An investigation of the effect of a group learning experience on cognitive complexity

This study investigated the effects of group learning experiences on changes in cognitive complexity. Cognitive complexity is defined by Scott (1962) as the number of independent dimensions worth of concepts the individual brings to bear in describing a particular domain of phenomena. Bieri (1966) defined cognitive complexity as the degree to which a system of concepts differentiates or discriminates people. It has been postulated by Kelly (1955) that the concepts an individual has available for structuring his interpersonal relationships determines the kinds of responses which are possible for him. As part of this study a two page questionnaire was developed based on the work of Bieri, Scott, Kelly and Osgood to measure cognitive complexity. The questionnaire was administered to 71 subjects enrolled or about to be enrolled in upper division psychology courses at San Fernando Valley State College. A non-equivalent control group design with pre-test and post-test measures was used in this study to take advantage of indigenous group selection and setting. Two upper division college courses in sensitivity training were used as the experimental groups. There were three control groups. One control group was an upper division course in motivation taught by one of the sensitivity training leaders. A second control group was composed of persons waiting to take a sensitivity training course the next college term with the second sensitivity training leader. The third control group was an upper division course in behavioral disorders taught by an instructor not involved in sensitivity training. Sensitivity training has as a stated goal an increase in the participant's awareness of his own social stimulus value; the feelings, attitudes and perceptions of others toward him. It also aims towards increased awareness of one's own feelings and attitudes in interpersonal situations (Bennis, 1964). Harrison (1966) postulates that these goals imply that interpersonal concepts should change in the direction of greater complexity, greater abstractness, and greater depth. This study attempted to determine in objectively quantifiable terms how a sensitivity training experience differed from an academic learning experience or no formal learning experience in affecting cognitive complexity. The results of the study indicated that while there were large individual differences in cognitive complexity, no significant changes or differences in cognitive complexity was found in either the experimental or control groups. Several different possibilities for the lack of significant results are discussed. One of the explanations for the lack of significant differences could be that the subjects had a generally high level of cognitive complexity before the group experience. This seems plausible since the subject pool consisted of advanced students in psychology who previously had been exposed to broadening experiences. Some suggestions for further research in the area of sensitivity training are made with some selection procedures for screening sensitivity training candidates.