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How group membership can change our moral priorities

June 12, 2014
Courtesy of MIT
and World Science staff

When peo­ple get to­geth­er in groups, un­usu­al things can hap­pen—both good and bad. Groups cre­ate im­por­tant so­cial in­sti­tu­tions that a per­son could­n’t achieve alone, but there can be a darker side: be­long­ing to a group makes peo­ple more likely to harm oth­ers out­side the group.

Now, re­search­ers are pro­pos­ing based on brain stud­ies that this pro­cess some­times makes peo­ple lose tou­ch with their per­sonal mor­al­ity. 

“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, a cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­ent­ist at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nology. 

“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.”

Sev­er­al fac­tors play in­to this trans­forma­t­ion, she added. When peo­ple are in a group, they feel more anon­y­mous, and less likely to be caught do­ing some­thing wrong. They may al­so feel a di­min­ished sense of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity for col­lec­tive ac­tions.

Saxe and col­leagues al­so stud­ied wheth­er peo­ple in groups “lose tou­ch” with their own mor­als and be­liefs.

In a study that re­cently went on­line in the jour­nal Neu­roIm­age, the re­search­ers meas­ured brain ac­ti­vity in a part of the brain in­volved in think­ing about one­self, called the me­di­al pre­fron­tal cor­tex. They found that in some peo­ple, this ac­ti­vity was re­duced when the sub­jects com­pe­ted as part of a group, com­pared when they did so as in­di­vid­uals. Those peo­ple were found to be more likely to harm their com­peti­tors than those who didn’t show this lower 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 Mina Cikara, a form­er Mas­sa­chu­setts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy post­doc­tor­al re­search­er and lead au­thor of the pa­per.

Cikara, who is now at Car­ne­gie Mel­lon Uni­vers­ity, started the proj­ect af­ter ex­pe­ri­encing the con­se­quenc­es of a “mob men­tal­ity”: Dur­ing a vis­it to Yan­kee Sta­di­um, Yan­kees fans cease­lessly heck­led her hus­band 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,” Cikara said. “I was so wrong. I have nev­er been called names like that in my en­tire life.”

The har­ass­ment, which con­tin­ued through­out the trip back to Man­hat­tan, pro­voked 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 said. “Once you start feel­ing at­tacked on be­half of your group, how­ev­er ar­bi­trary, it changes your psy­chol­o­gy.”

The re­search­ers fo­cused on the me­di­al pre­fron­tal cor­tex be­cause when some­one is re­flect­ing on him­self or her­self, this part of the brain lights up in func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance im­ag­ing brain scans.

A cou­ple of weeks be­fore the study par­ti­ci­pants came in for the ex­pe­ri­ment, the re­search­ers sur­veyed each of them about their so­cial-me­dia habits, as well as their mor­al be­liefs and be­hav­ior. This al­lowed the re­search­ers to cre­ate in­di­vid­ualized state­ments for each sub­ject that were true for that per­son—for ex­am­ple, “I have stol­en food from shared re­frig­er­a­tor,” or “I al­ways apol­o­gize af­ter bump­ing in­to some­one.”

When the sub­jects ar­rived at the lab, their brains were scanned as they played a game once on their own and once as part of a team. The pur­pose of the game was to press a but­ton if they saw a state­ment re­lat­ed to so­cial me­dia, such as “I have more than 600 Face­book friends.”

The sub­jects al­so saw their per­sonalized mor­al state­ments mixed in with sen­tences about so­cial me­dia. Brain scans re­vealed that when sub­jects were play­ing for them­selves, the me­di­al pre­fron­tal cor­tex lit up much more when they read mor­al state­ments about them­selves than state­ments about oth­ers, con­sist­ent with pre­vi­ous find­ings. How­ev­er, dur­ing the team com­pe­ti­tion, some peo­ple showed a much smaller dif­fer­ence in me­di­al pre­fron­tal cor­tex ac­tiva­t­ion when they saw the mor­al state­ments about them­selves com­pared to those about oth­er peo­ple.

Those peo­ple al­so turned out to be much more likely to harm mem­bers of the com­pet­ing group dur­ing a task per­formed af­ter the game. Each sub­ject was asked to se­lect pho­tos that would ap­pear with the pub­lished stu­dy, from a set of four pho­tos apiece of two team­mates and two mem­bers of the op­pos­ing team. The sub­jects with sup­pressed me­di­al pre­fron­tal cor­tex ac­ti­vity chose the least flat­ter­ing pho­tos of the op­pos­ing team mem­bers, but not of their own team­mates.

