The Psychology of "Othering"

Outgroup psychology and the roots of social conflict.

Posted Apr 06, 2019

So here is a brief activity. Conjure up two general groups of people:

  • Readers of Psychology Today
  • Truck drivers

Note that, of course, these are not discrete categories—there are probably many truck drivers who read Psychology Today. For this activity, though, think about your broad, overall take on these two groups (without focusing too much on the overlap).

Now think about this question: Of these two groups, which do you think includes more within-group variability on physical, psychological, demographic, and cultural dimensions. In other words, in which group is there more variability among people within that group: (a) Psychology Today readers or (b) truck drivers?

I use a similar activity in my teaching, except that I use "college students" instead of "Psychology Today readers." The point here is that I'm getting people to think about the group that they represent themselves. If you are in my college class, then you are a college student. If you are reading this post, then you are, by definition, at least to some extent, a Psychology Today reader.

Note that I could be wrong, but my guess is that you might have chosen option A: Psychology Today readers. And you might have all kinds of reasons that you can provide for that. Readers of a magazine with an online presence can come from anywhere in the world. They likely represent gender and ethnic diversity. They likely represent diversity in educational background, etc. On the other side, you may note that truck drivers tend to be relatively homogenous in terms of gender and age (mostly middle-aged men)—and you may further imagine truck drivers varying less from each other in terms of educational background (likely all having specialized training in truck driving) and perhaps even political attitudes.

As a psychology professor, you come to know which activities will work in class. And this is one of them. When I ask my students for a show of hands as to which group they think shows more overall variability, typically about three times as many hands go up for the "college student" (same-as-self) group compared with the "truck driver" (other) group.

PublicDomainImages
Source: PublicDomainImages

People often demonstrate the outgroup homogeneity bias (see Haslam et al., 1996) when making judgments about people from some other group. It's like, "We are all different from one another. But them? They are all the same!"

The Basic Nature of Othering in Human Psychology

One of the powerful lessons of the social and behavioral sciences pertains to the ineradicable nature of the ingroup/outgroup effect (Billig & Tajfel, 1973). In short, this effect speaks to how we differentially treat those whom we see as "in our group" versus those whom we see as some kind of "other," meaning someone who is defined as in "some group other than my own group."

Sure, this all can be found with ethnic and religious groups. But it is more basic than that. The ingroup/outgroup phenomenon has been found across pretty much any and all ways that people divide themselves into social groups.

You know how those Patriot fans are! (Sports team fan)

Sociology professors are all like that, am I right!? (Profession)

That guy's from Canada. That explains it! (Geographical affiliation)

You know why she's like that? She's a Trump supporter. Need I go on? (Political affiliation)

... and so forth. We create "others" consistently and in a very basic way. Country of origin, state of origin, sports team preference, profession, etc. And, in fact, this proclivity seems to stem from a long history of between-group pressures across the gamut of human evolutionary history (see Wilson, 2019).

Othering and the Outgroup Homogeneity Effect

The concept of "othering" is pretty much the same as demonstrating the ingroup/outgroup effect. And a foundational process connected with this effect is outgroup homogeneity. We see members of our own group as varying wildly from one another in all kinds of ways. Yet we see members of "other" groups (often defined by grossly arbitrary criteria) as showing less within-group variability. Them? They are all the same!

Bottom Line

When we think about the many kinds of social conflicts that permeate our world today, it's useful to step back and consider our core social psychological processes. Othering happens at the drop of a hat. And outgroup homogeneity comes along for the ride.

Understanding the fact that we often automatically see members of "other" groups as "all the same" can help us step back and reconsider aspects of our social world. At the end of the day, we're all human. And we all have a ticket on the same ride.

Note: Sections of the above text come from my new book, Own Your Psychology Major! A Guide to Student Success.

Facebook Image: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

References

Billig, M., & Tajfel, H. (1973). Social categorization and similarity in intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 3, 27–52.

Geher, G. (2019). Own Your Psychology Major! A Guide to Student Success. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Haslam, A., Oakes, P., Turner, J., & McGarty, C. (1996). Social identity, self-categorization, and the perceived homogeneity of ingroups and outgroups: The Geher 218 interaction between social motivation and cognition. In R. Sorrentino & E. Higgins (Eds.). Handbook of Motivation and Cognition: Foundations of Social Behavior. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 182–222. (Chapter 4)

Wilson, D. S. (2019). This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Pantheon: New York.