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March 10, 2020 Leave your thoughts

Why do we join groups?

Marwa El Zein

Why do people join groups? In the past couple of years, I have examined the hypothesis that a very important motive to join a group is to share responsibility with others for decision outcomes, which helps minimise regret and punishment.  Now, in two empirical investigations that have been published, I provide evidence for my claim.

In the first paper, we focused on regret and tested the hypothesis that avoiding regret motivates people to engage in group decisions when faced with costly choices. In two online studies (N=125 and N=496), participants decided between two lotteries that could win or lose them money with various probabilities. To induce regret, participants were exposed to both the outcome of the lottery they chose as well as the one they did not choose. Seeing the unchosen lottery outcome acted as “counterfactual” telling them what would have happened had they chosen otherwise. Many studies in psychology have used counterfactual outcome to study regret in humans.

We found that the negative experience associated with loss and regret motivated decision makers to join groups. When compared to deciding alone, deciding as a part of a group was less driven by bad outcomes and anticipation of future regret. Perhaps most interestingly, negative outcomes resulting from individual decisions affected subsequent decisions,while failure in collective choice did not. Having decided together with others, people seemed unwilling to evaluate or examine their collective choice that had failed.

This has raised the important hypothesis that we want to test next: maybe people LEARN LESS from feedback in collective (vs individual) context.


In the second paper, we focused on punishment and asked whether people would punish the violation of equality norm differently when an individuals or a group has committed the violation.

Our participants (N=150) played the Ultimatum game. In this game, one proposer (or group of proposers) is given some money and asked to split the money between themselves and our participant who can accept or reject the offer. Rejecting the offer is a way to punish the proposer for an unfair offer, as in this case, both players end up with nothing. Previous works have shown that people generally consider equal benefits in such game as the correct thing to do i.e. equality norm. The data showed that participants took more time to decide whether to punish an unfair group (vs individual).

Participants could also play the proposer’s role and had to split the money between themselves and the other person, while their unfair offers could be punished. We found that people made less generous offers as a group as compared to when playing alone. Interestingly, this only was the case in stingy participants who were generally less generous, suggesting that they used the opportunity to hide in the collective to make more money.


Together, the results from these two studies show that being in a collective structure allows us to share responsibility with others and this may protect individuals from negative consequences of their decisions or even, dispose them to behave less benevolently. Two heads can be meaner than one.

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