International Society of Political Psychology

Conference Abstracts

Why do we punish groups? High entitativity promotes moral suspicion

Anna Newheiser, Yale University; Takuya Sawaoka, Yale University; John Dovidio, Yale University

Conference: ISPP 2011
Affiliation: Yale University
Research Area: Political decision making

People generally take a “just desert” or moral deservingness perspective when deciding on appropriate punishment for wrongdoings committed by individual perpetrators. Considerably less is known about people’s reasoning about transgressions committed by groups, however. Only some offenses can be accomplished alone; many others (e.g., complex crimes) require collective action. Examining how people judge transgressions committed by groups is therefore crucial for a comprehensive understanding of moral cognition. We focused on the degree to which groups are perceived to be unified, entitative agents as a central determinant of moral judgments regarding collective behavior. Because high entitativity is associated with a range of negative intergroup responses, we predicted that high entitativity would promote moral suspicion. In Experiment 1, we manipulated a fictional group’s entitativity and found that, as predicted, people regarded a high-entitativity (vs. low-entitativity) group’s behaviors as less morally acceptable. In Experiment 2, we examined the consequences of this effect. Participants read about a high- or low-entitativity group of corporate executives who embezzled funds from their employer either for selfish or selfless reasons, and were asked to recommend an appropriate punishment. High-entitativity groups acting selfishly received the harshest punishment. In addition, high-entitativity groups acting selflessly were punished more harshly than low-entitativity groups acting selflessly, implying that only low-entitativity groups were given the benefit of the doubt based on mitigating circumstances. These effects were mediated by perceptions of greater moral accountability in high-entitativity groups. Implications for criminal law and procedures that may bias jury members’ perceptions of group perpetrators are discussed.