Why Pupil Forget Their Morals when They are Being in a Group

Monday, 23 June 2014 0 comments

When people are in a group they are more disconnected from their moral beliefs, according to new neuroscientific research.


When ‘me versus you’ becomes ‘us versus them’

Two reasons why people behave differently in groups are that:

1.they feel more anonymous,

2.and that they feel less likely to be caught behaving badly.

But Cikara and colleagues wanted to examine a further factor: whether people’s moral compass also goes awry when they are in a group.

They did this by asking a group of participants to answer question which gave an insight into their personal morality.

This enabled the researchers to create personalised statements for each of them, such as:

“I have stolen food from shared refrigerators.”

“I always apologize after bumping into someone.”

Participants then played a game while inside a brain scanner: once as part of a team and once on their own.

When people played on their own, and saw moral statements related to themselves, their brains showed more activity in a part of the medial prefrontal cortex — an area associated with thinking about the self.

This is normal, suggesting a strong identification with their own morals.

But, when some people playing in group saw moral statement about themselves, they reacted much less intensely, suggesting weaker identification with their own beliefs and moral ideals.

Forgotten morals

In a follow-up test, these people were also much more likely to try and harm members of the other group.

Not only that, but they even seemed to conveniently forget the moral statements they’d heard beforehand.

One of the study’s authors, Rebecca Saxe, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT, said:

“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.”
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