It's a well-known principle in social psychology that people define themselves in terms of social groupings and are quick to denigrate others who don't fit into those groups. Others who share our particular qualities are our "ingroup," and those who do not are our "outgroup."
Sometimes groupings are determined by factors intrinsic to who we are (sex, age, race/ethnicity) but in many other cases they are arrived at in a somewhat arbitrary fashion. If you grew up in Boston, you are in all likelihood a Red Sox fan; if you grew up in New York City, you may very well be a Yankees fan (or Mets, same point). The accident of your birth determines whether you wear a baseball cap decorated with little tiny crimson socks instead of one with interlocking initials. Red Sox fans think there's something very disturbed about Yankees fans and, of course, the feeling is mutual. But is a Red Sox fan fundamentally different from a Yankees fan? Does one bleed red and the other bleed blue? Of course, the answer is "No." Fans of any sort are identical in their passion, their drive, and their devotion. More importantly, they are really no different at all in their basic human qualities. Yet, sports rivalries feed on the manufactured distinctions that ingroups and outgroups breed within themselves.
The arbitrary nature of ingroup-outgroup distinctions between fans of different sports teams carries over to many other everyday mundane situations. For example, consider the distinction between pedestrians and motorists. When you are the pedestrian entering a crosswalk, you feel entitled to take your time to make it across the street. "Oh, let me just stop a second and send this text to my friend." The drivers in the cars who are waiting for you to cross the street just have to wait, no matter whether you're typing two words or a three-page missive. In fact, you might hurl an insulting comment out to the motorist while you're at it ("Chill out, buddy!"). Now put yourself in the role of the motorist. Your agitation and annoyance builds as you watch the idiotic pedestrian strolling in front of you seemingly oblivious to anyone else. A few choice insults might come to your mind as well.
One of the most significant "experiments" on ingroup-outgroup bias was not carried out in the psych lab at all, but in the school room of an Iowa teacher, Jane Elliot. In 1968, the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Elliot decided to address the problems of racial prejudice by dividing her third grade class into groups on the basis of eye color. As profiled in the PBS Frontline Documentary, "A Class Divided," Elliot showed how easy it was to turn her 7-year-old pupils into hate mongerers by making the brown-eyed children the targets of discrimination by the "better" blue-eyed children. Within minutes, the blue-eyed children sadistically ridiculed their unfortunate classmates, calling them "stupid" and shunning them in the playground during recess. Then she flipped the situation and showed that the brown-eyed children, when on top, exacted the same punishments onto their blue-eyed classmates.
Since the time of Elliot's astonishing demonstration, social psychologists have continued to hammer out the causes, consequences, and correlates of ingroup-outgroup stereotyping. There are now literally thousands of studies on the topic. Some of the most recent and perhaps most promising work examines the basis in the brain's circuitry of ingroup-outgroup processing. One recent study conducted by University of Missouri researchers, showed that the effect of ingroup identification becomes even more intense when people are made to feel mortally threatened. We turn to those in our ingroup when we feel that we may be at risk of some type of physical harm.
Elliot's "experiment" became the basis for her life's work and she now conducts workshops in which she replicates the brown eye/blue eye exercise for diversity sensitivity training. Once you've been the victim of outgroup stereotyping, she reasons, you are more likely to treat your own outgroup (however it's defined) more humanely.
Perhaps there is some survival mechanism at work in formulating ingroup-outgroup distinctions. In our desire to feel safe, we bond together with those whom we see as most like us so that we can protect ourselves from those who might do us harm. The virtual fences we build keep the outsiders away and allow us to go on with our daily lives feeling protected and secure. However, it is precisely these fences that keep us from bonding with our fellow human beings and in this way, undercut our true security.
You need to work hard to avoid the dangers of the ingroup-outgroup trap. Here are some suggestions for tearing down some of those real and virtual fences:
1. Recognize the arbitrary nature of many ingroup-outgroup distinctions. The example of pedestrians and motorists is perhaps the easiest one for understanding this point. Your ingroup at one moment is your outgroup the next.
2. Put yourself in the place of the outgroup member. The little kids in Jane Elliot's classroom were sad and afraid when they were suddenly thrust into the role of outgroup member. Think about times when you've been put in an outgroup position and remember how painful that was.
3. Look for commonalities between opposing groups. Fans of opposing sports teams equally love the sport. People of different religions regard their faith as important to them. There are basic human needs that transcend particular labels.
4. Work on building your inner sense of security. People are more likely to stereotype when they feel they have something to lose. If you feel more confident about your own identity, you'll be less likely to criticize someone else's.
5. Pass along the lesson. We can't all be Jane Elliot's and go on a mission to change society one classroom at a time, but we can teach others the value of overcoming outgroup stereotyping.
There are ways to overcome the ingroup-outgroup bias but it takes effort. The results, however, are vital to our continued existence if not our personal fulfillment. As we enjoy the celebrations of our nation's holidays with fireworks, balloons, parades, and streamers, it's important to remember that underneath the flags, we are all part of one world.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011
Henry, E.A., Bartholow, B.D., & Arndt, J. (2010). Death on the brain: Effects of mortality salience on the neural correlates of ingroup and outgroup categorization. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5, 77-87.