Catherine Sanderson, Amherst College – Group Loyalty and Problematic Behavior on Campuses

Social norms are shifting, but we have more work to do to curb problematic behavior on campuses.

Catherine Sanderson, Poler Family professor of psychology at Amherst College, looks into ways to do so.

Catherine Sanderson is the Poler Family Professor of Psychology at Amherst College. Her most recent book, Why We Act: Turning Bystanders Into Moral Rebels, examines why good people so often stay silent or do nothing in the face of wrongdoing.

Group Loyalty and Problematic Behavior on Campuses

My work examines social norms – the unwritten rules that shape our behavior – and the crucial errors people make in their perception of such norms. Problematic behavior – from binge drinking to sexual misconduct to hazing – often continues because people privately feel uncomfortable with what they see happening yet believe others don’t share their concerns. 

This perception leads people to stay silent because they fear the consequences of speaking up: Will doing so lead to rejection from the group? This fear is a normal part of human nature.

Yet people often make crucial errors in their perceptions. Psychologists call this condition – in which a majority of people privately believe one thing but incorrectly assume that most others feel different – pluralistic ignorance. Pluralistic ignorance explains why most college students feel there’s too much alcohol use on campus but believe other students are comfortable with the amount of drinking. It explains why most college men find sexual misconduct offensive but wrongly believe other men do not, and why many students privately disagree with hazing but believe others support it.

Why do these errors occur? We tend to believe that other people’s behavior reflects their true thoughts and feelings, even when we recognize that our own behavior does not. Thus, if other people aren’t speaking up to share their concerns, we assume they must be comfortable with such behavior.

What’s the good news?

Educating students about the psychological factors that lead to such misperceptions can make a real difference.

So can shifting norms about what group loyalty means.

We need to teach students that a single bad act hurts the reputation of the entire group, that all group members have a responsibility to protect their friends, and that being a good friend, fraternity brother, or teammate means speaking up, not staying silent.

Read More:
[Harvard University Press] – Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels

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