July 15th, 2010
08:39 AM ET

Would you give your life for your group?

Would you give your life for your country? What about your religious group? Your soccer team?

Some people feel a shared essence with a group they're part of  and feel that just as they make the group strong, the group gives them strength too. For better or worse, some perceive such a strong tie that they would be willing to commit extreme acts, including self-sacrifice, in order to save other group members, psychologists say.

A study to appear in the journal Psychological Science looked how more than 500 Spanish college students would respond to a question of self-sacrifice when faced with the chance to save the lives of fellow Spaniards, "Europeans," and Americans. Spain is part of Europe, which therefore has social and political ties with Spain. That makes Europeans part of the extended "in-group," while America is far removed from it and thus an "out-group."

They presented participants with a hypothetical situation called the "Trolley Problem," which has been around in some form since 1967. According to the study:

Participants learned that two runaway trolleys were hurtling down two parallel tracks. One trolley was about to kill five extended in-group members (e.g. Europeans). The other trolley was about to kill five out-group members (e.g. Americans). If participants did nothing, the runaway trolleys would kill both groups. If they jumped onto one set of tracks, the five Europeans would be saved but the participant and the Americans would die; conversely, if they jumped onto the other set of tracks, the Americans would be spared but the participant and the Europeans would die.

Based on students answers to a questionnaire, researchers identified 38 percent of the participants as "fused" with Spain - in other words, those who expressed very strong ties to their country. They found that 75 percent of fused participants said they would jump to their deaths to save five Spaniards, and 88 percent said they would sacrifice themselves for five other Europeans, but not Americans.

"The primary conclusion is that these fused individuals are going to be more likely to engage in extreme behaviors," said Bill Swann, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of the paper. "It certainly suggests that one of the important predictors of these extreme behaviors may be a psychological one."

In another part of the study, in which 171 Spaniards answered questions, the researchers asked participants about whether they would allow someone in the group to sacrifice himself or herself, or push that person aside and commit the act personally. According to the study:

Participants were asked to imagine that it was March 11, 2004, the day when terrorists detonated several bombs in the Madrid trolley station. Just after the bombs exploded, while standing on a footbridge over several tracks to the station, they see the terrorists running on one set of tracks below. Beside them, another Spaniard is preparing to jump onto the path of an approaching trolley. The Spaniard knows that he will die but also knows that the approaching trolley will avoid him by veering onto the track where the terrorists are running, killing them. The participant is then given the option of either allowing the other Spaniard to jump or pushing him aside and jumping to his or her own death causing the trolley to divert and kill the terrorists.

Researchers found that 63 percent of fused participants would rather push aside an in-group member and jump to their own deaths, whereas the majority of non-fused participants preferred letting the in-group member jump. In other words, people who feel fused seem to want personal involvement in exacting justice on behalf of their group, even if that means losing one's life.

Most people who do feel "fused" only identify so strongly with one group at a time. That means that when vets return from fighting abroad, it may be hard to reconcile a powerful affiliation with the military and the expectation of identifying with family life, as illustrated in the film "The Hurt Locker," Swann said.

More research is necessary to figure out why some people are fused and others aren't, Swann said. This identity fusion is not a good or a bad thing in and of itself, but can lead to negative consequences such as terrorism, or positive consequences such as devotion to a career.

Further research is looking at how identity fusion may be different in countries such as China and Australia, he said.

soundoff (427 Responses)
  1. LB

    Assurance that I will go to heaven, to be with My Lord Jesus Christ. Also, peace and harmony and for everybody to stop complaining about the immigration issue. We shouldn't be going after the non-violent illegals, we need to worry about the ones that are trying to destroy our country. Those are the illegals that we need to worry about. 90% of us wouldn't be living in the USA today, IF our ancestors would not have been allowed to enter our country illegally, when they did.....100's of years ago.

    July 15, 2010 at 19:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Nick D

    I lost my right foot on 28Aug71 in Vietnam. I made peace with my Maker that day as I was sure I would die. By his grace I overcame and prevailed. I'll venture that like everyone, I would gladly die for my family and one in need, especially a child but like a few, I carry the reminders of how staring death in the face that day changed my life forever

    July 15, 2010 at 19:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Lee Powers

    I would not give my life for Anything... but if it were taken from me or I died trying to save someone, defend myself, family friends, beliefs or pursuing a greater principal and larger more expansive reality or demonstartion of life and what it means to be alive then so be it .No regrets .Dying is Easy. Living takes courage and the ability to hang on past all points of letting go not to merely survive but to truly Live.to me Life is a gift that is given to you not to be taken for granted or given away its value lies within its use and preservation as each person sees fit and through that individual interpretation all humanity evolves .

