This line of research, funded by a NWO Rubicon grant, looks at how individuals working and living in groups deal with moral dilemmas. Moral values shared by the group provide an important framework for individual convictions. When group members behave immorally, people experience increased threat and act defensively in response unless they receive an opportunity to take constructive action towards restoring group morality.

Morality indicates what is the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ way to behave. However, what people see as moral can shift, depending on defining norms and distinctive features of the groups to which they belong. Acting in ways that are considered ‘moral’ by the group secures inclusion and elicits respect from others who are important to the self. Morality is a central feature of group membership. Socially shared conceptions of morality can help anchor people’s internal moral compass and thus determine behavioral choices of individuals living and working together in communities and organizations. People are motivated to maintain a moral group image. Hence, when other ingroup members behave immorally people may experience increased threat and act defensively in response. In one project, we compared people’s reactions to moral transgressions of members of their own group, as compared to members of other groups. As expected, misconduct from ingroup members induced more threat than immoral behavior from outgroup members. This could, however, be buffered by allowing them moral opportunity—the prospect of being able to re-establish the group’s moral image. In Study 1, students who were confronted with fellow students’ plagiarism and who received an opportunity to improve their group’s morality reported feeling less threatened than students who did not receive such opportunity. In Study 2, students reacted to a recent academic fraud case, which either implicated an ingroup (scholar in their own discipline) or an outgroup member (scholar in another discipline). Results indicated that participants experienced more threat when an ingroup (versus an outgroup) member had committed the moral transgression. However, as hypothesized, this was not the case when moral opportunity was provided. Hence, the threat-reducing effect of moral opportunity was replicated. Additionally, participants generally were more defensive in response to ingroup (versus outgroup) moral failure and less defensive when moral opportunity was present (versus absent). Together, these findings suggest that the reduction of threat due to moral opportunity may generally help individuals take constructive action when the behavior of fellow group members discredits the group’s moral image.

Download the paper: Van der Toorn, J., Ellemers, N., & Doosje, B. (2015). The threat of moral transgression: The impact of group membership and moral opportunity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 609–622.

Also see: Ellemers, N., & Van der Toorn, J. (2015). Groups as moral anchors. Current Opinion in Psychology, 6, 189–194.

Also see: Ellemers, N., Van der Toorn, J., Paunov, Y., & Van Leeuwen, T. (in press). The psychology of morality: A review and analysis of empirical studies published from 1940 through 2017. Personality and Social Psychology Review.