Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations


Why are we humans so proud and defensive of our groups? Even those of us who claim to be open-minded and objective can often find ourselves emotionally drawn into national identifications during international sporting events, or chaffing at the dissonant practices of foreign cultures or religions. One reason for our affinity is that groups scaffold ideals (as described in the Ideals section). Group consensus about norms and ideals can bolster confidence in personal perspectives and ideals. Group ideals can vary, just like individuals’ ideals can. They can be ideals of status, power, superiority, goodness, or purity, or they can be about social justice, fairness, inclusivity, or kindness. Regardless, they are psychologically powerful. In our laboratory we repeatedly find that when people think about their group identifications or about social consensus, their anxious conflicts and uncertainties about other problems in their lives feel less bothersome. This only occurs, however, when the groups are meaningfully related to personal or worldview identifications. We have new, direct evidence that the appeal of groups for relief from anxiety hinges on the capacity for groups to activate approach motivated processes. People become jingoistic about groups when they are anxious because groups bolster ideals, which activate approach motivated states, which suppress anxiety. 

In addition to the worldview-idealistic function of groups, groups and group loyalty can also fortify concrete, trusting relationships among individuals which can provide additional comfort and effectiveness, independent of group ideals. Indeed, in addition to needing groups for the ideological fortification they confer, humans may also use ideals in the reverse direction, for group fortification. As Emile Durkheim noted long ago and as moral psychologists echo today, ideals about goodness and morality can help harmonize and mobilize human groups. They align the motivation of group members and make collective action effective. In sum, people can be attracted to groups for interrelated idealistic/moral and concrete reasons. This dual appeal may help explain why people become more attracted to strong and ideologically pure groups in anxious circumstances.​​

*Note: to see in context of other research topics in our lab, click on the RESEARCH link at the top of this page.