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The Daily Need

The Penn State riots, the 99 percent and the powerful psychology of group identity

A lot of what we talk about these days, whether in the social or political realms, has to do with group identity. Republican primary voters are casting about for a candidate who qualifies as a “true conservative.” Disaffected middle and working-class Americans are banding together as the “99 percent.” And, in the most jarring example, students at Penn State have rioted over the firing over their beloved football coach, Joe Paterno.

What does that last item have to do with group-think? As it turns out, everything. To the rest of the world, it was shocking and unseemly for students to protest the firing of their football coach after he was accused of turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children by one of his assistants. The behavior of those students seemed to fly in the face of our most basic notions of morality, accountability and justice.

Except, as psychological research suggests, those students weren’t merely upset about the fact that their football team lost an effective play-caller. They probably saw Paterno’s firing as an assault on their own personal identities. “The social groups you belong to become a part of the very essence of who you feel you are,” psychologist Adam Galinksy, of Northwestern University, told Scientific American recently. Students at Penn State rioted after Paternos’ firing, he said,  because “the person that symbolized the school they go to, that’s given the school stature, that’s made their own selves have meaning and purpose, has now been taken away from them in an aggressive and sullied way.”

Displays of unbridled emotion like the one at Penn State are, of course, not uncommon. When Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid by Navy SEALs earlier this year, thousands of Americans took to the streets in New York and Washington, D.C. to celebrate his death. The raucous chanting and flag-waving over the death of a human being — no matter how vile that human being was — seemed in bad taste to many across the world. But the celebrations weren’t fueled by blood-lust: they were affirmations of group identity, expressions of tribalistic pride.

Group identity is a powerful motivator for moral and political action. We see the roots of this behavior in our earliest days as hunter-gatherers, tens of thousands of years ago. Human beings traveled in small packs, and cooperation within social circles was key. Cheaters were punished and the injured were banished to ensure the integrity of the group. But, conversely, members of the group were also fiercely protective of one another — and, notably, of their leaders — in order to survive.

People respond strongly to information about group identity in moral and social settings. In a classic psychological experiment known as the Trolley problem, for example, researchers ask participants to decide when killing a person is morally acceptable. But in order to get an accurate picture, the researchers must strip out all information regarding the social identities of the people in the hypothetical scenarios, because test subjects are too often swayed by those personal details. They’ll bend their moral principles just to protect one of their own: Is this person from the same town as me? Is she of the same race, religion or socio-economic class? Is she a fan of the same sports team?

Group identity can even make us temporarily abandon our own deep-seated notions of fairness and self-interest: We’ll actually hurt ourselves just to spite members of another social group or economic class. Researchers from Harvard and Princeton found recently, for example, that working-class Americans who make just above the minimum wage are actually more likely than rich people to oppose increases in the minimum wage, because they don’t want the people below them to benefit.

That competitive, tribalistic side of human nature is perhaps what makes the “99 percent” rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement so effective, and may explain why large numbers of Americans say in polls that they support the goals of the Occupy movement. Grouping all working and middle-class Americans under one banner, that of the “99 percent,” eliminates the usual social and ethnic divisions. The “99 percent,” according to Occupy leaders, isn’t about race, creed, or social status — it’s about fairness. Americans of almost every socio-economic class — the poor, the working class, the middle class — fall under the heading of the “99 percent.” So instead of smaller social groups competing with one another, you have one larger social group working together.

Group identity, then, can have nasty consequences, as we saw in the Penn State riots. But it can also be used to harness the energy and fervor of a wide array of people, unite them under one banner and fight for a set of common goals and aspirations. As the researchers at Princeton and Harvard wrote of the Occupy Wall Street movement, “While it is too soon to tell if OWS has staying power, their rhetoric has the potential to reframe the discussion on redistribution and inequality.”

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