When good people do bad things in groups


Mob MentalityThe headline is taken from a piece on Science Daily on a study about how groups change personal behaviour and morality. The study is reported on the MIT website. I’ve seen that change myself, many times over the years, and most recently locally. The study adds intelligence on the neurology of how such group activity changed people.

The report itself is called “Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm,” which of course would have most people’s eyes glazing over. But the authors of the report start by asking a salient question:

Why do interactions become more hostile when social relations shift from “me versus you” to “us versus them”? 

Why, indeed? Why do people who seem rational and even friendly individually become angry bullies in a group?The authors themselves offer a hypothesis:

One possibility is that acting with a group can reduce spontaneous self-referential processing in the moral domain and, in turn, facilitate competitor harm. We tested this hypothesis in an fMRI experiment in which (i) participants performed a competitive task once alone and once with a group; (ii) spontaneous self-referential processing during competition was indexed unobtrusively by activation in an independently localized region of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) associated with self-reference; and (iii) we assessed participants’ willingness to harm competitors versus teammates. As predicted, participants who showed reduced mPFC activation in response to descriptions of their own moral behaviors while competing in a group were more willing to harm competitors. These results suggest that intergroup competition (above and beyond inter-personal competition) can reduce self-referential processing of moral information, enabling harmful behaviors towards members of a competitive group.

That’s fairly technical and likely not eyebrow-raising for us non-techies. Is this relevant to you and me, to our neighbours and friends and our daily lives? Yes, and very much so.

It means that our personal moral compass may not work, may be disabled when we interact in groups that identify an us-them dichotomy, or see outsiders as competitors. It explains why groups can become uncivil, nasty, aggressive, even violent although their individual members may not be.

It also suggests that to break away from group dominance, one needs to become introspective about our own values and ethics, and one must work hard to recover that moral compass.

We only need read the stories of the brave but estranged family members the late Fred Phelps, leader of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church, who broke away from his control. Twenty-three-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper broke from the church recently, and spoke to the Topeka Capital-Journal about his decision:

Empathy and unconditional love, he said, are the keys to solving the world’s problems — a lesson he has learned contrasting his time inside the WBC compound and the past nearly 11 weeks outside it.
“I feel like I have unconditional love for every person around the world,” Phelps-Roper said Friday. “The Westboro Baptist Church sees things differently than I do now.”
The church he grew up in was too busy pointing out problems to look for solutions, he said. He has been able to spend the past two months investigating the second part of that equation.
His conclusion: “Most problems come from a lack of understanding of how we affect other people and things around us. I feel like I have found the holy grail, the overarching solution to solving all of our society’s problems, and I want to learn more. I want to do more.”

What is interesting to me is that Zach, although he broke from the abusive church and its leader, and rediscovered his own moral compass, he also retains considerable religious faith – even a fundamentalist view I would have expected him to abandon. So one can break free of a group’s dominance yet retain shared core beliefs., just behave differently – more normally, more civilly.

That was eye-opening. It certainly isn’t the experience of all Westboro members who have freed themselves of its grip (read this piece about another family member’s struggle; Libby Phelps-Alvarez), although most have said in the interviews I’ve read they are kinder, gentler, more empathetic and humane since leaving the church. I expect most people who break free of any group’s control feel that way.

Rebecca Saxe, one of the MIT study’s authors and associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT, said this in an interview on Science Daily:

“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. 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.”

The MIT story about the study tells us:

Several factors play into this transformation. 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.

We’ve all seen herd mentality at work in everything from work to recreation to politics.

The herd becomes a mob when it engages in something negative or destructive, but it seems too often an easy and rapid transformation. Think of a crowd at a soccer match or hockey game. Think of the post-game riots that have occurred when a team loses.

Who can forget the images of looters in Vancouver and in England, mobs stoning women to death in Pakistan, protests at the G8 meeting, flag- and book-burning mobs, and other events in the news?

I personally recall watching mobs of invective-spewing white people in the USA raging against desegregation in the 1950s and 60s, and images of riots in Chicago in 1968. We have all read or seen news reports about violent mobs rampaging in many nations today – Uganda, South Africa, India, Egypt, Spain, Mexico and so many other places. People doing bad things to one another – to those they see as “others” – they would not likely do personally one-on-one, often violent and brutal things.

But it’s not something new: mobs have rampaged throughout history. Examples of mob mentality overwhelming individual moral values include the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, the Salem Witch hunts, the Holocaust, the Red Scare, the anti-Civil Rights riots and lynchings, the Sand Creek Massacre – too many to list.

