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How we assign blame for corporate crimes

Whether the public blames Wall Street or its bankers for bad decisions depends a lot on the group's level of cohesion as well as its mindfulness, or ability to "think," suggests a new study.

The researchers wanted to find out how people choose to blame large collectives, such as a major corporation, political party, governmental entity, professional sports team or other organization, while still treating members of those groups as unique individuals. They found that the more people judge a united group as having a "mind"— the ability to think, intend or plan — the less they judge each member as having their own capacity to complete acts requiring such a mind. The opposite also held.

"We thought there might be certain cases where instead of attributing mind to individuals, people actually attribute mind to the group," study researcher Liane Young, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, said in a statement.

Young gives a political example of a group mind. "If you're a Democrat, you might think that the Republican Party has an agenda, a mind of its own, but that each individual Republican is just following the crowd, incapable of independent thought," Young said. "That's the trade-off we're after, between group mind and member mind."

To test their theory, the researchers conducted four experiments on a total of 129 participants via online questionnaires. In the studies, participants had to rate the extent to which various groups had a mind, and the extent to which each group member individually had a mind. These groups ranged from corporations, like McDonald's, to sports teams, such as the New York Yankees, to government entities, such as the U.S. Navy and even groups like Facebook.

Participants also rated each group's cohesiveness, and in some of the studies, they indicated how morally responsible the group was for its collective decisions and how morally responsible the group's members were for both personal decisions and collective decisions.

Results showed that to the greater extent subjects judged a group to have a "mind," the less likely they were to judge each member of that group as having an individual mind; as such, the participants tended to assign each individual within the group less responsibility for their own actions.

This suggests that people assess a group as a whole differently than they do the individuals in the group, and use that judgment when doling out blame, the researchers said.

For instance, on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much), participants gave Burger King's "group mind" an average of 3.55 and their "member mind" as a 5.45; as such, when asked how morally responsible Burger King as a group is responsible for collective actions, participants gave an average rating of 5.9 and a 2.85 for how responsible individual members were for their own personal actions. The U.S. Congress got the same group-mind rating and a 5.9 for member mind, while the U.S. Navy scored a 3.6 and 5.1 for group and individual mind, respectively; Twitter users scored an average of 2.7 and 6.35 for group and individual mind, respectively.

"When people consider corporations to be mindful entities, this gives them moral rights, such as the right to contribute to political campaigns, as was granted to them by the Supreme Court last year, as well as legal responsibilities," study researcher Adam Waytz of Northwestern University said in a statement.

"We think the topic of whether people think of groups as having minds has a number of implications for legal decisions, such as regarding conspiracy—a charge that requires collective intent, how people think about social movements and their members, as well as judgments of corporate personhood," Waytz added.

The study was published in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science.

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