Joining a Group Makes Us Nastier to Outsiders

By Michal Bauer, Associate Professor of Economics, CERGE-EI and Charles University; Jana Cahlíková, Senior Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Tax Law and Public Finance; Dagmara Celik Katreniak, Assistant Professor, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow; Julie Chytilová, Associate Professor of Economics, Charles University; Researcher, CERGE-EI; Lubomír Cingl, Assistant Professor, University of Economics, Prague; and Tomáš Želinský, Associate Professor, Technical University of Košice. Originally published at VoxEU

The economic consensus is that groups behave in a more self-regarding way than individuals, which affects their members’ decision-making. This column describes new evidence from experiments in Slovakia and Uganda that supports an alternative hypothesis from social psychology that simply being a member of a group makes us more anti-social to outsiders. Within-group cohesion in organisations may also have a dark side, fostering hostility to outsiders.

Plato wrote about the limits of democracy, as did the founding fathers of the American constitution. More recently, social scientists have also worried about the dynamics of group decision-making, speculating that being part of a group may increase the motivation to harm outsiders and destroy social welfare. The causal effect of group membership on decision-making has been prominent on the research agenda in behavioural economics in the past 20 years, partly because so many political, military, and business decisions are made by groups rather than individuals.

Across many laboratory experiments, a pattern has emerged. Group decisions are less pro-social and cooperative than individual decisions. Groups are less willing to sacrifice their resources to increase social welfare, or to achieve a fair allocation. The consensus interpretation is that groups behave in a more self-regarding way. They are more likely to maximise a group payoff, and disregard the welfare of others (Charness and Sutter 2012, Kugler et al. 2012).

It is usually assumed that group members communicate among themselves, helping them to recognise a profit-maximising strategy. This interpretation suggests that group decisions can be modelled as more rational and less ‘behavioural’ than individual decisions, an important implication for economic theory.

Why Are Groups Less Cooperative Than Individuals?

Our recent paper (Bauer et al. 2018) uses an alternative explanation for the difference in cooperative behaviour of groups, compared to individuals. Social psychologists have a long-standing hypothesis that simply being a member of a group may inspire aggressively competitive anti-social behaviour (Durlauf 1999, Hewstone et al. 2002, Sambanis et al. 2012).

This hypothesis implies that groups do not cooperate less because they are self-regarding, but because they are more inclined to cause harm to outsiders – even at a cost to themselves. We define anti-social behaviour as non-strategic destructive behaviour that is costly for the decision maker, reduces welfare of others, and is not a response to inequality or a hostile behaviour of a counterpart. Experiments in previous research, including the Prisoners’ Dilemma game, Trust game, and Dictator game, were designed to measure the positive side of human social behaviour. They do not, however, distinguish whether a lack of willingness to cooperate or share has been caused by greater selfishness, or by this anti-social behaviour.

These distinctions matter if one wants to predict willingness to engage in self-destructive conflict:

  1. Being anti-social is very different from being self-regarding. Economic agents motivated purely by self-interest will destroy the resources of others only when they stand to gain. But there is much more scope for harming others if they also derive utility from relative status or feel pleasure from beating an opponent.
  2. It is also important to understand whether simply being placed into a group creates an ‘us versus them’ psychology that influences behaviour of group members, or whether the behavioural difference is an outcome of deliberation. If the mere fact of deciding in a group makes an individual more willing to cause harm, a broad range of situations may create an increased tendency to behave anti-socially.

Measuring Anti-Social Behaviour

Our experiments were conducted among large and diverse samples of adolescents in two very different settings – Uganda (N=1,679) and Slovakia (N=630) – using a comparable design. We compare the (anti-)social behaviour of individuals, and the team decision of groups made up of three randomly selected individuals.

The experiment is designed to distinguish self-regarding from anti-social motivations, and also to decompose the overall group effect into the effect of group decision-making, and the effect of the group context on individual behaviour.

To do so, we complement the prisoners’ dilemma game, a standard experiment to measure willingness to cooperate, with the joy of destruction game, an experiment that uncovers anti-social behaviour.

