The Paradox of Loyalty
Friday, July 10, 2009
By Wray Herbert
A curious thing happened among my friends during the Bush-Cheney years. Some, especially those who opposed the invasion of Iraq, disengaged from American symbols and traditions. They didn’t celebrate the 4th of July; indeed wouldn’t even watch a fireworks display or fly a flag. But others, also no fans of the war or the administration’s torture policies, did the opposite: They became more patriotic, or at least more public in their displays and declarations of loyalty to country.
I count myself in the second group, yet I admit to being perplexed by this phenomenon. Why would disappointment in one’s country inspire increased loyalty? Doesn’t it seem more natural to disavow the country as a protest against its unjust actions, or at least to disengage a bit?
Well, it turns out that loyalty is a complex and paradoxical emotion. Psychologists have been studying the interplay of social injustice, righteous anger and group allegiance, and it appears that loyalists are not simply apologists for anything and everything the group stands for. In fact, ramped-up loyalty may be a predictable step toward taking a firm and principled stand.
New York University psychologists Heather Barry and Tom Tyler have been exploring this phenomenon in the laboratory, focusing on students’ loyalty to their university. In one study, for example, they used an elaborate procedure to measure the strength of students’ group commitment—that is, how important the university was to the individual students’ sense of identity. Once the students were sorted out according to their group allegiances, they were all asked to review the university’s grievance procedures. This was actually a laboratory ruse: In fact, some read procedures that seemed just and fair, while others read a version that clearly disrespected students’ rights, along with fellow students' complaints about unfair treatment.
The psychologists wanted to see how the students would react to unfavorable revelations about their university. Would seeing their group in a bad light change their sense of loyalty? Would they remain team players, with a shared sense of common purpose? They measured this in two ways. First, they asked them a series of questions about their willingness to serve their schools and fellow students in selfless ways: Would they tutor another student if asked? Would they help a professor with some photocopying? That kind of thing. The researchers wanted to get a general measure of how cooperative and service-oriented the students were feeling. In addition, one of the experimenters deliberately dropped her pen during the experiment, to see which of the students were spontaneously helpful.
The findings were provocative. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, the students who were the most devoted to their school to begin with were also the most cooperative and helpful when forced to confront the school’s failings. That is, those truest to their group redoubled their sense of service and commitment when faced with injustice. They didn’t criticize, nor did they distance themselves from the others in the group.
These results were immediate and short-term. The psychologists emphasize this, and find the results encouraging. It means that the group members’ loyalty is not so fragile that they jump ship with just a little disillusionment; they stay to help strengthen the group and correct its course. But this pumped-up loyalty is unlikely to last for long: If confronted with continued evidence of unfairness and injustice, many will stop compensating for the group’s shortcomings—and leave. What’s unclear is how long this will take—or how unjust a group must be before it squanders its members’ loyalty.
For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at Newsweek.com.
posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:47 AM