    July 15, 2010 at 19:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Dennis

    My Country first and always. That is a given as a retired US Army Veteran. After that I always look after my military family, nuclear family, that is it. I always think of never risk your life for less than country and family. It is just that way. Friends are just friends and nothing more, have let me down and they never live up to or step up in tough times. That includes folks I knew in school, grade through high school. They are just acquaintances and simply are not worthy of my attention in risking my life for them should that ever arise. So it is Country, military family and nuclear family in that order...........

    July 15, 2010 at 19:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Rod

    I keep steeping up but God won't take me. I must be special.

    July 15, 2010 at 19:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Chris

    I have this life. I will do my best. In the end, we all give up our lives.

    July 15, 2010 at 19:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Ohsnap!

    A week with Anthony Hopkins while I think about this.

    July 15, 2010 at 19:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Moon627

    FREEDOM and FAMILY are most important to me – i would die for

    July 15, 2010 at 19:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. death?

    nobody dies. everything gets recycled. die and you will born again and again and ...

    July 15, 2010 at 19:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Sara

    I would die or my Grandchildren, my children and my country.

    July 15, 2010 at 19:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. John Galt

    It is easy to say you would give your life but look how many crimes are committed without a single bystander assisting. Look how many people refuse to step up now EVEN when its not their life that is in danger but their reputation or livelihood. Most people would just stand around and watch while others do the fighting and dying and sacrificing.. its human nature.

    July 15, 2010 at 20:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. daCRITIQUE

    I'd give my life for all you can eat chicken wings.

    July 15, 2010 at 20:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Robert

    Lets get serious. When in recent history have Spaniards ever sacrificed themselves for anybody? Unless you count hedging their bets and hoping that Hitler won the war.

    July 15, 2010 at 20:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Kevin McCary

    i would die for my family and my country

    July 15, 2010 at 20:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Brandon

    I would totally die for a klondike bar.

    July 15, 2010 at 20:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Russ

    If necessary, I will allow all of you to die for me. Don't thank me – it's a sacrifice I'm perfectly willing to make.

    July 15, 2010 at 20:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. R.L.P.

    I was in the Army, and I took a bullet for a fellow soldier, as a cop I put my life on teh line for people I didn't know; I would give my life for this country, my family, my friends.... But jumping in front of a trolley? Not so sure about that.... I might be inclined to push the Spaniard in front of the trolley...... 🙂

    July 15, 2010 at 20:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. John Galt

    I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

    July 15, 2010 at 20:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Kay

    I've been in a situation to save lives at the risk of my own life twice. Once when I was a teen and ran into a burning house barefoot to save 3 little kids screaming for help. The other time, decades later, was to save a truck driver trapped in an 18-wheeler on the other side of the turnpike that had been hit, flipped on its side, the gas tanks exploded and the cab was in flames. The driver was desperately trying to climb out the of the cab through the driver's side window...which was 'up' since the cab had flipped on its side...right after the gas tanks exploded. I can still see his bald head coming up through the flames.

    In both cases I never even thought about it. I just reacted. This doesn't make me brave or heroic. It just means that I know that my adrenaline will kick in and I'll react without even thinking about my own safety. And, based on the 50 or so people who stopped behind the truck and watched from a safe distance before I ever got there, making no effort to save the guy, I know that most people will NOT react that way. But I'm not going to fault them for it, even though I'm sure there were some among them who had believed they would act quite differently in an emergency.

    July 15, 2010 at 20:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Bill

    Wounded Nov 3 1968 Viet Nam, would I do it again" NO", I can't see dying for a Country thats full of Hate

    July 15, 2010 at 20:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Bushpig

    Wow, that's a tough one. My kids for starters. After that, I'd have to weigh it out. Are we talking a quick death or a slow, agonizing one, like by torture? If it's torture, then no, I wouldn't even do it for my kids. Sayonara, niños! Death by1,000 cuts, where they skin you alive? I think not.

    July 15, 2010 at 20:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Bushpig

    I might die for a shot of trim, if I haven't had it for like, oh, say 7 or 8 years.

    July 15, 2010 at 20:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. SPCPHD

    @Howie and others who think it is stupid and foolish to give your life for anyone other than “flesh and blood” family, let me pose this senario: You and your family are on a plane that has been hijacked by terrorists. The terrorists have to make an example of somebody, so they randomly single you out for execution (or your young son or your wife). An elderly passenger who has lived a full life with children and grandchildren stands up and says “No, take me instead". Is this person a fool? And Howie…As he walks past you into the clutches of the waiting terrorists, would you say to him “Old man, you are stupid, crazy, and should be removed from the gene pool”, or would you say “Thank you and God bless you”? Just wondering…

    July 15, 2010 at 20:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Paul C

    There are so many world leaders who happily send others to die for their country. Seems like if you are willing for someone else to die, then you should be first in line at the front.