  • In the prisoners’ dilemma game, two players receive the same endowment and simultaneously decide whether to take away 50% of their counterpart’s payoff in order to increase their own payoff by 25% (non-cooperative choice) or whether to keep the payoffs unchanged (cooperative choice).
  • In the joy of destruction game, two players receive the same endowment and simultaneously make a choice whether to keep the payoffs as they are, or whether to sacrifice 10% of own payoff in order to reduce the payoff of the other player by 50%. In this case, choosing to reduce other person’s payoff is costly for the decision-maker and thus purely self-regarding individuals should not engage in the destructive behaviour (Abbink and Herrmann 2011, Abbink and Sadrieh 2009).

Also, to separate the effects of group context on individual behaviour and the effect of group deliberation and decision-making, we elicit individual choices made in isolation, preferences of individual group members for group decisions before a group deliberation, and the ultimate group decisions.

Groups Behave More Anti-Socially Than Individual Decision-Makers

Groups are less likely than individuals to cooperate in the  prisoners’ dilemma game, in line with findings in previous experiments. Importantly, however, they are also more likely to harm opponents in the joy of destruction game, in which the dominant strategy for self-regarding agents is not to engage in destructive behaviour. This is primarily due to a greater prevalence of anti-social behaviour among groups.

The stronger anti-social behaviour of groups as compared to individuals cannot be explained by differences in beliefs, reciprocal motives, inequality aversion or diffusion of individual responsibility. Groups are more willing than individuals to pay to cause harm even when they respond to a kind act from an experimental counterpart, and when destroying resources increases inequality.

Furthermore, anti-social behaviour in a group setting is elevated simultaneously with willingness to enter competition with outsiders, as measured in the competitiveness game in Uganda (Niederle and Vesterlund 2007). Together, these findings indicate that individuals in groups are more aggressively competitive.

Decomposing the overall group effects shows that both the group context as well as deliberation among group members matter. Group context makes individuals more willing to engage in anti-social behaviour and to compete, whereas the group decision-making slightly increases the prevalence of self-regarding choices.

All these effects are strikingly similar across the Slovak (Figure 1) and Ugandan (Figure 2) samples, suggesting that the preference for competing aggressively when deciding in a group is a deeply rooted response.

Figure 1 Slovakia: The effect of group decision-making on choices in the joy of destruction game and the prisoners’ dilemma game


Source: Bauer et al. (2018).

Figure 2 Uganda: The effect of group decision-making on choices in the joy of destruction game and the prisoners’ dilemma game


Source: Bauer et al. (2018).

Concluding Remarks

Earlier research on identity has shown that creating coherent teams fosters efficiency in military and business-oriented organisations (Akerlof and Kranton 2005, Goette et al. 2006, Costa and Kahn 2001), by making in-group cooperation easier. Our results suggest that this may come at the expense of aggressive competitiveness against members of other groups.

This may help to explain the ubiquity of inter-group violence (Blattman and Miguel 2014) or mutually destructive competition within and across firms. It also strengthens the case for policies to counteract narrow group identities.

Competitiveness also has an import role when determining individual career choices. Economists are attempting to identify factors which may foster competitiveness in individuals (Gneezy et al. 2009, Andersen et al. 2013, Almås et al. 2015) and design institutions that help to close gender gaps in willingness to compete (Sutter et al. 2016, Niederle et al. 2013, Balafoutas and Sutter 2012). Our findings show that the factor that increases willingness to enter competitive environment also raises anti-social behaviour, and thus suggests there is a potential trade-off. Competitive environments may lead to efficiency gains in some settings, but also to more socially harmful behaviour.

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  1. Sound of the Suburbs

    Labour unions were never very co-operative and kept looking after the interests of their members.

    Big business realised they needed to smash the unions.

