Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Thinking About the Actions of People and Groups

We judge individuals to act more morally than the groups they come from.

We often make generalizations about the behavior of groups of people. We might say that college students are prone to binge drink or that older people tend to go to sleep early.  Presumably, if you believe that a group acts in a particular way, then you should assume that the members of that group are representative of the group as a whole.  If you believe that 40% of college students binge drink, then if you select a college student at random, you should assume that he or she has a 40% chance of being a binge drinker.

An interesting paper by Clayton Critcher and David Dunning in the January, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that we actually think about specific members of groups differently than we think about the group as a whole.

In a series of studies, these researchers demonstrated that people assume specific group members act more morally and more based on their individual will than the group as a whole.

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In one study, for example, participants were told that researchers would be taking a poll of college students on a campus about whether they had engaged in a variety of behaviors.   Some of these behaviors had a strong moral or selfless component (like giving up a seat on a bus for an old person), while others were immoral or selfish (like not doing one’s share on a group project).  Participants making group predictions were asked what percentage of college students would respond that they had engaged in the behavior.  People making individual predictions were asked to think about a randomly selected student and were asked how likely it was that person engaged in these behaviors. 

For the moral/selfless behaviors, participants thinking about individuals rated that the person would be more likely to perform the behavior than those thinking about the group as a whole.  For the immoral/selfish behaviors there was no difference between those rating the individuals and those rating the group.

The researchers replicated this finding several times.  In one study, they took out the moral dimension and focused on individual will.  Some of the behaviors were ones that an individual would have to choose to do (like travel a long distance to see a favorite band perform), while others reflected a person acting along with social forces (like voting for the same political candidate as one’s parents).  Again, participants rated the likelihood of the behavior either for the individual or the group.

In this case, participants rated individuals as more likely than the group to perform a behavior when the behavior required individual will, but not when it reflected other social forces.

It seems that when we reason about individuals, we focus on elements that make individuals unique like their ability to initiate their own actions.  When we reason about groups, we focus on more general characteristics that drive many different people’s behavior.

This finding has interesting implications for our judgments of people’s guilt.  For example, if you think that individual people should be more moral than groups, then you might hold an individual highly responsible for his or her actions, even if their social group as a whole tends to perform the same behavior. 

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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