New Research Aims to Explain Unethical Group Behavior

Hands of riot policeGroups can help people feel more powerful and less isolated, making it easier to act on values shared by the group. While groups can be a powerful force for change—such as when a group works together on a volunteer project—groups can also spell disaster for group members and group outsiders. Mass suicides, ethnic cleansing, and the horrors of the Holocaust are just a few examples of the havoc wrought by groups.

Groupthink, a term coined by psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, is used to explain and categorize the seemingly irrational behavior of groups. New research aims to explain groupthink, and has found that groups can cause people to disconnect from their values.

The Trouble with Groups

Mina Cikara, the lead author of the study, first became interested in groupthink after experiencing some group harassment of her own. While visiting Yankee Stadium, both she and her husband were mercilessly harassed for wearing Red Sox hats. Cikara felt that she was being attacked as a member of a group, not an individual, and became curious about the ways group membership changes behavior. While the heckling Cikara experienced might seem relatively unimportant, this sort of groupthink can lead to much greater crimes—abuse, war, homicide, rape, and even mass suicide.

How Groupthink Works

Cikara and her team believe that joining a group can cause group members to lose touch with their own values. To test this hypothesis, researchers examined brain activity in a part of the medial prefrontal cortex associated with thinking about oneself by using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. The test group was then asked to participate in a competitive group activity. People who participated in the competition showed diminished brain activity in the brain area associated with thoughts about oneself. This group was also more likely to express aggression toward competitors.

The research team hypothesizes that groups cause people to think less about themselves, and therefore to lose touch with their own values. However, according to the researchers, this is only one piece of the groupthink puzzle. Cikara and her team point out that groups also promote anonymity, reduce personal responsibility, and enable people to frame unethical actions as necessary for the greater good of the group.


  1. Cikara, M., Jenkins, A., Dufour, N., & Saxe, R. (2014). Reduced self-referential neural response during inter-group competition predicts competitor harm. NeuroImage, 96, 36-43. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.03.080
  2. Trafton, A. (2014, June 12). When good people do bad things. Retrieved from

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  • lois


    June 18th, 2014 at 12:08 PM

    Do you find that a lot of this derives from the fact that often people find safety in numbers and they feel more inclined to harass others when they have others around them who are doing the exact same thing. They know that what they are doing is wrong but it is so easy to get up in the behaviior of others that it can almost become like a Pied Piper scenario. Peer pressure, no matter the age of the group, still works in mysterious and often very nasty ways.

  • Shayleen


    June 19th, 2014 at 1:47 PM

    This is so spot on. We have all been in situations where you feel that overwhelming desire to fit in and be a part of the crowd and then you end up doing things that you are going to regret being involved with. But I think that it is safe to say that we have all done it, and we have all felt guilt and remorse over it as a result. Being a part of a group can make you feel safe and comfortable and going against what the general consensus of the group is can be frightening to many people, especially to those who internally feel like they have a hard time making friends. They may struggle with saying no to something that they know is wrong all because they don’t want to lose these people that they have been able to form a relationship with.

  • Nana J

    Nana J

    June 25th, 2014 at 2:52 PM

    aaah I think that this is a little wrong in that you state that those who get involved in groups then have their self esteem torn down and made to feel devalued as a result of their involvement with the group. Do you think that it is possible that these are the people who are drawn to these groups to begin with? They already experience poor self esteem and are the perfect targets for groups looking to tear them down even more. There are those who are very susceptible to this behavior and fall into line very easily due to peer pressure and their need to conform.

  • lola o.

    lola o.

    July 19th, 2014 at 1:15 PM

    Wasn’t aware it even had a name but in small town America, if you have been illegally broadcast over local media as a nutcase, and you are not given recourse, you will never ever recover from it, whatever it’s called.

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