Angus Hildreth, Francesca Gino, and Max Bazerman have conducted a fascinating set of experimental studies that study the question: Does group loyalty breed unethical behavior? Here's how they examined that research question. They engaged members of three college fraternities. First, they asked them about their loyalty to their organization. A week later, they asked the fraternity brothers to solve a series of puzzles. They could earn money if they solved them correctly. Moreover, they could earn an additional cash prize if their organization outperformed the other two fraternities in the study. The participants could score themselves in this exercise, providing them an opportunity to cheat. The researchers employed a mechanism to determine who had cheated. What did they find? Interestingly, the fraternity members who expressed stronger loyalty to their organization tended to cheat less in this exercise. Loyalty did not breed unethical behavior.
Then the researchers conducted another experiment. This time, they engaged four fraternities. They provided each subject a note from their fraternity president at the outset of the experiment. Some people received a note that said, "Please take these tasks seriously. Good luck!" Others received a longer message that included the following statement in bold and underlined: "It is a tough competition, but I know we can win." Before the experiment, each brother received a note from his house president. In some cases, the note read, simply, “Please take these tasks seriously. Good luck!” For others, the note was a much longer call to action, specifically referencing the competition with the other houses, and adding, in bold and underlined, “It is a tough competition, but I know we can win.”
What did they find? The members who received the first note again tended to show the same pattern: loyalty tended to be correlated with ethical behavior. However, for those receiving the second note, they saw a different pattern: "Strongly loyal brothers cheated at a rate of 66 percent, compared to only 42 percent for those who were less loyal." In this case, loyalty seemed to breed unethical behavior.
Hildreth concludes, "We provided evidence suggesting loyalty can be a good thing, but there is a big caveat, which is beware when you tell people what their loyalty demands because that can have a strong blinding aspect to it.”