Why it takes guts to go against the crowd

"We always expect people to conform to other people, especially when their group is feeling less guilty about certain situations," Amit Goldenberg says. "This is the basis for many moral inequities in history."(Credit: Rainforest Action Network/Flickr)

People may be willing to turn against their group’s emotions when they believe the group should, but does not, feel the same emotions they do. The research touches on the challenge of speaking up or acting against injustice.

This process can explain social dynamics like nonconformity while also illuminating the role that emotions play in changing social norms and behaviors, the researchers say.

“The concept of emotional nonconformity can further advance the existing knowledge of how social changes are formed and communicated,” says Amit Goldenberg, the lead author of the study and a Stanford University doctoral student in psychology.

“Our findings suggest that the motivation to experience group-related emotions depends not only on the response to a specific situation but also on the individual’s goals, which stem from her or his relationship with her or his group,” he says.

In the big picture, the research touches upon history’s darkest hours and the heroic challenge of speaking up or acting against injustice, according to Goldenberg.

“Deviant individuals can exist in almost every society, even in the most strict and ruthless ones such as Nazi Germany. These deviant group members serve as an opposition to the opinions of the majority and can also differ from the majority in their emotional experience,” says Goldenberg, who conducts research in the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory.

Feeling guilty

To investigate this phenomenon, the researchers conducted five different studies in which 431 participants answered questionnaires designed to elicit their emotional reactions of guilt or anger in the context of group affiliation. Most were approached on a train, and others were recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform.

For example, white Americans read a newspaper article about a “whites only” high school prom, and then were asked to respond whether they agreed with statements such as, “It is important to express emotions in response to articles such as this one in order to advance equality” and “The behavior of whites in the article makes me feel guilty.”

The key research findings include:

  • The more people reported a left-wing or dovish stance, the more they experienced group-based guilt as a result of the scenario.
  • The more people reported right-wing or hawkish views, the more they reported group-based anger as a result of the scenario.
  • When whites did not express “collective” (group-wide) guilt as a response to the moral inequity, participants compensated and expressed stronger levels of personal guilt.
  • However, in more ambiguous situations involving possible injustice, people conformed with the collective emotion of the group.
  • A person may have negative emotions toward the group when the group does not share his or her high levels of guilt.

In prior research, Goldenberg says, the assumption was that when a group feels a certain emotion, a group member will be driven to feel the same way.

However, this recent research demonstrates that this is not always the case, he says.

The ’emotional transfer’

One of the psychological mechanisms resulting in nonconformity is “emotional transfer,” says Goldenberg. This occurs when people become angry at or feel guilty about their own group for not responding properly to a situation—then, they tend to redirect their emotions from their group to outsiders, or the situation.

Sometimes the opposite happens—people initially experience anger toward the out-group and only later intensify their emotions toward their own group for not expressing the appropriate emotion, he says.

Another mechanism behind nonconformity is “emotional burden,” according to Goldenberg. This arises when the group fails to experience the emotions that are appropriate for a situation, and its members seem to take on the burden of feeling that very emotion. This may provide one explanation for collective action, according to the research.

Also, group members may be willing to share group-related emotions, even if they are unpleasant, if they reflect their own feelings, according to Goldenberg and his colleagues.

Conformity and deviance

Goldenberg suggests the research is revealing of human nature.

“We know already from Aristotle that people are both emotional and regulated, spontaneous and calculated,” he says.

But this dual “nature” has not always been understood when thinking about groups.

“We always think about groups as spontaneous, irrational, emotional entities that are overflowing with emotions in an unregulated manner,” he says.

He says the research explains how groups are regulated entities, so to speak.

“We always expect people to conform to other people, especially when their group is feeling less guilty about certain situations,” Goldenberg says. “This is the basis for many moral inequities in history.”


Conformity is perceived to be one of the most powerful forces of human behavior, Goldenberg and the others write. However, it is not the only influential force shaping behavior.

“We know that in every group, even in the most ruthless and strict of societies, there is a deviant subgroup that holds different thoughts and emotions than the general collective,” Goldenberg says.

Subgroups may try to leave a group or try to change its values, attitudes and behaviors.

“We often see that changes within groups are initiated by small, ‘deviant’ subgroups,” Goldenberg says.

Deviant subgroups influence their group’s behavior by convincing others to think as they do, he adds: “There are, of course, beneficial side effects like increased identity with your own deviant subgroup and feeling morally superior.”

Coauthors of the study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology are researchers Tamar Saguy and Eran Halperin from the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel.

Source: Stanford University