The group is a crucial factor in moral actions

New book by Distinguished University Professor Naomi Ellemers

Cheating athletes who use banned stimulants. Fraudulent bank employees who let billions go up in smoke. Immoral behaviour occurs in all walks of life and such behaviour is often attributed to a lack of ethics in the people in question. ‘But usually this person is simply adjusting to the norms and values within a group. This group process often gets overlooked’, explains Distinguished University Professor Naomi Ellemers of Utrecht University. She has spent years studying moral behaviour in groups, and now this research has been compiled in the newly published book Morality and Regulation of Social Behavior: Groups as Moral Anchors.

Book Naomi Ellemers

A good family man who to everyone’s surprise vandalises a centuries-old monument. And a rebellious teenager who then volunteers to collect money for the repair work on this monument. It sounds rather unlikely if you only look at the individual. But if you know what group the father belongs to, and what group the teenager, then it’s much easier to understand the behaviour of the two individuals. The father is one of the Feyenoord fans who damaged the Barcaccia Fountain in Rome in 2015. The teenager is a student at a secondary school, who collected the money together with the rest of his class before their trip to Rome.

Group moral is guiding element 

The above example is just one of the many instances quoted by Ellemers in her book to explore the importance of group morality. ‘Moral behaviour is still regarded too much as an individual problem. However, my research shows that moral standards within a group are often decisive for the behaviour of an individual.’

Exclude those who have shown unacceptable behaviour is not a good idea

In the workplace 

Ellemers’ book is not only required reading for (social) psychologists: moral behaviour within a group is a widely relevant issue. ‘Take managers who give leadership to a group of employees, for instance. In the book I talk about my research into group behaviour within organisations, for instance within financial institutions. Research in the workplace has repeatedly shown that the corporate culture and the ethical climate in the team determine which business decisions will be seen as morally acceptable by employees and which will not.’

Rectifying immoral behaviour

In her book, Ellemers also indicates whether and how such problematic behaviour can be rectified. ‘We often keep stressing the immoral nature of the behaviour without considering the situation, which means that we also condemn and reject the person who shows this behaviour. This usually has a counterproductive effect. In our laboratory studies, we see that this chiefly produces stress, with the result that the person in question tends to deny or trivialise the problem. This doesn’t help to improve the behaviour. Excluding those who have shown unacceptable behaviour is actually a very bad idea: someone who has been banished from the group has nothing more to lose and can now ignore the opinions of others. In this way, the group also loses the possibility of rectifying the behaviour. That’s because the role of the group is also crucial in encouraging and rewarding positive behaviour.’

Morality and Regulation of Social Behavior: Groups as Moral Anchors is published in the European Monographs series, and is being presented at the three-day General Meeting of the European Association of Social Psychology in Granada.

More information 
Press information for the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, +31 (0) 30 253 4027,
Press information for Utrecht University, +31 (0) 30 253 3550,