“Fused” People Eager to Die and Kill for Their Group, Research Shows

Aug. 11, 2010

AUSTIN, Texas — People with extremely strong ties to their countries or groups are not only willing, but eager, to sacrifice themselves to save their compatriots, according to new psychology research from The University of Texas at Austin.

In a study to appear in Psychological Science, Bill Swann, professor of psychology, and a team of researchers found the majority of "fused" people, those who view themselves as completely immersed in a group (be it ethnic, national or other), are willing to commit extreme acts for the good of their compatriots.

"Fused group members believe that through suicide, their lives will achieve tremendous significance," Swann said. "Their strong sense of moral agency drives them to see not only that justice is done, but to also take an active role in its implementation."

The psychology researchers who co-authored the study included Sonia Hart of The University of Texas at Austin, Angel Gomez of Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia in Spain, John F. Dovidio of Yale University and Jolanda Jetten of the University of Queensland.

In the study, the researchers recruited 506 college students at the Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia in Spain. Based on the students' answers in online questionnaires, the researchers identified 38 percent of the participants as "fused" as compared to "non-fused," with Spain. They then measured their self-sacrificial behaviors.

To test the subjects' willingness to die for their group, the researchers based their Web surveys on different variations of the "Trolley Problem." Coined by British philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomas in 1967, the "Trolley Problem" presents a hypothetical moral dilemma in which a person must choose whether to kill one person to save five strangers from a fatal trolley collision either by pushing a man in front of the tracks or simply flipping a switch that would automatically kill an innocent bystander. To put a new spin on the moral dilemma, the researchers added self-sacrifice as a means of saving a member of their group from a runaway trolley.

The study revealed that an overwhelming majority of fused respondents are willing to take extreme, bold steps to save the lives of their group members. According to the findings:

  • 75 percent are willing to jump to their deaths to save the lives of five group members, compared to 25 percent of participants who were not fused with their country.
  • 88 percent said they would die to save five members of an extended in-group (Europe), but not members of an out-group (America). The researchers used Europe as an example of an extended in-group (outsiders with close cultural or moral affiliations) because of its common social, political and economic ties to Spain. They used America as an example of an out-group because it is far removed from Spain.
  • When given the option to push aside a fellow group member who is about to sacrifice himself to kill some escaped terrorists, 63 percent said they would push the group member aside so they, themselves, could leap to their deaths to divert a train that would then kill the terrorists.

Swann said the study may offer new insights into the mindsets of groups with extremist ideology.

"In an era in which the act of sacrificing one's own life for the group has had world-altering consequences, it is critical to learn more about the psychological underpinnings of such activity," Swann said.

For more information, contact: Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404; Bill Swann, professor of psychology, 512-471-3859.

9 Comments to "“Fused” People Eager to Die and Kill for Their Group, Research Shows"

1.  Morton Kurzweil said on Aug. 12, 2010

"'Fused' people, those who view themselves as completely immersed in a group..."

Fuse is an interesting term. It means to reduce to a liquid or plastic state by melting into another form. Self identity is lost within the identity of a group or belief system. Conviction is achieved by identification with the ideas of others. Paranoia is a prime symptom. Any perceived act or voice may be felt as a personal attack on self identity. The response is violent in self defense of the group identity.

2.  Mike Spence said on Aug. 12, 2010

The difference between "willing" and "eager" is important. Willing suggests dedication to a cause bigger than oneself. Eager suggests brainwashing or psychosis.

3.  Jay Williams said on Aug. 13, 2010

I don't think this is really anything you can prove in a non-realistic setting. There's a world of difference between checking off a box on a piece of paper and actually jumping in front of a trolley. It boils down to the flight vs. fight choice. All of us want to believe we'd save a child from a burning building, but when the actual situation arises, most take flight (remember 9/11?). I think a better study would have been to examine the life and habits of those who actually did such actions.

4.  Siegfried Hannig said on Aug. 14, 2010

Thank you, Bill Swann et al. It seems like the biggest breakthrough since the findings of Ernst Fehr of Zurich University regarding "altruistic punishment" to the extent of 3rd party sacrifices for morality.

5.  Siegfried Hannig said on Aug. 14, 2010

Self-sacrifice in the face of mortal danger and even certain death is the ultimate proof of the human spirit, which has made the most moral individuals the most likely to survive, prosper, propagate and therefore evolve.

6.  Patrice M. Schexnayder said on Aug. 18, 2010

In the contemporary American culture, where isolation is a norm (living alone, spending much time alone driving in a car, working in a cubicle), this research suggests some explanations about the tendency of many to passively watch the world on TV.

7.  Xezlec said on Aug. 24, 2010

It's worth pointing out that this study makes no value judgments about whether this sort of activity is a good or bad thing. In the distant past, when our impulses evolved, it had undoubtedly a positive influence on the group, but today it is highly debatable whether this remains the case. In any event, it is not yet clear whether (or how easily) this impulse can be "turned off" if it is indeed anachronistic today.

8.  Deena Berg said on Aug. 25, 2010

Odd that they only looked at students, since gender and age seem to be factors. Suicide bombers tend to be young men, which makes me wonder if this is part hormonal and an extension of the hunting group/hero mentality of our ancestors. I've been watching the passion with which my son and his friends identify themselves as backers of specific sports teams even though the players and the team's "home city" have nothing to do with them personally. And the reverence for the player who "takes one for the team."

9.  Dwight Threepersons said on Aug. 29, 2010

I have to agree with Jay Williams on this one. The only thing that I would add, is that we should take a close look at those individuals who committed to carry out a suicide attack, and then backed out at the last moment, when it was time to push the button or pull the trigger. Information could be gleaned about their own lives as well that will prove useful. We also have to look at this whole thing in the context of nationalism, politics and war. For example are there similarities between Kamikaze fighters in WW II and suicide missions of today? ALL nations, including the United States, have had individuals usually in paramilitary or military outfits that have participated in suicide attacks or missions. Focus on specific groups that have advocated this tactic either in war or peace, and you will find the answers.