  2. The Rev Kev

    When I want good advice on brickwork, I would ask for advice from a bricklayer. I would certainly not go looking for advice on bricks from an upholsterer. In the same vein, if I was looking for solid information on a sociological issue, I would not necessarily go believing people with a background in economics or tax law & finance as is the case here. The general point of this article seems to be either the justification of the atomization of individuals or an anti-democratic diatribe showing how certain individuals are better qualified than others.
    They may try to use the prisoners’ dilemma game or the the joy of destruction game as proof of their thoughts but sociologists have shown the falsehood of applying western standard games to other countries when these standards were found to be entirely based in ( Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) people.
    Humans are social animals which is why they do not generally cope well when put alone. That is why solitary confinement is regarded as a punishment. Groups may be more likely to maximize a group payoff and disregard the welfare of others but that is a flexible concept and not set in cement. In fact, it is scalable. As an example, take a look at Afghanistan which is normally full of infighting. There, they say me against my brother, my brother and I against our cousin, my brother and I and our cousin against the outsider. See? These groups are scalable.
    They do mention cohesive groups with the military but miss the significance. Military organization is based on the squad which is the basic building block and as akin to a hunting band. Back in Roman times it was called a Contubernium which shows how long this basic organizational principle has been working. Next up is the company which is an analogue to an extended family. Above that is the battalion which is an analogue to the maximum number of people that you can know i.e. a tribe. The Romans had the Cohort here and the British had the Regiment. All these organizations are built on the foundations of basic human psychology and cannot be ignored or refuted as the authors do here.

    1. Norb

      Trouble is introduced when sociopathic individuals gain control of the organizational structures that you describe. My experience is that most people are reasonable, but can be easily manipulated to perform questionable tasks. It is a question of leadership and social goals.

      During a crisis, there are individuals dedicated to turning towards the direction of crisis, while the majority can be seen running in the opposite direction due to raw self-preservation. Fire, police, medical, and military services are just some examples.

      Economists in a neoliberal era are the last people to turn to for answers to social ills. Their worldview and sentiment created the problems in the first place and perpetuate the continuance of suffering on many levels.

      Gambling and speculating must be relegated to a much lower level of social acceptance then what is tolerated today. It truly is madness.

    2. Brooklin Bridge

      :-) If it was news you wanted, would you go to a reporter or anchor (Rachel Maddow comes to mind) first or would you go instead to a financial analyst and economist that has started her own blog with a name that might even be considered racy by some? (thinking NC here). :-)

      Couldn’t resist, though I agree with your conclusions. Whether it’s the substance of an argument first and source credibility second or visa-versa would seem to depend on context at the very least.

    3. knowbuddhau

      Amen, Rev! On the provenance of horsessh!t, tho, as in that post about NYC sidewalks, who better than an economist to ask? This economist’s assumptions about human nature just reek.

      In social psychology, Baiting Crowd and Bystander Apathy research looked into this, too. Leon Festinger et al described Deindividuaion beginning in the mid 50s. Robert Wicklund delved into Objective vs Subjective Self-Awareness.

      Kitty Genovese was murdered in her NYC apartment, while many witnesses heard her screams. The Group failed her. Crowds often egg on people signifying suicide. We do things, when masked, we don’t dare do when known.

      It was thought that, the more one felt as a singular, individuated, objectively defineable, person-in-society, the more pro-social would be ones behavior. When we’re knowing ourselves subjectively, especially if we “lose ourself” in a crowd, we’re more selfish and willing to “go off the reservation.”

      I went down the Empathic Altruism Hypothesis rabbit hole. Turns out, it meets up with sociobiology’s Reciprocal Altruism.

      Back to basics: how do groups work? First, you can’t draw a one-sided distinction; for every inside, there’s an outside. Ingroup/outgroup arise mutually. As soon as you think, “I am!”, in that same moment, there They are.

      Us “versus” them is fundamentally flawed: it’s Us&Them. The proper basis for being human, in ones self and in society, is compassion. Naturally, amirite?

      1. Tommy S.

        just one note….the kitty story was mostly false since the beginning….much new info on web now..

    4. Barry

      Humans are social animals which is why they do not generally cope well when put alone.

      On top of meaning humans don’t cope well alone, being social animals means we are evolved to be parts of groups. A corollary to that is that we know how to be part of the group; how to process group interests as well as personal interests. This includes not only an adjustment of the prioritization of options but an awareness of who is in-group and who is out-group.

      Any model of political economy that denies this or posits that it is a problem to be overcome is starting from false premises that will lead to false conclusions.

      But pushing individualism on the world makes perfect sense to me as a ploy by a very powerful in-group (e.g. the Kochtopus) to dissipate the power and threat of other groups (governments, communities, unions…).