    July 15, 2010 at 21:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. H. Lee Angus

    It seems a little silly for people to blame these scientists for not *actually* placing subjects in deadly situations to see how they'd behave. Mind you, back in the day, they used to do stuff pretty close to that - Stanford Prison Experiment, Stanley Milgram experiment, not to mention Tuskegee. But liability considerations, if not ethics, restrain them now.

    I'm a fairly old woman who's had a fairly good life. I want more of it, but sometimes I think that before I hit the nursing-home stage, I'd rather go out with a bang. Die for something worthwhile, kind of noisily, so it would maybe change a few minds. Stand in front of an Israeli tank as it moved toward a Palestinian home, for instance. Or, heck, deflect an incoming Hamas bomb to save some Israeli kids. I'm not partisan. I don't have a lot of courage, but I think maybe I'd have enough to carry me through those few moments. I'd be telling myself it was sparing me the nursing home.

    July 15, 2010 at 21:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. patricia

    I would give my life for anyone if I thought that I could actually save them. There's no reason for me to believe that my life is worth more than anyone elses, so I'd happily lose my own so that some on else could be spared.

    July 15, 2010 at 23:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. WillAndWin

    This "study" is of limited use. People can act however they want in this imaginary scenario. Nobody knows how they'll react in that situation until they're facing down certain death for real. If anything, subjects whose responses qualify them as "fused" might simply be exhibiting a higher need for approval. Either this study was not presented very well in the article, or the study fails to adequately test its hypothesis.

    July 15, 2010 at 23:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. emcee

    I would gladly die in order to bring my 40 year old son back to life.

    July 16, 2010 at 00:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. MashaSobaka

    I’ve placed my life in harm’s way several times, sometimes for people I know and love and a few times for people I didn’t know and may well have disliked intensely had I gotten to know them. There is an evolutionary drive to protect the people around you when a group of people is under attack – and by that, I mean a smattering of people standing around, not an ethnic group or a group of Americans or a group of Jews or what have you. It’s called instinct, and it’s pretty damn hard to shake off.

    This identification with the other kind of “group” is a different matter entirely. First off, it’s imagined, cultivated, a flippin’ fairy tale. It’s a story that we’ve been told to make sure that wars and economic competition continue and that the rulers of the world remain in power. Call me a paranoid Bolshevik or call me an enlightened individual, I don’t care, it’s the truth. All of this silly talk about choosing between groups of people who are trapped in the wake of runaway trolleys just emphasizes the absurdity of the thing. If I see people about to die, I’m not going to stand back and wonder which “group” they fall into before I decide whether they’re worth saving. If I can save them, I’m going to. Some overbearing official picking my brain and trying to determine whether I’d be more likely to save an American or a Spaniard sounds a bit like a manufactured crisis to me. In the end we’re all just human beings and to sympathize more with the people who live in your geographic vicinity or with the people who support the same perpetually awful sports team or the people who worship at the same portal to God…that’s what I call madness. The sooner we stop planting the seeds of difference into the hearts of children the better off this world is going to be.

    "Patriots always talk of dying for their country, but never of killing for their country." – Bertrand Russell.

    July 16, 2010 at 03:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Stephen

    Once again, psychology bends over backwards to verify the perfectly obvious. People feel more loyalty to the groups with which they identify than with those with which they don't? Wow. What a revelation.

    July 16, 2010 at 06:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Jim P

    I wouldn't jump in front of a trolly for anybody, I'd just wave as they whizzed by, both trolly's.

    The only situation I can imagine where I might make such a choice would be in a violent confrontation with a home invader, car jacker or an unexpected assault by a druggie or other such bad guy on myself and my family. At that point I would try my damnest to make the other guy be the one to die!!

    July 16, 2010 at 07:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. lochlan

    I wouldn't give my life for much. I am not a believer so to me death is game over. My kids are the only thing, I think.

    July 16, 2010 at 08:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Jason

    I would give my life to defend the United States of America and the United States Constitution. I would also gladly give my life for my friends.

    July 16, 2010 at 08:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. SN Tuten, USCG

    Wow all these negative comments really make me proud to be serving my country and putting my life on the line for others everyday!! No wonder most Americans dont care about all our soldiers fighting and giving their lives for our country, they're too busy being selfish to worry about others! To all those who do care, thank you for your support. We put OUR lives on the line everyday, maybe the world would be a better place if everyone thought that way!

    July 18, 2010 at 10:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Jason

    I think most Americans do care about their soldiers, in fact most of them want them to come home and be safe.

    July 18, 2010 at 15:17 | Report abuse | Reply
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