In shocking news that emerged in 2011, a Penn State football team coach was indicted on 52 counts of sexual abuse. The university responded by publicly condemning the coach and banning him from campus. Yet, investigations soon revealed a dark secret that university officials had been hiding for years: they were aware of the coach’s appalling violations but had failed to report him. Why did the university denounce the coach after the scandal broke despite having previously protected him?

Presumably, when one or more group members behave immorally, some members of the group understandably worry about threats to their group’s reputation. So, they strategically respond to the violation in ways that protect the group’s reputation, even when doing so is immoral. If the violation is already known to people outside the group, the group members try to repair the damage to their group’s reputation by having their group vociferously denounce the transgressor. However, if outsiders don’t know about the violation, group members may feel compelled to keep the violation hidden.

Which members of a group are most likely to prioritize group reputation over moral principles? We assumed that that group members whose identities are “fused” with the group would be particularly inclined to try to protect the group. Identity fusion is a psychological experience that involves a feeling of oneness with a group. Research has shown that strongly fused group members are most likely to engage in extreme behaviors that promote the well-being and success of their group. When such people encounter a moral violation within the group, the threat to the group’s reputation feels personal, which motivates them to go to great lengths to protect the group’s reputation.

We also assumed that group leaders should be particularly likely to prioritize the group’s reputation over moral concerns because they feel personally obligated to act in the group’s interests. As a result, they should behave like strongly fused members in trying to protect the reputation of the group when its members behave badly.

Simply put, group members who feel responsible for the group, either because they have fused identities or because they are in leadership positions, should respond to moral violations of fellow group members much like the Penn State officials did.

To test these ideas, we conducted several studies with over 2800 Americans who identified as being supporters of either the Democratic or Republican Party. In all of our studies, we first measured participants’ identity fusion with their party to assess how much each participant personally cared about their party.

Participants then read a description of a situation in which a politician from their party had committed tax fraud. Some participants read that news regarding the tax fraud had gone viral (a “public violation”). Others read that no one else knew about the fraud except them (a “private violation”). Participants then rated their motivation to publicly denounce the politician (for example, by having their group report the politician to federal agents) and to hide the violation (for example, by tampering with incriminating evidence).

Consistent with our reasoning, strongly fused group members were more likely to endorse publicly denouncing the unethical politician if the violation was public rather than private. Weakly fused people responded the same way to private and public violations. Strongly fused people also endorsed extreme actions such as hiding the violation, regardless of whether the violation was publicly known.

In two additional studies, we examined whether group leaders show a similar pattern. Before reading about the tax fraud, half the participants were instructed to imagine being a local party leader, and half were not. Participants who imagined themselves to be a party leader were more likely to endorse publicly denouncing the transgressor after public, rather than private, transgressions. Participants who were not asked to imagine being a party leader did not respond differently to public and private transgressions. It is striking that our participants showed this pattern even when they simply imagined being a group leader. Presumably, people who actually hold leadership positions even for a short time would display even stronger effects.

When responding to moral violations within their group, people may experience a tension between their motivation to protect the group and their ethical beliefs.   Our finding that some people prioritize their group over moral principles might explain why horrific offenses such as the one at Penn State often go unreported. We hope that understanding the psychological processes underlying people’s responses to moral violations will promote a culture that values and promotes ethical decision-making when members of one’s group behave immorally.

For Further Reading

Ashokkumar, A., Galaif, M., & Swann Jr, W. B. (2019). Tribalism can corrupt: Why people denounce or protect immoral group members. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology85, 103874.

Pagliaro, S., Ellemers, N., Barreto, M., & Di Cesare, C. (2016). Once dishonest, always dishonest? The impact of perceived pervasiveness of moral evaluations of the self on motivation to restore a moral reputation. Frontiers in psychology7, 586.

Swann, W. B., Jr., Buhrmester, M. (2015).  Identity fusion. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 24, 52–57

Van der Toorn, J., Ellemers, N., & Doosje, B. (2015). The threat of moral transgression: The impact of group membership and moral opportunity. European Journal of Social Psychology45(5), 609-622.


Ashwini Ashokkumar is a graduate student of personality and social psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She studies group dynamics, morality, and language.

Bill Swann is a professor of personality and social psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. His emphasis is on self and identity, with frequent excursions into social cognition, close relationships, and personality.