Researchers warn being in a group leads to ‘mob rule’ and compromises moral beliefs

Being part of a group can have a major effect on your moral judgement, researchers have warned. They found belonging to a group makes people more likely to harm others outside the group. It is believed the finding could explain the so called ‘mob mentality’ of some violent gang behaviour and rioters, for instance.

‘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,’’ says Rebecca Saxe, 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.’

The researchers say 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, and lose touch with their moral 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. 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 more likely to harm their competitors than people who did not exhibit this decreased brain activity.

Mina Cikara, a former MIT postdoc and lead author of the NeuroImage paper, started the research project after her husband was ceaselessly heckled by Yankees fans for wearing a Red Sox cap at a baseball game.

‘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 says. ‘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 says.

‘Once you start feeling attacked on behalf of your group, however arbitrary, it changes your psychology.’ In the study, 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.

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