    1. Louos Fyne

      You beat me to post the exact same thing.

      Unfortunately people here lean/skew/are open-minded to be iconoclasts. need a spine and smarts to be one.

      Unfortunate cuz (arguably) humans are default programmed to herd behavior.

      1. Donald

        Yeah, me too. Though I really do think this group is less bad than others. The commentariat at The American Conservative is the best commentariat anywhere, because the ideological range is very wide and the best commenters there have some respect for each other despite their differences. They become smarter, able to see common ground where it exists.

        But most blog comment sections are extremely tribal. Step even slightly outside the local consensus and you will be mobbed.

        1. Simeon Hope

          I’ve found that, too. I’m atheist and over several years I’ve tried commenting in various atheist blogs and forums. They seem to be highly sensitive to even small criticisms, such as my suggesting that not all believers are evil. Usually, they instantly block me.

    2. diptherio

      Yeah! Now who wants to go beat the tar out of some those Marginal Revolution commenters? Some may say that it will make us look bad, but I say they’ve got it coming!

  3. Dave

    Funny, I have always said to my spouse and kids I am skeptical and not fond of our species on a global scale. On an individual basis I am quite good at being accepting and open to dialogue and interaction.

    This article helps me understand my predicament.

  4. David

    I’m not impressed, because this provides us with absolutely no insights into how groups behave in real life. And Plato thought that democracy led to tyranny, not to bad behaviour to outsiders.
    There’s a huge anthropological and historical literature to do with how groups actually function, and their functioning depends on the surrounding circumstances, the nature of the group and the way in which it came together. The authors could have started by reading some of it.
    The fundamental distinction is between groups which arise naturally (usually based on territory, ethnicity, family relations), groups which arise by affiliation (religious, political, trades unions etc) and groups which are thrown together in response to some threat or difficult circumstances. There’s obviously some overlap. In general, groups set up in opposition to others, or to protect against others will be, by their very nature, hostile. So various sorts of Marxist groups, feminists, religious factions etc. who take as a point of departure that they are right and others are wrong, and that they are threatened and must stick together, will almost by definition be hostile to outsiders. A reading circle, a charitable association, or even just a traditional community will be much less so.
    In addition, groups cooperate with each other according to rules. The Arabic proverb cited by the Rev is a case in point, and the organisation of tribal life in the Middle East and South Asia (including Afghanistan) is highly complex and goes well beyond the simple dichotomies proposed here. In fact, it’s hardly worth continuing to pick holes on this study – go and research something where you are qualified, guys.

    1. pjay

      “There’s a huge anthropological and historical literature to do with how groups actually function…”

      That’s one of the key problems. Experimental research like this, even with a cross-cultural sample of subjects, is supposedly designed to filter out such messy anthropological, historical, or sociological (Rev Kev) factors. Such social psychological research can be informative if the limits are recognized. But when artificial lab games are projected as objective reality without social context, you have problems similar to those in the economics Yves and NC so effectively criticize.

  5. hemeantwell

    Whew, this is sure a horse that’s been around the track a few times.

    Back in the Studies in Prejudice days in the mid-20th c, the idea was that tendencies of this sort can be weakened if individuals, or the group itself, is aware of the tendency. Social science isn’t about describing our fate, it’s about helping us to liberate ourselves from it.

    1. Off The Street

      Leaders play a role and influence their groups. If notions of good faith and fair play are deemed important, for example, then they stand a better chance of being communicated and enforced through a type of group ethic. History has shown that people individually and in groups are quite capable of rising above their worst tendencies. That takes work. It may be instructive to identify the malign influences and influencers that undermine human dignity.

  6. pjay

    “Social science isn’t about describing our fate, it’s about helping us to liberate ourselves from it.”

    “History has shown that people individually and in groups are quite capable of rising above their worst tendencies. That takes work. It may be instructive to identify the malign influences and influencers that undermine human dignity.”

    Thanks for these statements. In my opinion, the best social scientists always recognize this. The worst ones claim to have discovered the “fundamental” causes of human behavior, social organization, history, etc. and derive their theories accordingly.

