I’ve written a few times previously about the psychology of leadership, and in particular the in-group/out-group aspects of it. There have been numerous examples and studies over the years about how leadership does tend to rely on identifying yourself with those you wish to lead, and then promoting and supporting that group to which you now belong.
Indeed, there have been many examples of organizations using rivalries with competitors to help forge such a close bond between employees. The creation of a clearly defined enemy (the out-group) allows for a much easier path to create an in-group.
Whilst that can have many advantages, it isn’t all plain sailing. Innovation, for instance, can often fall at the first hurdle if the person/s proposing the innovation are not perceived as part of the in-group. There are also various ethical concerns with tightly formed groups.
A recent study highlighted just how pernicious this can be. It suggests that when we are in a group, we’re much more likely to become disconnected from our personal moral beliefs and get swept along by groupthink. The researchers suggest that this often occurs both because we feel more anonymous inside a group, and that as a result, we’re less likely to get caught out acting badly.
The researchers wanted to explore whether an additional factor played a part however. They specifically wanted to gauge if being in a group was enough to send our moral compass astray. First of all, they analyzed the morality of participants by asking them to complete a questionnaire.
The participants were then placed inside a brain scanner, from within which they took part in a game. They played the game twice, firstly as part of a team, and then on their own. When they played as individuals, the brain scanner would primarily pick up activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the area usually associated with thinking about ourselves.
When participants played as part of a team however, this area fired much less intensely, suggesting a lesser association with their personal morals and greater identification with those of the group. This finding was further tested in a second study, which found that group membership was enough to make members more likely to want to harm those in the out-group.
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.”