Individuals who belong to a group are more likely to compromise their moral standards and engage in behavior they would not typically do on their own, according to a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
This may happen for several reasons. When individuals are part of a group, they feel more anonymous, and less likely to be caught or punished for any wrongdoing. Their sense of personal responsibility for collective actions may also be compromised.
In this study, researchers investigated a third reason why this phenomenon occurs: Perhaps when people are in groups, they “lose touch” with their own morals and beliefs.
“Although humans exhibit strong preferences for equity and moral prohibitions against harm in many contexts, people’s priorities change when there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’” said Rebecca Saxe, Ph.D., an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT.
“A group of people will often engage in actions that are contrary to the private moral standards of each individual in that group, sweeping otherwise decent individuals into ‘mobs’ that commit looting, vandalism, even physical brutality.”
For the study, published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers analyzed activity in the medial prefrontal cortex — a part of the brain involved in thinking about oneself.
They found that, in some people, this activity was reduced when the participants took part in a group competition, compared to when they competed as individuals. Those with reduced activity were more likely to harm their competitors than those who did not exhibit this decreased brain activity.
“This process alone does not account for intergroup conflict: Groups also promote anonymity, diminish personal responsibility, and encourage reframing harmful actions as ‘necessary for the greater good.’ Still, these results suggest that at least in some cases, explicitly reflecting on one’s own personal moral standards may help to attenuate the influence of ‘mob mentality,’” said lead author Mina Cikara, Ph.D., a former MIT postdoc.
Cikara, now an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, began this research project after experiencing the “mob mentality.” During a visit to Yankee Stadium, her husband was ceaselessly heckled by Yankees fans for wearing a Red Sox cap.
“What I decided to do was take the hat from him, thinking I would be a lesser target by virtue of the fact that I was a woman,” she said. “I was so wrong. I have never been called names like that in my entire life.”
The experience triggered a strong reaction in Cikara, who isn’t even a Red Sox fan.
“It was a really amazing experience because what I realized was I had gone from being an individual to being seen as a member of ‘Red Sox Nation.’ And the way that people responded to me, and the way I felt myself responding back, had changed, by virtue of this visual cue — the baseball hat,” she says.
“Once you start feeling attacked on behalf of your group, however arbitrary, it changes your psychology.”
Cikara hopes to continue the research to find out what makes some people more likely to become “lost” in a group than others. She would also like to investigate whether people are slower to recognize themselves or pick themselves out of a photo lineup after being absorbed in a group activity.