Would you give it up for the group?

William Swann conducts research on "identity fusion," which is thought to occur when group members view themselves
William Swann conducts research on "identity fusion," which is thought to occur when group members view themselves as completely immersed in a group. Photo: Marsha Miller

Imagine a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks toward a handful of people. If it continues on its course, it will kill the group of innocent bystanders. You're given two options to save the day: throw a switch and kill only one person, or sacrifice your own life by leaping in front of the trolley.

What would you do?

In a study, to appear in Psychological Science, William Swann, professor of psychology, found that "fused" people, those who have extreme ties with their group, are not only willing, but eager to hurtle themselves in front of the speeding trolley to save their fellow people.

Using different variations of the "Trolley Problem," a moral dilemma that's been around since 1967, Swann and his team of researchers examined how more than 500 college students in Spain would respond to questions of self-sacrifice. Based on students' answers to the online questionnaires, the researchers identified 38 percent of the respondents as "fused" with Spain. They found that 75 percent of fused Spaniards said they would jump to their deaths to save five of their compatriots.

Not only were they willing to die for their group, the majority of fused respondents said they were also willing to push aside a fellow group member who was poised to commit the same self-sacrificial act so they, themselves, could be the savior of the group.

Swann says fused people commonly see themselves as the strongest, bravest group members. This team-captain mentality could drive them to commit heroic acts, he said.

"One of the characteristics of fused persons is that they draw strength from their group because for them, the self and the group are one," Swann said. "This means they will have -- or at least think they have -- an additional source of strength relative to non-fused persons, who tend to think of themselves as relatively independent of the group."

Although identity fusion can lead to positive consequences such as devotion to a career or family, Swann said it could also have negative effects, especially for military personnel returning from fighting abroad who are struggling to assimilate back into their homes and families.

To illustrate this point, Swann refers to "The Hurt Locker," a film about a soldier who was so fused with his military service that he couldn't reconnect with his wife and children after returning home from his tour in Iraq.

"Our research on fusion is just beginning, but if I were forced to speculate I'd point out that people are rarely fused with more than one entity," Swann said. "This means that if someone is fused with their career or their sport or their art, they may be unwilling to allow time for their relationships or other pursuits that we think of making for a well-rounded life."

According to Swann, this study could illuminate new insights into the problems soldiers returning from active combat endure when readjusting to civilian life.

"The military has a real problem because the very processes that soldiers need for combat, such as fusion with their company, tend to estrange these soldiers from their families when they return," Swann said.

To help servicemen and women succeed in the battlefield and civilian life, Swann said the U.S. military should work on strategies for creating fusion and shifting the target of the fusion from one entity (the company or the family) to another (the family or company).

More research is necessary to determine the origins of fusion. Swann's further research is looking at how physical arousal, spurred by strenuous exercises, boosts identity fusion.