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

3 Comments:

At 1:49 PM , Blogger J Quaglia said...

A question I have is regarding the type of person that lacks loyalty.

Are the folks that lack loyalty at a school likely to lack loyalty in a business organization? Or might the two circumstances be unrelated?

It seems like there are some people that just complain about any and all groups in which they are involved. Are those the people that don't watch fireworks on the 4th of July? Or do people avoid fireworks simply because they have a different set of values than those represented by the fireworks?

 
At 12:38 AM , Blogger Stormchild said...

"... 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."

Interesting, but not really surprising... these are young people, at an age when group affiliation tends to be very important, and in a culture that encourages 'tribalism' [are you a Geek? a Goth? you get the idea].

I'd expect them to hold on more tightly to their chosen group when confronted with negative information about it, and I'm not so sure that's as unqualifiedly 'good' as it's apparently perceived to be.

I see it as the same drive that keeps people in marriages to alcoholics and abusers, keeps them in abusive religious organizations, or keeps them working for exploitive employers, long after they've begun to suspect the truth about their situation.

Did the experimenters attempt to measure the participants' dependency, the extent to which they obtain identity, affirmation, and self-worth from belonging? I think that's a crucial component in situations like this.

And although I know I sound critical, I don't mean to be critical of the young students. Critical thinking skills and inner-directedness - values that come from within rather than without - take time to acquire. One needs to see examples, one needs a basis for comparison. One needs, simply, experience.

In fact, I'd posit that the transition from 'pumped-up loyalty' to 'jumping ship' is probably very similar, if not identical to, the transition from 'idealizing the group' to 'facing the group's shortcomings and deciding whether the benefits of continued membership or participation are worth the costs.'

 
At 11:59 AM , Blogger jbro said...

There's probably some room for cognitive dissonance in explaining this.
1)I love America.
2)I think torture is wrong.
3)America waterboards.
At least one of those has to change or be added onto before they can be integrated. Some people come to "America needs to stop those people waterboarding in its name." and sometimes people come to "I can't love a country while it allows waterboarding."

 

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