  7. Brooklin Bridge

    Some of this is just common sense and depends on such things as whether or not the group in question perceives the interaction with outsiders to be beneficial or harmful. When tourists first started going to Spain after it’s civil war, they were largely accepted quite well since they were bringing desperately needed money with them and since they were not all that obtrusive. As the numbers swelled by the 70’s, and particularly as the tourists themselves became more obnoxious; USA, USA, nasty-fat-and-drunk-all-day, the sentiment of the general population changed quite a bit and might even have been considered, anti social.

    1. JW

      What a bit of America-bashing.

      American tourists to Spain are vastly outnumbered by European tourists. 2.7 million US while 18.8 million UK, 11.9 million German, 11.3 million France, and millions more from other countries.

      The objections to tourism everywhere are locals being priced out of housing and other markets, and the dubious economic value of all these low-wage and highly seasonal jobs.

      Not to mention, between the Spanish Civil war and the 1970s, the country was ruled by a fascist dictatorship, which might have had something to do with blunting criticism of tourism or anything else, if what you said were true.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Oh please. While not all Americans were obnoxious, those who were had such a knack for it that they tended to color people’s perception of them in general. The obnoxious ones were truly odious; they certainly didn’t need me to bash them. They did a magnificent job of that all by themselves. In close to a decade of living abroad, I never once saw any other nationality pull off what an obnoxious American could do in 5 minutes flat (and back then I could have produced at least two – and probably more – European tour guides that would have corroborated that point without a heart beat of hesitation – but with endless stories).

        As to numbers, I didn’t in any way limit them to national origin in my comment; my reference to Americans was hardly exclusive except for the obnoxious ones (and I stick by that). That said, 1) at a certain point, sheer numbers of ALL tourists did indeed have a highly negative effect and were often perceived as the cause of the points you made as well as a host of others – such as making the Spanish feel inferior, like servants 2) the obnoxious foreigners always stood out even when they were not the majority and yes they were more often than not of North American origin. My point was that groups react to externals depending on what benefit or harm they perceive the outsiders bring, and my experience in Spain tended to support the claim that sufficiently large numbers was a significant marker and either caused or exacerbated negative issues (such as resource inflation). Such inflation won’t occur without the numbers.

        I lived in Spain in 1969 and spoke fluently enough, back then alas, to have all night discussions with friends who pulled no punches in describing a general attitude towards Americans that went well beyond the general discomfort they felt with the general hordes of tourists (of all nationalities).

        These people were terrified of Franco – they literally wouldn’t talk about him, often even among themselves. But about tourists, and Americans in particular? They loved to talk about them – and they had an almost affectionate, if frustrated, way of characterizing Americans with a broad brush – because of the few – even while they understood perfectly – and usually with a healthy sense of humor – that such stereotypes were just that. But again, more generally, it was simply a numbers game.

  8. polecat

    You wanna example of an extremely nasty group found nakedly exposed .. groping for credibility ??

    I give you exhibit H ( for the Hate factor !! ) : the Integrity Initiative

    If there ever was a more vile hive of scum and villainy …

  9. Samuel Conner

    I wonder whether it might be that groups are more likely to have antisocial decision-makers. Roughly 4% of the population is reckoned to have sociopathic traits. I read somewhere (maybe in Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door”) that the upper reaches of hierarchies tend to have more sociopaths than the population at large. Cooperators in a group led by antisocial leaders might tend to cooperate with antisocial group behavior when they would behave more pro-socially on their own.

  10. shinola

    Not quite sure why, but this article made me think back to the recent articles about Libertarians and CalPERS.

  11. Curious George

    Um from a purely instinctive level having been part of groups throughout my life (armed forces, faculty, political party, youth groups (formal and informal)) in different countries (continental Europe and NA) my first thought on reading the study was – of course. As is my second, third and fourth thought.

    After all why do groups always form internal cultures, be that a uniform, ranks, language, behavioural patterns, or simple things such as greetings.

    And if one really would like to see the ugliness of a group – be part of one and raise questions about the behaviour of the group while part of it. Fun times.

    Human nature may impact our desire to form a group or be part of one but we should never loose sight of the individual. The study reinforces that notion.

  12. Grebo

    Behavioural economics, baby steps.

