Group can change your moral properties : Scientists found

  • July 01, 2014
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Group can change your moral properties : Scientists found


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.

Source : www.world-science.net

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