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The Individual Moral Code Breaks Down When in Groups

moralAccording to a new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, individuals who belong to a group are more likely to compromise their moral standards and engage in out-of-character behavior compared to when they are alone.[1] There are several reasons for this.1 When individuals are part of a group, they feel more anonymous and less likely to be caught or punished for wrongdoing.1 Also, their sense of personal responsibility for collective actions is compromised.1 In this study, researchers investigated a third reason why this phenomenon occurs: When people are in groups, they may “lose touch” with their own morals and beliefs.1

“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, PhD, 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.”1

For the study, researchers analyzed activity in the medial prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain involved in thinking about oneself.1 They found that for some, this activity was reduced when the participants took part in a group competition, compared to when they competed as individuals.1 Those with reduced activity were more likely to harm their competitors than those who did not exhibit this decreased brain activity.1

“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,’” said lead author Mina Cikara, PhD. “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.’”1

[1] Pedersen, T. (2014). Individual Moral Code Breaks Down in Group Setting. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 13, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/06/13/individual-moral-code-breaks-down-in-group-setting/71167.html

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