    I don’t get the impression from this that the authors are advocating atomization. They are merely saying that previous economic assumptions are incorrect, and it’s worse than they thought.

    No-one else is surprised though.

  13. dk

    Joining a group puts one in a better position to decline to interact with unreliable people.

    The cohesion of a group demonstrates and consolidates trust within the group. If the group cannot collectively establish and maintain trust, it will collapse.

    Outsiders have not participated in the group’s trust-building, and are granted less initial trust. This is simple precaution.

    So the article is pretty much an argument against verification of trust. It is not, as the authors assert, anti-social to evaluate trustworthiness, it normal and appropriate social behavior. Violation of trust, and bad faith activity generally, are anti-social behaviors, and groups form in part to recognize and discourage such activity.

    Social behaviors take time, they are not instantaneous transactions and their resolutions generally remain dynamic (despite complaint of formalists). Thus, examinations of narrowly limited sets of events are without context, insufficient for the development of reliable conclusion about human behavior.

  14. Steve K

    The Rev Kev is correct about the insights from anthropology and some interpretive research, which throw into sharp relief the biases inherent in mainstream group and organizational studies, their bedrock theory of social identity theory (SIT), and SIT’s primary investigative tool of the zero-history group.

    At the center of SIT is the not necessarily true assumption that participants in experimental groups identify with a group, and that the “group” need be little more than a symbol (i.e., group A, team Red) the experimenter places upon test subjects (“participants” in today’s language). Furthermore, in SIT experiments researchers “know” participants identify with a group by their decisions for or against an out-group, not as a result of any tangible observed relations and/or identification to the in-group. Those choices, meanwhile, occur in an artificial context where the status of “we” is under threat from a “them” in a zero-sum struggle for the group’s perceived social value compared to others.

    SIT is a powerful theory, in that it captures/creates simple situations, defined by intra-group conflict requiring either-or choices among individuals which collectively stand in place of actual collective decisions. It is a narrowly defined perspective, useful in limited cases. Despite those readily available facts, SIT has somehow grown to define how academic group/org research (and virtually all group/org research that get’s funding) understand ALL groups.

    SIT cannot measure the “group-ness” of the individuals it tests, much less any feature of the complex socio-cultural-political conditions that shape group membership, history, and relations. Studies such as the one reported here have little value outside of the laboratory, and zero relevance in the infinitely complex world of actually existing intra- and inter-group relations. Throw in a few economists from “The Church of Rational-Choice” and you’ve got a brew that fills the room with a fog of toxic speculation about how groups act in the world; a mist that, over the years, has escaped the learned journals and left a dirty film upon the minds of other specializations and general populations.

  15. georgieboy

    Try Kevin MacDonald’s works for intense scrutiny of in-group vs out-group conduct. Evolution and intentional direction of evolution (culture).

    1. Temporarily Sane

      Kevin McDonald…the far-rights’s favorite intellectual. He thinks Jews as a group are undermining and destroying western civilization from within by disempowering the European Christian majority while empowering ethnic and social minorities. This is an evolutionary survival strategy, he says, designed to protect Jews from the deadly waves of antisemitism that culminated with the Nazi Holocaust.

      When neo Nazis/the alt-right blame “the Jew” for gay marriage, non-white immigration and everything else they despise, McDonald’s writing is what they reach for when they need intellectual cover.

      McDonald, for his part, is an enthusiastic supporter of the antisemites and far righters who revere his work.

      (I’ve been noticing an increase in posters popping up in various forums and casually dropping couched hard-right talking points into the conversation or “helpfully” recommending facsistic/antisemitic ideologues for further reading.)

      1. cat sick

        Interestingly I had never heard of this Kevin McDonald, googling him seems to get zero hits of anyone that would seem to be the character who you allude to, however he is the first hit on Bing , whatever his message is it would seem google want to uninvent him ….

  16. Iguanabowtie

    Seems reasonable that humans should be wired to be more aggressive when we’ve got people at our backs than when going it alone. A bit too reasonable; could the study just be measuring rational cost-benefit analysis?

    Also, I have to ask – why Uganda & Slovakia? I wonder if the signal they are picking up is actually cultural/historical noise, and if they would find the same results elsewhere. (say, Norway or Japan)

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