How Far Will You Go to Feel Part of a Group?

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One of the myriad ways humans have ended up in the shitty situation we currently find ourselves in (fighting about whether men are toxic or not, blowing people up because a god told you to, shutting down the government because of an attack on the US’s Southern border that doesn’t exist) is because we are desperate to belong to a group and to shun others from the group. Us versus them. “We” are upstanding civilized Americans, and “they” hate our superior way of life. You get the idea.

A lot of psychological research has explored just how far we will go to be part of a group, like whether we will lie or cheat or steal or simply change our opinions based upon what our supposed peers are doing. But a recent study really took it to the next level and guys, if this one survives replication (which as we know, almost half of all psychological science does not), evolution really has a lot to answer for. Like, we are at least in the top three smartest species on the planet and yet at times we are just so, so stupid.

Scientists and philosophers have wondered for awhile now why we decide to go along with “social norms,” with the common sense answer being “because they’re good for us”. That could mean they’re good for us because the action itself is good, like, say, washing your hands after using the bathroom, or it could mean that even if the action doesn’t do much, there’s a benefit because if you don’t do it other people will think less of you or punish you, like for instance saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes.

But by using the scientific method, we often find that “common sense” answers are actually wrong. And so some researchers decided to test whether or not people would follow social norms even if those norms had zero benefit — not just silly, useless norms but norms that other people wouldn’t even know the subjects were following. Like saying “God bless you” to yourself after you sneeze in an empty room.

To test that, they needed to give their subjects a new social group to be a part of and then come up with a new social norm and have it have absolutely zero consequences. They recruited subjects online so none of them would ever meet, and gave them personality tests so that they could then be sorted into five personality types. So that was step one: their new social group was people who had their same “personality type” as well as their gender and age.

Now for the norm: the researchers asked the subjects to consider an ethical dilemma, like whether to hire someone who is very well qualified for a job or hire a friend.

The researchers then lied to the subjects, telling them that there were previous studies and that the previous subjects in their “social group” had been randomly assigned to consider hiring the friend. To be clear, they told them it was random, and that the previous subjects (who didn’t exist) were only told to consider one of the options, not to actually choose it.

Despite how ridiculously weak that is, people were significantly more likely to choose the option that they were told others in their social group were told to consider. Even though they would never meet anyone in that social group, even though choosing either option would have zero effect on their lives, and even though the other members of their social group had only considered that option, subjects still tended to pick that option. It held true whether it was to hire the friend or to hire the qualified person, and it held true for other ethical dilemmas.

That’s how incredibly stupid and easily manipulated humans are. We are. You and me.

The researchers worked hard to make sure this was a valid result, by the way — they switched up the wording, they kicked out subjects who didn’t understand the test, they used a control group of subjects told that the previous subjects had been asked a different ethical dilemma — this seems like it’s a real effect. And so the takeaway seems to be that we want to be a part of a group simply because being part of a group is beneficial for us. It’s not the things the group is doing that we necessarily benefit from, it’s the group itself.

So anyway on a completely unrelated note, people who watch and enjoy my videos tend to head over to and become a patron. No reason why, they just do it. So if you’re a person who watches and enjoys my videos, that seems like a good group to be a part of. Just saying.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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