Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jun 23, 2015

There is less ‘I’ in teams

Image of circle of people reaching in to the center and joining hands

By Mina Cikara

Mina Cikara, Anna Jenkins, and Rebecca Saxe discuss their new research about how moral behavior changes when we’re part of a group. 

In the right circumstances – or perhaps we should call them the wrong circumstances – ordinary “good” people do extraordinarily “bad”things. Particularly potent examples occur when people are put into groups. 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. Mina had a first-hand brush with this phenomenon when she wore a Red Sox hat to a Sox/Yankees game at Yankee stadium.

There are many reasons why grouping people can promote bad behavior: for example, being in a group can make an individual feel more anonymous and less responsible for his or her actions, both of which promote aggression and selfishness. In a recent study (Cikara, Jenkins, Dufour, & Saxe, 2014), we tested a third mechanism by which being in a group could promote intergroup aggression: by diminishing the salience of one’s own personal moral standards.

For individuals acting alone, the current, on-line salience of personal moral standards is one predictor of moral behavior: for example, explicitly reflecting on their personal moral standards makes people subsequently less likely to cheat on a test, or even on their taxes (Mazar et al., 2008; Shu et al., 2012). Social psychologists have theorized that that acting in a group could distract from reflection about personal moral standards and personal identity, by focusing attention on the group’s norms and the group identity, which could facilitate aggression (e.g. Diener, 1979, Van Hiel et al., 2007).

However, this hypothesis is difficult to test, because it’s difficult to measure the immediate accessibility of personal standards of morality. In a recent experiment, we therefore tested this hypothesis using an online, unobtrusive measure of ongoing psychological processes: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We capitalized on the observation that a particular region of medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) has been associated consistently with thinking about the self. Across a variety of tasks, this mPFC region responds more when participants reflect on their own characteristics (Jenkins & Mitchell, 2011; Kelley et al., 2002) or process self-relevant information (Moran et al., 2009) than when they think about, or encounter information relevant to, others. Using an independent localizer to identify this region of mPFC, we then tested whether participants would exhibit less mPFC response to morally-relevant information about themselves when competing as part of a group than when competing as an individual, and, in turn, whether this reduction would predict harming members of the other group.

Our design had three key ingredients:

First, we constructed stimuli that evoked each participant’s own personal morality. Prior to their scanning sessions, participants rated the personal applicability of a large set of statements about moral behaviors (e.g. “I have never cheated on an exam”), enabling us to pre-select subsets that did, and did not, apply to each participant. As a non-moral control condition, we also included sentences that did, and did not, describe each participant’s social-communicative behaviors (e.g. “I check my email more than four times a day.”)

Second, we developed a competitive “game”that participants could play in the fMRI scanner, both alone (i.e. competing against other individuals for an individual bonus of $10) and as part of a group of ten players (i.e., competing against another 10-person group for a shared bonus of $100). We told our participants that they had been assigned to their group based on personality characteristics, and that the other members of their group were present, playing simultaneously, and seeing their mutual outcome during the game. To reinforce this impression, at the beginning of the “group”component, participants saw a video of images of the 9 other members of their group, ostensibly “logging into”the game. During the “game”, participants responded as quickly as possible to sentences about social-communicative behaviors (i.e., the control sentences), and did not respond to any other sentences they saw (i.e., the moral sentences). As a result, we were able to measure the response in each individual’smPFC while they were reading, but not responding to, sentences that did (versus those that did not) describe their own moral behaviors. In light of previous findings, we reasoned that magnitude of activity in mPFC for self-related moral sentences could serve as an index of participants incidentally encoding the self-relevance of these moral behaviors, and therefore as a measure of the salience of personal moral standards.

Third, we assessed people’s willingness to harm individuals from the competing group, even when the harm does not instrumentally serve the participant or their group. After the scanning session, we told participants that we were developing materials for subsequent publicity, and asked them to choose one photograph, from each of four arrays, for publication; two arrays depicted “players”from the participant’s own group, and two depicted players from from the competing group. The photographs in each array varied in how flattering they were (as rated by an independent set of participants), allowing us to quantify the degree to which participants were willing to harm others by publicizing their less flattering moments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants harmed competitors more than group-mates, by choosing less flattering photographs.

Consistent with our hypothesis, we found that participants who exhibited lower mPFC response to self-relevant (versus self-irrelevant) moral items while competing as part of a group selected less flattering photographs of competitors (versus group-mates). That is, reduced mPFC response to moral items was associated with greater willingness to harm competotirs. Notably, the relationship between mPFC activation and harm was specific to moral items; there was no relationship between competitor harm and mPFC response to the control sentences (self versus other social-communicative behaviors).

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.”It will be the task of future research to understand why certain individuals are more prone than others to “lose themselves”in intergroup competition. Also, as noted above, this process alone does not account for inter-group 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.”

Parts of this blog posts have been drawn from the following paper:

Cikara, M., Jenkins, A. C., Dufour, N., & Saxe, R. (2014). Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm. NeuroImage96, 36-43.

Starting this summer, Mina Cikara will be an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. Her primary line of research examines the conditions under which people and social groups are denied social value, agency, and empathy. She uses social psychological and cognitive neuroscience approaches to study how misunderstanding, failures of empathy, and pleasure at others’ misfortunes—Schadenfreude—unfold in the mind and brain. She tweets about psychology and neuroscience @profcikara and can be reached at

Adrianna (Anna) Jenkins received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Harvard University and is currently a postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley. She studies the processes carried out by the set of brain regions known collectively as the default network, with a particular emphasis on the function of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). One of her lines of research investigates the relationship between self-reflection and reflection on the minds of others. You can find her papers here and reach her at

Rebecca Saxe is an Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. She studies how the brain constructs abstract thoughts, including thoughts about thoughts. To learn more, check out her TED talk, or reach her at

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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