How We Assign Blame for Corporate Crimes

Corporation Office Workers
The more that 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, assigning each member less responsibility for their own actions, according to the study. (Image credit: SVLuma | shutterstock)

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. 

"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.

You can follow LiveScience writer Remy Melina on Twitter @remymelina. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience  and on Facebook.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.