Why do good, ordinary people become killers when they are in a group? Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem called it the “banality of evil.” She wrote that it was the group  – the Nazis – that created the new normality that made evil commonplace and acceptable:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

LemmingsIt didn’t take an army, just a few to set the standards, and the rest followed. A study at Leeds University showed that a very small number of people can easily manipulate the behaviour of the herd:

The published results showed that it only takes 5% of what the scientists called “informed individuals” to influence the direction of a crowd of around 200 people. The remaining 95% follow without even realizing it.
“There are strong parallels with animal grouping behavior,” says Prof Krause, who reported his study with John Dyer in the Animal Behavior Journal. “We’ve all been in situations where we get swept along by the crowd but what’s interesting about this research is that our participants ended up making a consensus decision despite the fact that they weren’t allowed to talk or gesture to one another… In most cases the participants didn’t realize they were being led by others.”

This also explains how cult leaders are able to control their followers. The MIT story adds,

Saxe and colleagues recently studied a third factor that cognitive scientists believe may be involved in this group dynamic: the hypothesis that when people are in groups, they “lose touch” with their own morals and beliefs, and become more likely to do things that they would normally believe are wrong.

Mina Cikara, lead author of the report, adds

“Groups also promote anonymity, diminish personal responsibility, and encourage reframing harmful actions as ‘necessary for the greater good.’”

A psychology course at South University notes the widespread awareness of the effects of groups on individual ethics and behavior:

When people are part of a group, they often experience deindividuation, or a loss of self-awareness. When people deindividuate, they are less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions and more likely to lose their sense of individual identity. Groups can generate a sense of emotional excitement, which can lead to the provocation of behaviors that a person would not typically engage in if alone… researchers have found that certain situations and personality characteristics play a role… The greater individuals feel like they identify with a group, the greater the pressures for them to conform and deindividuate become.

Deindividualization is  the loss of self-awareness in groups, which leads to disinhibited behaviour; an “individual having a reduced capacity to edit or manage their immediate impulsive response to a situation.” The de-individualization that occurs in crowds and groups is well known and well-documented. It’s been described in psychological journals since at least 1952, but crowd study itself is much older.

In his 1908 book, The Crowd: A study of the Popular Mind, Gustave Le Bon wrote:

“…by the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd he is a barbarian – a creature acting by instinct… an individual immersed for some length of time in a crowd soon finds himself – either in consequence of magnetic influence given out by the crowd or from some other cause of which we are ignorant – in a special state, which much resembles the state of fascination in which the hypnotized individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotizer.”

Similarly, in 1920, psychologist William McDougall wrote in his book, The Group Mind:

“…(the crowd is) excessively emotional, impulsive, violent, fickle, inconsistent, irresolute and extreme in action, displaying only the coarser emotions and the less refined sentiments; extremely suggestible, careless in deliberation, hasty in judgment, incapable of any but the simpler and imperfect forms of reasoning, easily swayed and led, lacking in self-consciousness, devoid of self-respect and of a sense of responsibility, and apt to be carried away by the consciousness of its own force, so that it tends to produce all the manifestations we have learnt to expect of any irresponsible and absolute power…”

An article on crowd behavior on How Stuff Works opens with:

A lot of research has been conducted into the mindset of a violent mob. Being part of a group can destroy people’s inhibitions, making them do things they’d never otherwise do. They lose their individual values and principles and adopt the group’s principles, which, during a riot, are usually to cause destruction and avoid detection. This standard can seem to be a just and righteous one, since the mobs assembled after an act of perceived inequality or unfairness, and the communal emotion can make the cause seem even more important. Being in the midst of a mob can be exciting and powerful, and it can make people feel invisible — they are part of a huge group, and they won’t be detected or held responsible for their actions.

The other thing that comes into play in understanding crowd behaviour is normative pressure or normative social influence. Wikipedia defines this as “the influence of other people that leads us to conform in order to be liked and accepted by them.”

Normative social influence’s power stems from the human identity as a social creature, with a need for companionship and association. This fact often leads to people exhibiting public compliance—but not necessarily private acceptance—of the group’s social norms in order to be accepted by the group.

Normative conformity joins informational conformity in psychological studies of group behaviour. These are summarized as (emphasis added):

…social conformity is a type of social influence that results in a change of behavior or belief in order to fit in with a group. The two types of social conformity are normative conformity and informational conformity. Normative conformity occurs because of the desire to be liked and accepted. Peer pressure is a classic example of normative conformity. On the other hand, informational conformity occurs because of the desire to be correct. It typically happens because we assume that others know something that we don’t. Social conformity is different from obedience, although they are both very powerful. Where social conformity is a response to a group, obedience is a response to authority. People typically obey commands out of fear or out of a desire to appear cooperative.

The results of the MIT study are not actually new – they’ve been hypothesized and written about many times in the past; the study just adds another dimension to our understanding of why good people do bad things when they are part of a group.

Perhaps what is new – and most disturbing – about this study is that it found the people in the group who behaved badly could not clearly remember any moral statements about themselves they had been fed earlier, suggesting that group conformity selectively closes out any conflicting ideas and makes them forgettable – resolving the cognitive dissonance such bad behaviour creates. They forget they were good:

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 says.