A 2015 study finds that people faced with group exclusion are particularly motivated to engage in unethical behavior in order to improve their chance of being included.

It is often assumed that the primary function of unethical behavior is to benefit the individual. However, an international team of researchers, led by Stefan Thau of INSEAD, has found that, when faced with the risk of exclusion, many individuals will engage in such behavior to benefit the group. Their findings show that the need to belong often trumps the need for pure self-benefit.

This two part study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2015, looked at the motivating factors of pro-group unethical behavior, defined as “ . . . violations of moral and legal standards of how employees should behave when trying to contribute to the performance or well-being of their groups.”

Part one of the study, conducted as an online survey, included 228 respondents, and part two included 100 university students chosen to participate in an in-lab experiment.

Both parts found that those who believed they were at risk for exclusion, such as workgroup members avoiding them, excluding or ignoring them, the greater of likelihood of unethical behavior, such as bad-mouthing, cheating, and discrediting out-group members, went up. This was especially the case for those who initially reported a high “need to belong.”

The experimental portion of the study gave groups anagram tasks that, unbeknownst to them, were unsolvable. Extra compensation was offered to the winning group and the members were told that only 3 of the 4 group participants would be needed for the final part of the study, which would be decided by a vote. Half of the participants had the impression that they were likely to be excluded for the final round through a rigged initial vote designed to indicate the members likely to be excluded. These individuals reported far higher instances of “solving” the unsolvable anagrams—i.e., they cheated more often.

In a slightly different version of the anagram study, success resulted in personal reward, instead of benefiting the group. In this example neither the pre-existing need for inclusion nor the risk of it could be correlated to cheating.

This deep need for inclusion has its roots in our own evolutionary history, banishment—i.e., group exclusion—could easily mean death. In fact, many cultures considered it a fate worse than death. Given this inherited wealth of experience, it makes good sense that individuals would be highly motivated to be seen as a valuable contributor to their group, by any means possible.

Read the study abstract and access the full text article see: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24773402.