Stanford research shows how people emotionally turn against their groups in cases of injustice

New Stanford research shows that 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 feel. The research touches upon the heroic challenge of speaking up or acting against injustice.

demonstrator offers flower to MP in 1967

New Stanford research helps explain social dynamics like nonconformity and the role that emotions play in changing social norms and behaviors. (Image credit: U.S. Army)

New Stanford research shows that people may reject emotions shared with a group if they believe the group should feel differently as they do – especially in cases of 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 said.

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

Co-authors on the study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology were researchers Tamar Saguy and Eran Halperin from the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel.

Goldenberg said, “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.”

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,” said Goldenberg, who conducts research in the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory.


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 questions 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 said, 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 said.

Emotional transfers, burdens

One of the psychological mechanisms resulting in nonconformity is “emotional transfer,” said 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 said.

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.

Implications of 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 said in an interview.

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 said.

He said the research explains how groups are regulated entities, so to say.

“We always expect people to conform to other people, especially when their group is feeling less guilty about certain situations,” Goldenberg said.

He noted, “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 wrote. 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 said.

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 said.

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

Media Contacts

Amit Goldenberg, Psychology: (415) 299-9492,
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,