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By Chuck Thompson | Excerpted from the December 2014 Socionomist


Socionomists have long been interested in how individuals make decisions while under the influence of a group. In The Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior, Robert Prechter explains that investors herd, which leads to poor choices and financial losses.

In this brief article, socionomist Chuck Thompson explores another effect of group membership – a loss of individual ethics.

Since at least 1841, when Charles Mackay wrote Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, people have wondered why joining a group can make people forget the responsible behaviors their mothers taught them.

A recent neurological study conducted by Dr. Mina Cikara, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and three other researchers (see sidebar) sheds some light on how “Otherwise decent individuals can be swept up into ‘mobs’ that commit looting, vandalism, even physical brutality.”1

Socionomists have long been interested in how the brain regulates decision-making under group influence. In his 1999 book, The Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior, Robert Prechter noted that impulses from the brain’s limbic system,

… impel a desire among individuals to seek signals from others in matters of knowledge and behavior and therefore to align their feelings and convictions with those of the group. … In a realm such as investing, where so few are knowledgeable … the tendency toward dependence is pervasive.2

Prechter makes the case that investors herd, leading to poor choices and financial losses.

And, just as people act on feelings and convictions instead of their rational judgment when investing, they may do the same in their ethical decisions when they belong to a group. The authors found that “interactions become more hostile when social relations shift from ‘me versus you’ to ‘us versus them’.”

Cikara’s interest in group influence arose after attending a baseball game in Yankee Stadium, where she and her husband were ridiculed because he wore a Red Sox cap. Cikara then put the cap on herself, hoping that as a woman she would be a “lesser target.” But the opposite happened: “I have never been called names like that in my entire life. … I had gone from being an individual to being seen as a member of ‘Red Sox Nation.’”3

When groups compete, members’ tendency to think for themselves can become replaced by an overwhelming desire to express loyalty to the group, which in turn can morph into hostility toward members of other groups. The researchers cited three common explanations for the behavior:

  1. It serves the greater good of the group;
  1. Groups provide individuals anonymity that reduces a sense of personal accountability; and
  1. Acting in a group causes people to lose touch with their moral standards of right and wrong.

Regarding the third explanation, some researchers have proposed that acting in a group facilitates a loss of self-awareness. To test this hypothesis, Cikara and her colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of study participants. They focused on “self-referential processing,” which happens in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) of the brain. They said that dozens of studies have shown this region of the brain is engaged when people access self-knowledge or reflect on their own personality traits, mental states, or physical characteristics.

Their hypothesis was that when individuals act in a group, they experience less self-referential processing in regard to personal morals, which would show up on fMRI scans as reduced mPFC activity.

Before study participants came into the lab, the researchers asked them to go online and rate the accuracy of statements involving their Internet communication (examples: “I never look at friends’ Twitter feeds,” “I have more than 600 Facebook friends”), and statements involving moral behaviors (examples: “I always apologize after bumping into someone,” “I have stolen food from shared refrigerators”).

Two weeks later, these same participants took part in a study that ostensibly investigated sensitivity to online communication. They sat in an fMRI machine and were shown statements about online communication and moral behavior. They were told they were taking part in a competition which required them to press a button as quickly as possible when statements related to online communication appeared on the screen. Subjects competed in two runs of the competition: once competing as part of a group and once competing alone. All competitors were given financial incentives to score well. The participants were randomly assigned to two groups, but to build group cohesion, the researchers told them that they were assigned to a particular group based on personality characteristics, which were determined by their responses to a set of five personality questions:

We also showed participants a social network diagram illustrating that they were much more similar to their teammates, and that the competing players were much more similar to one another, than the groups were to each other (increased group cohesion increases intergroup bias).

The researchers actually had no interest in the results of the competition itself. Instead, they wanted to compare the mPFC activity in subjects when they read moral statements about themselves when competing as an individual versus when they competed as a member of a group. The researchers discovered that when competing in a group, some participants showed a decreased level of mPFC activity when reading moral statements about themselves—indicating that these participants had lost touch with their moral selves while acting as members of a competitive group.

During the next phase of the study, participants were asked to choose a photograph for two in-group members as well as two out-group members for release to the public. For each person, there were six potential photographs ranked on a scale from very flattering to very unflattering. The rankings had been determined in an independent pre-test and were not shared with participants.

Participants who were more likely to choose less-flattering photographs for out-group members were the same participants whose mPFCs were less active when they read moral statements about themselves during the group competition. They chose less-flattering photographs even though their photo choices had no bearing on the outcome of the competition or their group’s financial reward. These individuals also had a harder time remembering moral statements they had heard during the competition.3

The researchers concluded:

[For] some but not all individuals, competing in a group is associated with reduced mPFC response to self-relevant moral stimuli, and this reduction is associated with a greater propensity to harm competitors.

Regarding these individuals’ greater propensity to do harm, the researchers 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.” Groups dynamically shape our perceptions, emotions, motivations, and behaviors.

These findings are important for socionomists. For example, a researcher may take results from studies on isolated individuals in a lab and try to extrapolate those results to society as a whole. But as Robert Prechter points out, being part of a crowd changes people, who then operate on a more primitive level. As a result,

… the sum of people’s shared impulses overwhelms the power of logical yet often conflicting entreaties from various individuals. Indeed, those conflicts themselves provide an excuse for people to abandon the hard work of reason and succumb easily to commandeering by the basal ganglia and the limbic system. Regardless of the divergent thoughts and actions of any individual, then, the crowd will follow its characteristic patterns of behavior.4

Thus, the design of the study conducted by Cikara and her colleagues is noteworthy because they found a way to conduct an experiment with individuals in a lab while taking into account the role of group influence. Their research provides important insight into the workings of individual minds in group settings. It also confirms socionomists’ long-held assumptions about the overriding influence of the crowd dynamic. As Robert Prechter has observed, our brains are designed to “participate” in crowds. This unconscious participation is not random but patterned, which means that to a degree it is predictable. Thus, individuals must be aware of how the mind works in crowd settings if they hope to gain an edge over the crowd dynamic. “The [Elliott] Wave Principle is a description of the emotional crowd dynamic,” says EWI’s Pete Kendall, “and therein lies its value.”5, 6

Citations:

1Cikara, M., Jenkins, A.C., Dufour, N., & Saxe, R. (2014). Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm. NeuroImage, 96, 36-43.

2Prechter, R. (1999). The Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior (p. 152). Gainesville, GA: New Classics Library.

3Trafton, A. (2014, June 12). When good people do bad things. MIT News. Retrieved from http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/when-good-people-do-bad-things-0612

4Prechter, p. 160.

5In depth with Robert R. Prechter, Jr., as published in the newsletter of the Market Technicians Association. Interview conducted October 5, 2007. (2008, January). The Elliott Wave Theorist.

6Kendall, P. (1996, August). Cultural trends: An observation on manias. The Elliott Wave Theorist.

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