Ingroup v outgroup – a primer

December 12, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

In my quest to better understand basic principles of group behavior, I reviewed Intergroup Relations, by Maryland B. Brewer and Norman Miller (1996) [this work appears to be out of print].  The stated focus this book is to better understand “the causes and consequences of the distinctions between ingroups (those groups to which an individual belongs) and outgroups (social groups that do not include the individual as a member).  At the outset, the authors note “the apparently universal propensity to differentiate the social world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’”  (Page xiii).

It was my suspicion that basic principles of social psychology would give me a deeper context for understanding many modern conflicts.   I was not disappointed.  By the way, these same principles appear in all basic social psychology books.  Nothing I mention here is tentative or controversial among social scientists.

According to Sherif (1966) “whenever individuals belonging to one group interact, collectively or individually, with another group or its members in terms of their group identification, we have an instance of Intergroup behavior.”  (Page 2)   Such social categories “tend to be less rational than other categorizations in that the beliefs we hold about social groupings often do not rest on firm evidence of actual Intergroup differences.”  (Page 6)  Once we establish categories, “we are biased toward information that enhances the differences between categories and less attentive to information about similarities between members of different categories.”  (Page 7).

We live in a pluralistic society.  Therefore, individuals are simultaneously members in multiple social categories.  It is not always clear how ingroup-outgroup differentiations are perceived in such situations.  Sometimes there are canceling effects and other times there are additive effects.  (Page 9).

The “fundamental attribution error”: seeing behavior as a product of characteristics or traits of a person, underestimating the influence of situational factors in causing action.  (Page 11).  Good outcomes for our ingroup are explained by stable internal attributions–good things happen to us because we are of good character.   We explain bad outcomes for our ingroup by reference to situational factors (bad luck, bad circumstances).  By contrast, good outcomes for outgroups are explained by situational factors or by unstable internal factors (e.g. effort or luck).  We sanctimoniously explain bad outcomes for outgroups by reference to stable internal factors (bad character).  In short, outgroups get blame, but not credit.  Ingroups get credit but not blame. Pettigrew (1979) termed this pattern of intergroup attributions the “ultimate attribution error.”

What is the advantage of painting an outgroup as “bad” (using the ultimate attribution error)?  “If we attribute a negative action to evil intent or aggression dispositions, we are much more likely to respond with retaliatory violence than if we attribute the same act to a temporary situation.”  (Page 13)  Those fundamentally bad outgroupers have it coming!  Let’s go get our guns!

Ingroup membership is both a cognitive classification and a source of emotional significance.  Attachment to ingroups and preferences for ingroups over outgroups may be a “universal characteristic of human social life.”  (Page 23).  When we identify with a social group, we transform our sense of self from an individualistic one to an identification relating to the group as a whole.  When our favorite sports team wins, we declare “We won!”  We deemphasize this connection when the team is not playing so well (“They lost.”).

Why do people so often allow radicals to determine the identity of their group?  The authors note that people shift their own attitudes in the direction of the more extreme positions represented by their ingroup.  By adopting the more extreme positions, the ingroup enhances the contrast between itself and outgroups.  (Page 27).  This suggests that identifying one’s group as different than potential rival groups might predominate over rationality.  The dogma of a group (e.g., virgin birth or “war on terror”) might primarily serve as an identifying feature, such as a uniform or a flag.

We often glom on to ingroup members because they belong to our group, not because we really like them.  Ingroup attraction can occur in the absence of interpersonal attraction. (Page 28).  “Ingroup members tend to be liked more than outgroup members even if we know nothing about their personal characteristics… and group favoritism can occur in the absence of interpersonal attraction.”

We can like people for two reasons, then.  Idiosyncratic personal attraction (liking someone because we are personally attracted to them as individuals) and social attraction have different origins.  “It is possible to display preference for an ingroup member we don’t like very much, and to discriminate against a member of an outgroup even if we liked that individual personally… It is possible for groups to work together as cohesive units even when members do not like each other interpersonally.”  (Page 31).

