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Office of News & Public Affairs

BC, Northwestern Researchers Shed Light On
How People Assign Blame to Organizations


CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (December 2011) — Who gets the blame when a member of a group does something wrong—the individual or the group? The answer may depend on how cohesive the group is perceived to be.

Liane Young
Liane Young
Boston College

New findings from researchers at Boston College and Northwestern University show that the more cohesive a group appears—be it a corporation, political party, governmental entity, pro sports team or other organization—the more likely it is that people will hold its members less responsible for their own individual actions. The study, published in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science, sheds light on why people tend to address hostility toward large companies or other collectives, while still treating members of those groups as unique individuals.

The researchers—Liane Young, assistant professor of psychology at Boston College and Adam Waytz, assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University—suggest that the more people judge a group to have a “mind”—that is, the ability to think, intend or plan—the less they judge a member of that group to have his or her own capacity to think, intend or plan, and vice versa. The authors refer to this as the “trade off” in the way people view the group versus the way they view individuals in the group.

"We thought there might be certain cases where instead of attributing mind to individuals, people actually attribute mind to the group," said Young. "For instance, if you’re a Democrat, you might think that the Republican party has an agenda, a mind of its own, but that each individual Republican is just following the crowd, incapable of independent thought. That’s the trade-off we’re after, between group mind and member mind."

Similarly, a strong brand image, generally considered to be a corporate or organizational asset, could contribute to consumers' perception of single-mindedness, meaning the brand would be more likely to be held accountable for its employees' or members' actions.

Their study sought to investigate this idea of “group mind,” as well as the consequences of those attributions for both groups and their members. The relationship between "group mind" and "group-member mind" has been largely unexplored, the authors say, but it raises interesting questions about decision-making, blame and moral judgment.

"We think the topic of whether people think of groups as having minds has a number of implications for legal decisions, such as regarding conspiracy—a charge that requires collective intent, how people think about social movements and their members, as well as judgments of corporate personhood," added Waytz."When people consider corporations to be mindful entities, this gives them moral rights, such as the right to contribute to political campaigns as was granted to them by the Supreme Court last year, as well as legal responsibilities."

Predicting that an inverse relationship exists between attributions of group mind and member mind—the researchers conducted four experiments to test their theory.

The first established the premise that the more “mind” that people attribute to groups, the less “mind” they attribute to group members. The researchers asked participants to evaluate groups including specific corporations, professional sports teams and government entities on the extent to which each group has a mind of its own, the extent to which each average member of that group has a mind of his/her own, and the extent to which each group is cohesive. The results proved not only the original premise, but also that participants viewed cohesive groups as having particularly high group mind.

Given that group mind has critical implications for judgments of responsibility, the second experiment tested the consequences of assigning group mind by rating the extent to which groups are morally responsible for their collective actions, and the extent to which each group member is responsible for the collective actions of the group. As a result, when participants assigned a single mind to a group, they also assigned responsibility for that group’s collective actions to the group’s body of members.

The third experiment then tested the effect of perceived cohesiveness on assignment of group mind and responsibility, and found that groups perceived to be cohesive were assigned higher levels of both, and assigned low levels of individual minds within the group.

In the final experiment, Young and Waytz found that members of cohesive groups were not assigned individual responsibility for individual actions.

"In ongoing research, we are looking at intergroup conflict," said Young."For example, how do Republicans and Democrats actually think about the opposing party versus members of the opposing party?"

The study, “The Group-Member Mind Tradeoff: Attributing Mind to Groups Versus Group Members,” appears in the December 2011 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, and the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology. For a copy of the article, please contact Divya Menon at 202-293-9300 or dmenon@psychologicalscience.org.

--Patti Delaney is deputy director of the Office of News & Public Affairs; patricia.delaney@bc.edu.