fifth Day of Christmas



Church today. Then off to a coffee shop to mark the remaining third year essays. Not bad at all. Go for a swim, get home, and write up the mark sheets for them, ready for printing, and settle down to crochet and hot chocolate. The exam scripts (due in four days’ time) can wait.

Sixth Day of Christmas

Realize that New Year’s eve is tomorrow, and I don’t have a dress to wear for a 1920’s themed party I’ll be going to. Make a dash for the charity shops, and find an ideal dress for  under £10. Try it on, and realize it is see-through. Invest in slip. Together with accessories from a previous 1920’s party, am sorted.

Seventh Day of Christmas

Scripts due minus two days. Go for a swim. Do laundry. How long is it going to take me to mark them anyway? The longer I leave for them, the longer they’ll take right…? Maybe. Get them out, and start to go through them. Get about a third of the way through. Enough for today – time to go out and party.

Eighth Day of Christmas

Party was good stuff, so am too tired to mark anything this morning. Ring my mother to wish her a Happy New Year, and get into a conversation about how to use Google Drive. Explain to her that we use it at work to share protected spreadsheets with essay grades. In doing so, I realize I haven’t uploaded any of my grades. D’oh. On with that then.  And some more script marking. I see the end of the tunnel: all done :-).

Ninth Day of Christmas

Return to work today, to deliver exam and essay scripts (and get in some weight training into the bargain: they’re stupidly heavy), and do lots of itty-bitty tasks that need to be done before the start of term. It’s quiet in the Department, but office-mate has returned, and it’s good to see people again after the break.

Tenth Day of Christmas


Stole my brother’s (Robin Hood) sword backstage

A few months ago, I thought it would be a good idea to go to Durham for the day, to see my brother in panto’, as Robin Hood. So, at 4am this morning, I was on a train to Durham, writing a piece  for Developmental Forum  and having an email conversation with colleagues about where to send a rejected paper to next, as I travelled up the East coast. Fortunately, the journey was smooth, and I got to see the panto’, and my brother, and it was fab, and well worth the trip.

Eleventh Day of Christmas


Meal in George and Dragon, Long Hanborough

Pretty tired today, having gotten in at midnight. Remember at 3pm that I haven’t got a secret Santa gift four our District Guiders’ Christmas meal tonight (good to have something to look forward to after Christmas), so off to  the shops for that, and then get ready for meal. Given taxi will get us there and back, I wear shoes I can *just about* walk (read: stand up) in, and pray that I won’t turn my ankle in so doing…. I didn’t, despite (modest) alcohol consumption, and meal was great.

Twelfth Day of Christmas

Quiet day today,sorting through ethics forms, and thinking about what needs to be done in the coming weeks before the students return.

Happy New Year !