As America’s recent financial crisis worsened, politicians, pundits, and the public debated who to blame: Does the fault lie with particular executives, fund managers, or regulatory officials—or should we blame the banks themselves, or even Wall Street as a whole? Where, in this reckoning, does the individual stop and the group begin?

It is a question that, in recent years, has come up again and again, says Adam Waytz, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management. “There was the Citizens United decision where the Supreme Court determined that corporations had the right to contribute to political campaigns as corporate persons,” Waytz says—a sentiment later echoed by presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who declared at the Iowa State Fair that “corporations are people.”

On the other hand, he says, in the sex discrimination class-action suit brought against Walmart on behalf of 1.5 million female employees across the country, the Court ruled that the women did not constitute a class; their experiences and circumstances were too varied to treat them as a single group with collective experience and intention.

The issue at hand is essentially whether groups have minds.

The issue at hand is essentially whether groups have minds: whether they can intend, think, feel, or plan as a single entity. “If something has a mind, it therefore becomes worthy of moral care and concern and has certain moral rights,” Waytz explains. A small number of studies had investigated how people make judgments about the mind of a group, and a much larger body of work had addressed how people make judgments about the minds of individual members of groups. There was no research, however, connecting the two, asking when we judge that the mind—and the accompanying credit or blame—rests with a company or its chief executive, a politician or his party.

A Sitting Paradox
Waytz and his colleague Liane Young, an assistant professor at Boston College, set out to study that interplay between how we judge the mind of a group versus the mind of an individual. They noticed a contradiction in the existing research. The more cohesive a group was—with interests, attributes, and a common fate shared among members—the more people judged that group to have a group mind, some research showed. But other studies had found that when a person was a member of a particularly cohesive group, others judged them to have less of a mind of their own.

“This paradox was sitting right in front of us,” Waytz says. “We thought maybe it’s the case that the more a group can seem to have a mind, the less its members are seen to have a mind, and vice versa.” Cohesion, they hypothesized, was the key variable: the more cohesive a group, the less mind was attributed to its individual members. They ran four studies to investigate this tradeoff between group and individual mind.

Revealing Results
In the first study, people made a series of judgments about twenty different groups, such as the United States Marine Corps, McDonald’s Corporation, or all Twitter users. The participants rated, for each group, to what extent they thought that group members each had a mind of their own, to what extent they thought that the group as a whole had a mind of its own, and how cohesive they thought the group was. Waytz and Young found, as they predicted, that judgments of group mind were negatively correlated with judgments of group member mind: when one went up, the other went down. Cohesion, in the participants’ judgments, mirrored group mind. The more cohesive that participants thought a group was, the more they attributed mind to it and the less they attributed minds to its individual members.

The next study looked not only at the tradeoff of mind between groups and their members, but also at how people allocated responsibility to groups and individuals. Participants made the same set of judgments about the twenty groups similar to those in the previous study, plus a few additions. They were asked to rate how much more responsible the group was for, one, what the group did and, two, for what the individual members did, and how responsible the individual members were for both group and personal actions.

As expected, people made the same judgments about mind as in the previous study. But when participants had to assign moral responsibility, a different patterned emerged for judgments of individuals’ actions versus the group’s collective actions: across all groups, people said that individuals were highly responsible for their individual actions. When it came to judging responsibility for the group’s collective actions, however, group cohesion and group mind correlated with judging groups and individuals to be responsible for collective action. “The more people think a group has a mind, the less they think group members have a mind,” Waytz says, “and the more people think a group is responsible for its collective actions, the more they think an individual is responsible for the group’s collective actions as well.”

For the third study, Waytz and Young decided to put together groups from scratch. “The first two studies were known groups like the New York Yankees or everybody with blond hair,” Waytz says. “These groups were nice, because there was naturally occurring variability, but we weren’t able to control all the variables we’d like to.” So the researchers wrote up descriptions of twelve activities groups at a college—the singing group, the debate team, and so on. The participants read a description of each group, which gave cues to group cohesion through information such as where the group members were from or how much time they spent together. A third of the groups were high cohesion, a third moderate, and a third low. 

How the participants attributed mind to the group versus the individual depended on how cohesive the group was. People judged groups to have more mind, and group members to have less, in the high-cohesion groups than the low-cohesion groups. The same held true for group responsibility. In high-cohesion groups, the group had more moral responsibility for group actions and individual members had more responsibility for group actions as well. It did not matter whether people were asked about groups they knew quite a bit about or groups they had heard of only minutes before.

Manipulating Cohesion
Since cohesion—and the judgments of mind and moral responsibility linked to it—were manipulable, Waytz and Young wondered if they could manipulate these judgments with visual rather than verbal cues to cohesion. In a fourth study, they showed participants two animated clips of fish. In one video, the fish were all the same size and moving together; in the other, the fish ranged in size and moved independently. Asking participants to answer the same set of questions about groups of fish, rather than humans, also let the researchers explore the attribution of mind and moral responsibility in a new way.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would say that individual people don’t necessarily have responsibility for their own actions,” Waytz says. “But when it comes to fish, the questions of responsibility and mind are much more ambiguous.” As in the previous studies, cohesion—whether the fish looked alike and moved together—affected judgments of mind and of responsibility for group actions. But in fish, cohesion also changed how people judged individual responsibility: if a fish was swimming in a more cohesive school, participants judged, it was less responsible for its own actions.

There are three possible reasons for this tradeoff between attribution of mind and moral responsibility to the group and group members, Waytz says. Maybe cohesion affects attribution to the group and the individual separately; what looks like a balancing act could be two distinct effects. Maybe people have an economy of mind—a limited amount of resources for thinking about the minds or moral responsibilities of others. With only so much to go around, the group and individual have to balance out. Or maybe people start out by attributing most of the mind to either the group or the individual, then lack the motivation to really think through whether there is another source of mind. The current set of studies get at that first factor, the effects of cohesion, but Waytz suspects all three are playing a role—particularly the idea that we have an economy of mind, and can only dole out so much in a given situation.

Seeking Conflict
Waytz and Young are also looking at what role group mind and individual mind play in conflict between groups—particularly in the case of unions, as when the Wisconsin public employees’ union and the state government faced off this summer. “Forming a union is something people do to create a group mind amongst an in-group to present a unified front, a uniform set of desires and intentions and plans,” Waytz says. People form unions for these sorts of benefits—but perhaps people outside the union attribute less mind to individuals because they are part of such a powerful group. “If our results hold true, people outside the union will be less likely to consider the union members as having minds of their own.” 

Though there may never be a set of standards that distinguishes group mind from individual mind, these studies could still help inform cases like the Walmart suit or the Citizens United decision. Crucially, this research gets at the question, when do we see others as a group versus a collection of individuals, and when do we hold a group responsible? Waytz and Young may not have a direct answer, but they are pushing in that direction.


Related reading on Kellogg Insight

Too Conscious to Decide? Unconscious evaluation enhances complex decision making

Nice Guys Finish Last: Altruism may be rewarded with prestige, but seldom with leadership

Consistent Contributors: Putting the team first helps solve the “cooperation problem”