“This is a nice way of us­ing neuroim­ag­ing to try to get in­sight in­to some­thing that be­hav­iorally has been really hard to ex­plore,” said Da­vid Rand, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy at Yale Uni­vers­ity who was not in­volved in the re­search. “It’s been hard to get a di­rect han­dle on the ex­tent to which peo­ple with­in a group are tap­ping in­to their own un­der­stand­ing of things ver­sus the group’s un­der­stand­ing.”

The re­search­ers al­so found that af­ter the game, peo­ple with re­duced me­di­al pre­fron­tal cor­tex ac­ti­vity had more dif­fi­cul­ty remem­bering the mor­al state­ments they had heard dur­ing the game. “If you need to en­code some­thing with re­gard to the self and that abil­ity is some­how un­der­mined when you’re com­pet­ing with a group, then you should have poor mem­o­ry as­so­ci­at­ed with that re­duc­tion in me­di­al pre­fron­tal cor­tex sig­nal, and that’s ex­actly what we see,” Cikara said.

Cikara hopes to fol­low up on these find­ings to in­ves­t­i­gate what makes some peo­ple more likely to be­come “lost” in a group than oth­ers. She is al­so in­ter­est­ed in stu­dying wheth­er peo­ple are slower to rec­og­nize them­selves or pick them­selves out of a pho­to line­up af­ter be­ing ab­sorbed in a group ac­ti­vity.


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When people get together in groups, unusual things can happen — both good and bad. Groups create important social institutions that a person couldn’t achieve alone, but there can be a darker side: belonging to a group makes people more likely to harm others outside the group. Now, researchers are proposing from brain studies that this process sometimes makes people lose touch with their personal morality. “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, a cognitive neuroscientist 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.” Several factors play into this transformation, she added. When people are in a group, they feel more anonymous, and less likely to be caught doing something wrong. They may also feel a diminished sense of personal responsibility for collective actions. Saxe and colleagues also studied whether people in groups “lose touch” with their own morals and beliefs. In a study that recently went online in the journal NeuroImage, the researchers measured brain activity in a part of the brain involved in thinking about oneself, called the medial prefrontal cortex. They found that in some people, this activity was reduced when the subjects participated in a competition as part of a group, compared with when they competed as individuals. Those people were found to be more likely to harm their competitors than people 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 Mina Cikara, a former MIT postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper. Cikara, who is now at Carnegie Mellon University, started the project after experiencing the consequences of a “mob mentality”: During a visit to Yankee Stadium, Yankees fans ceaselessly heckled her husband 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,” Cikara said. “I was so wrong. I have never been called names like that in my entire life.” The harassment, which continued throughout the trip back to Manhattan, provoked 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 said. “Once you start feeling attacked on behalf of your group, however arbitrary, it changes your psychology.” The researchers focused on the medial prefrontal cortex because when someone is reflecting on himself or herself, this part of the brain lights up in functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans. A couple of weeks before the study participants came in for the experiment, the researchers surveyed each of them about their social-media habits, as well as their moral beliefs and behavior. This allowed the researchers to create individualized statements for each subject that were true for that person — for example, “I have stolen food from shared refrigerators” or “I always apologize after bumping into someone.” When the subjects arrived at the lab, their brains were scanned as they played a game once on their own and once as part of a team. The purpose of the game was to press a button if they saw a statement related to social media, such as “I have more than 600 Facebook friends.” The subjects also saw their personalized moral statements mixed in with sentences about social media. Brain scans revealed that when subjects were playing for themselves, the medial prefrontal cortex lit up much more when they read moral statements about themselves than statements about others, consistent with previous findings. However, during the team competition, some people showed a much smaller difference in medial prefrontal cortex activation when they saw the moral statements about themselves compared to those about other people. Those people also turned out to be much more likely to harm members of the competing group during a task performed after the game. Each subject was asked to select photos that would appear with the published study, from a set of four photos apiece of two teammates and two members of the opposing team. The subjects with suppressed medial prefrontal cortex activity chose the least flattering photos of the opposing team members, but not of their own teammates. “This is a nice way of using neuroimaging to try to get insight into something that behaviorally has been really hard to explore,” said David Rand, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University who was not involved in the research. “It’s been hard to get a direct handle on the extent to which people within a group are tapping into their own understanding of things versus the group’s understanding.” The researchers also found that after the game, people with reduced medial prefrontal cortex activity had more difficulty remembering the moral statements they had heard during the game. “If you need to encode something with regard to the self and that ability is somehow undermined when you’re competing with a group, then you should have poor memory associated with that reduction in medial prefrontal cortex signal, and that’s exactly what we see,” Cikara said. Cikara hopes to follow up on these findings to investigate what makes some people more likely to become “lost” in a group than others. She is also interested in studying whether people are slower to recognize themselves or pick themselves out of a photo lineup after being absorbed in a group activity.