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.



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