When playing prisoner’s dilemma, “one factor that seems to influence choices in the dilemma situation is category membership of the two participants.  Even when the players are strangers to each other, “if they know that they share some common in group membership they’re more likely to enter into cooperative responding than if they do not have a shared category membership.”  (Page 34).  When social identity is salient, individuals adopt a cooperative orientation toward fellow ingroup members and they are likely to behave in ways that promote group welfare rather than individual self-interest.  On the other hand, people are more likely to adopt a competitive orientation toward individuals who are members of outgroups, even when they face common goals and problems.  (Page 35).

Why do we become attached to ingroups?  According to sociobiology, human species evolved in the context of small group living.  We derive survival benefits from living in groups.  “The primal ethnic group is a small band of 100-200 related individuals, within which the human propensity for corporate and social arrangements is presumed to have evolved.  Ethnocentric preference is extended to larger social groups through developments of “markers” (skin pigmentation, hair and facial features, mannerisms, etc.) which signal genetic relatedness among unfamiliar individuals.

Ingroups are believed to be trustworthy, cooperative, peaceful and honest while outgroups are perceived to be untrustworthy, competitive, quarrelsome and dishonest (p. 86).  Discrimination against outgroups is even greater when the outgroup is similar to the ingroup.  This is borne out in many episodes of armed conflict and genocide—such conflicts often surprise outsiders, given the ostensible similarities between the groups. 

Favoring ingroups or discriminating against outgroups serves to restore self-esteem when it has been threatened or temporarily lowered.  Moreover, recent findings in the self-esteem literature indicate that it is individuals with generally high self-esteem who are most likely to engage in self enhancing social comparisons when their positive self-image is threatened or damaged.  When self-esteem is threatened, it is high self-esteem individuals who are most likely to respond by enhancing in groups relative to out groups.  (Page 90)

According to optimal distinctiveness theory, social identity is driven by two opposing social motives: A) the need for inclusion and B) the need for differentiation.  Human beings strive to belong to groups that transcend their own personal identity, but at the same time, they need to feel special and distinct from others.  In order to satisfy both of these motives and simultaneously, individuals seek inclusion in distinctive social groups where the boundaries between those who are members of the social category and those who are excluded can be clearly drawn.”  (Page 126).

Intergroup Relations also contains a section called “Breaking the cycle of distrust” (page 150), referring to real life cold war gestures involving the testing of nuclear armaments.  Where there has been ongoing animosity, small gestures of trust are critically important if one’s ingroup seeks to develop a working relationship with an outgroup.  Unilateral cease-fires and unilateral willingness to open talks are other examples. 

Having reviewed this information, it is startling how basic it is, yet how invisible these social psychology principles become to so many people while they are in the process of forming groups and advocating group  positions.   These principles are so basic and so important that we should probably paste them right into the Constitution and into the front cover of all Holy Books.  Really, people!  Your ingroup is not so perfect and that outgroup is not so evil.  Evolution has equipped us with this lens for viewing outsiders, but this doesn’t mean we should take note of this propensity and keep it in check.

Apprehension of outgroups appears to function as a social heuristic—a rules of thumb.  This basic rule functions as a guide ready for quick and thoughtless application.  It can get us into all kinds of trouble if we are not careful.

Humans are so easily duped.  Keeping these principles in the conscious thoughts of our political leaders might save thousands of lives.  Are those other guys really so bad, or do we distrust them because they’re members of an outgroup?

My ingroup consists of people who are more likeable and more correct than the people who belong to outgroups, right?  This basic literature shouts “not so fast!”


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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Civil Rights, Good and Evil, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Comprehensive moral instruction | Dangerous Intersection | April 13, 2010
  1. Scholar says:

    It may be that I am so disgusted by the Christian Right, that I am irrationally presenting myself as a Far Left Atheist, in order to distance myself from them (Christian Right).

    Being able to choose which groups to identify with, may in itself, lead to notions of superiority. For example, if I choose to practice (preach 🙂 ) Atheism because I see it as the best choice, I am essentially declaring that other belief systems are less desireable. If I ever feel that I am in the less superior group, I am free to change groups. Sort of a healthy competition, if you will, with Atheism being the winner (of course).

    HOWEVER, I think the trouble occurs when people are grouped (stereotyped) by things which they may not have control over such as ethnic backround, skin color, sexual preference, and economic situation.

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