How does social conflict influence political behavior? In conflict settings, social groups treat otherwise tolerated behaviors as threatening: associating with ethnic others, profiting from inter-group trade, or collaborating with peace processes can be perceived as allegiance to the enemy. These “defector labels” are applied in a variety of social settings, from people’s homes and workplaces to public forums and social media. And those who are labeled as defectors may be ostracized, imprisoned, tortured or killed.
I suggest that defector labels have a polarizing effect on political behavior: the labeled must either prove their conformity to the ingroup, or defect to seek security, social or economic support from the outgroup. A computer-assisted lab experiment is designed to understand the conditions that lead to conformity or defection, and how authorities may manipulate these conditions to divide populations whom they view as enemies.
The experiment is designed as a “narrativized” Social Deduction Game1, where players must work as a team to identify an enemy among them in order to maximize group rewards. Labeled defectors choose to remain in their group or switch sides to a rival group. In one treatment condition, labeled defectors are primed to receive social support from other players to remain in their group. In another treatment condition, they are primed to receive economic punishment for remaining in their group. Across conditions, I compare the propensity of labeled and unlabeled players to sacrifice personal for group rewards. The results shed light on the relationship between social cohesion and government security practices, which aim to generate popular compliance in conflicts between rival political authorities.