If you would do anything to stay popular with your team-mates, what might follow? Bending the rules? Cheating? Sabotage of rivals? An international team led by Stefan Thau of INSEAD investigated “pro-group” unethical behaviours, and they suggest the people most likely to connive to boost the team are those at its margins, fearful of exclusion.
The experiment gave participants an easy opportunity to cheat at an anagram task, as the setup meant they themselves reported how many they solved, with no way to be checked. (Conveniently, the experimenters had an easy way to verify whether success had been over-reported: the ten anagrams were entirely unsolvable.)
In the key condition, participants were told that if they scored better than their “Red Team” competitor sitting in another room, then the other members of their own (Blue) team would all get a cash reward. The Blue Team had met and chatted at the start of the experiment, and just before the anagram task, they voted provisionally on which member should be excluded from a final group task, with a final vote to follow once the anagram contest results were made public.
The provisional vote was rigged so half of the participants had the impression that they were likely to be excluded. These at-risk individuals reported solving more of the impossible anagrams than their safe peers. They broke the rules to do a good turn for their group, in the hope that it wouldn’t go unrewarded. And the cheating was even higher for those participants who, in a questionnaire, described having a high “need to belong”.
In another condition, anagram victory generated a personal reward, not one shared with team-mates. Neither risk of exclusion nor the need to belong had any effect on cheating in this condition. This suggests that being under threat doesn’t simply increase unethical behaviour but encourages targeted actions aimed at raising standing.
Thau’s team showed that the effect generalised to other behaviours using a survey of 228 working adults. People who felt excluded – sharing heartbreaking beliefs such as “I feel like it is likely that my workgroup members will not invite me for lunch” – were more likely to withhold information from non-team members or discredit another workgroup, all to make their own group look better.
Supporting your in-group in this way can only hurt the organisation in the longer-term, and can have profoundly damaging effects, such as the example the article gives, of a detective who framed people to get higher rates of arrest for his colleagues. There is no more chilling excuse for the inexcusable than “but I did it all for you!”
Thau, S., Derfler-Rozin, R., Pitesa, M., Mitchell, M., & Pillutla, M. (2015). Unethical for the sake of the group: Risk of social exclusion and pro-group unethical behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100 (1), 98-113 DOI: 10.1037/a0036708