The Psychology of Group Violence is Protected by Morality Shifts

Three studies conducted by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, suggest that the violence of a group is justified by a subtle shift in the way things are framed. In other words, if a group commits violence, it frames morality in terms of authority and loyalty. The violence of other groups is instead framed by appeals to concepts like harm and fairness.

In the first experiment, the participants read a news article based on true stories of military torture leading to prisoner death in Iraq. The participants, who were American, read one of two versions of the story. In the first, the torturers were identified as American. In the second, they were identified as Australian.

The participants were then asked to summarize the article for somebody else, revealing their subconscious biases. The summaries were analyzed by research assistants who did not know the hypothesis of the experiment, and who didn’t know which summaries were written by people from which group. If the participants believed that the torturers were American, they were less likely to use words related to harm and fairness, and more likely to use words related to loyalty and authority.

Perhaps encouraging, however, was the fact that most participants still referred more to harm and fairness overall in both conditions.

In a second study, they were asked to read the same stories and take a series of word tests. They were asked to identify whether a string of letters was a word or not. The study again showed a preference for recognizing loyalty and authority when they experienced in-group violence, and a preference for recognizing harm and fairness when they experienced out-group violence.

In a final study, they read one of the same two versions of the article, or one of two versions of an article about National Parks (either Australian or American). Afterward, they were asked to guess the meaning of Chinese symbols. As the other studies would have suggested, they were more likely to guess words related to authority and loyalty if the article was written from an American perspective. Surprisingly, this was true even if the article was about National Parks.

Interestingly, they also grouped the participants based on their “glorification” score. They discovered that “high glorifiers” were the most likely to appeal to authority and loyalty, and experienced a stronger effect when they read the article about torture.

Perhaps more surprisingly, “low glorifiers” actually experienced the opposite effect. They were, if anything, less likely to think about loyalty and authority after reading an account of in-group violence.


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