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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Individuals prefer to harm their own group rather than help an opposing group

Rachel Gershon and Ariel Fridman
PNAS, 119 (49) e2215633119


Group-based conflict enacts a severe toll on society, yet the psychological factors governing behavior in group conflicts remain unclear. Past work finds that group members seek to maximize relative differences between their in-group and out-group (“in-group favoritism”) and are driven by a desire to benefit in-groups rather than harm out-groups (the “in-group love” hypothesis). This prior research studies how decision-makers approach trade-offs between two net-positive outcomes for their in-group. However, in the real world, group members often face trade-offs between net-negative options, entailing either losses to their group or gains for the opposition. Anecdotally, under such conditions, individuals may avoid supporting their opponents even if this harms their own group, seemingly inconsistent with “in-group love” or a harm minimizing strategy. Yet, to the best of our knowledge, these circumstances have not been investigated. In six pre-registered studies, we find consistent evidence that individuals prefer to harm their own group rather than provide even minimal support to an opposing group across polarized issues (abortion access, political party, gun rights). Strikingly, in an incentive-compatible experiment, individuals preferred to subtract more than three times as much from their own group rather than support an opposing group, despite believing that their in-group is more effective with funds. We find that identity concerns drive preferences in group decision-making, and individuals believe that supporting an opposing group is less value-compatible than harming their own group. Our results hold valuable insights for the psychology of decision-making in intergroup conflict as well as potential interventions for conflict resolution.


Understanding the principles guiding decisions in intergroup conflicts is essential to recognizing the psychological barriers to compromise and cooperation. We introduce a novel paradigm for studying group decision-making, demonstrating that individuals are so averse to supporting opposing groups that they prefer equivalent or greater harm to their own group instead. While previous models of group decision-making claim that group members are driven by a desire to benefit their in-group (“in-group love”) rather than harm their out-group, our results cannot be explained by in-group love or by a harm minimizing strategy. Instead, we propose that identity concerns drive this behavior. Our theorizing speaks to research in psychology, political theory, and negotiations by examining how group members navigate trade-offs among competing priorities.

From the Conclusion

We synthesize prior work on support-framing and propose the Identity-Support model, which can parsimoniously explain our findings across win-win and lose-lose scenarios. The model suggests that individuals act in group conflicts to promote their identity, and they do so primarily by providing support to causes they believe in (and avoid supporting causes they oppose; see also SI Appendix, Study S1). Simply put, in win-win contexts, supporting the in-group is more expressive of one’s identity as a group member than harming the opposing group, thereby leading to a preference for in-group support. In lose-lose contexts, supporting the opposing group is more negatively expressive of one’s identity as a group member than harming the in-group, resulting in a preference for in-group harm. Therefore, the principle that individuals make decisions in group conflicts to promote and protect their identity, primarily by allocating their support in ways that most align with their values, offers a single framework that predicts individual behavior in group conflicts in both win-win and lose-lose contexts.