Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Brain Stuff - What are ingroups and outgroups?

We all feel like we have at least some grasp on social behaviors, that we understand the actions of ourselves and others. There's definitely a lot of truth to that - perhaps the greatest intelligence of humans is anticipating and navigating our social existence, and rarely does a social psychology finding fundamentally surprise. That being said, we all spend plenty of time blissfully ignoring our cognitive patterns and biases, which might be worth paying attention to and holding ourselves accountable for, even if we already, in some way, know they exist.

Our brain did the vast majority of its evolving when we lived in small, extended-family or tribal groups, and whatever instinctual behaviors served us best then are still deep-set, tempered as they might be by the cultural educations we all begin receiving from birth. Among those behaviors is the automatic tendency to construct our social identities by defining ourselves in terms of membership to particular groups - female, Japanese, Libertarian, UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, Dr. Who fan, band kid, preferrer of Kit Kats over Twix, whatever.

Essentially anything can be the basis for group membership.

What follows from this is evaluating others on the basis of whether they belong to those same groups. That makes sense from an evolutionary perspective - for most of humanity's existence, the list of ways we behaved toward people outside our social group (robbing, fighting) had nothing in common with the list of ways we behaved towards our cohorts (sharing, cooperating, sex), and it was important to know who was who and make immediate judgements about how to act. But now that we're no longer in that situation, have many more layers of identity, and no longer rob and kill people different from us, how do "ingroups" and "outgroups" (in the terminology of seminal social psychologist Henri Tajfel) manifest themselves?

First, a brief clarification on terminology. An ingroup is simply a social group to which someone belongs, and an outgroup is a social group to which someone doesn't. When I talk about members of our ingroup, I mean someone who shares that common social identity with us. There are three key behaviors that emerge from grouping instincts - favoritism, conformity, and ingroup heterogeneity.

The first - favoritism - is probably the most obvious. People automatically make more positive assumptions about ingroup members, and show more willingness to cooperate with them. We are more likely to interpret the "good" actions of ingroup members as a result of their personality, and "bad" actions as a matter of circumstances, not their fault. This, by the way, is the same bias we apply to interpreting our own behaviors. We also show far more readiness to help and associate with people we have something in common with, as made evident by university legacy programs and the success of an idea like Couchsurfing, where common membership in a network makes people far more inclined to grant admission or a 2 a.m. crash to an otherwise random person. And this all follows reason - people with whom we have things in common are more understandable, more predictable, and more likely to share common goals. At times, though, we can also have active prejudice against outgroup members. Examples of discrimination and outgroup tension - racism, sexism, football hooligan brawls - are maybe more visible, but less common, and usually the result of the second key behavior.

Conformity is what it sounds like - members of a group coming to think and act more like one another. This happens for several reasons. Deliberately changing to match others can be used to put identity on display and increase social harmony. The way we dress and the music we listen to are in part consciously chosen to reflect which labels we apply to ourselves, and if we agree with our cohorts about matters of politics and style it reduces chances for conflict and deepens our common ground. Grouping might also isolate us from dissent, reducing our exposure to opportunities to change our mind. If you only ever hang out with metalheads, how could you possibly be expected to come around to the realization that punk is better? This can have real consequences, beyond music allegiances - political communities often self-homogenize and expel dissent, preventing them from dialogue or updating their views in response to new circumstances.

Conformity can even be taken a step further - studies have shown that collectively made decisions are often more extreme than the any opinion held by an individual member, perhaps a runaway effect generated by people attempting to prove their allegiance to the group's principles. Juries, for instance, frequently give sentences that are more or less severe than what any individual member, when polled privately, say they find appropriate. On larger scales, this can create severe swings in collective values, leading organizations or even whole societies to act on principles far more extreme than any reasonable person would endorse.

A last key behavior emerging from grouping is ingroup heterogeneity, the perception that members of one's ingroup are more diverse than members of other groups. Any group has stereotypes associated with its members, but people are more inclined to apply stereotypes to people unlike themselves. When we think of people within our social spheres, we think of them in terms of how they differ from us as individuals, so their distinctive personality or minor beliefs come more readily to mind. Outsiders are contrastively perceived in terms of how they differ from members of our group, and we fail to attend to the things that might make them different from other individuals. A good example is the fact that, in controlled experiments, people are better at distinguishing the faces of members of their own race. Ingroup heterogeneity can also extend to matters of personality, taste, and moral character.

The question remaining at this point is how the abstract conception of groups could possibly affect contemporary societies. If you're curious about the answer, I have good news for you! Identity politics are an increasingly huge subject of political discourse, and their is maybe more awareness and attention about stereotyping than ever. Unfortunately, these are cognitive biases we're talking about, and there is still loads of unawareness. I can't and don't wish to try to answer real political and social questions, but hopefully, armed with knowledge about grouping bias, you can go forth and make more critical judgements about the issues of identity that societies across the world are facing right now.

I reaaally don't want to make political statements with this blog, but.... come on. We all know better.

If you have any thoughts, corrections or suggestions please comment below or email me at, and as always please investigate further!

Further reading:
Giles and Giles
Understanding Prejudice
Jury polarization study
In-group heterogeneity
Face recognition study
Henri Tajfel

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