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The Emphatic Appeal of Being in a Group

The minimal group paradigm

Hi human that is reading this! As you are a human, I suspect that you have a variety of groups that you identify with. How would it feel to consider not belonging to these groups? I mean, we can't really exist—at least not happily—without these relationships and identities. We are social beings, us humans.

Indeed, everywhere you look there are groups. And if social psychology research demonstrates anything consistently, it is that we tend to prefer the groups that we belong to. Entire wars are fought with this as a central tenet: we are better than them, more noble, fighting the good fight. Of course, the other group we are opposing thinks the exact same thing. That's the power and influence of groups.

This may all seem quite obvious, but it gets quite important when you get into things like who gets what support from a government, whether a refugee is allowed to enter your country, or how the minority individual is treated in the city they live in. I have even asked people, point blank, if members of their own group (in this case, Americans) had lives that mattered more than the lives of people in other countries. And I have been told, matter of factly, that this is indeed the case. I suppose this is just an extension of valuing the lives of our own family members more than other lives. It's blunt, and I don't think most people think about it this way, but it's the way lots of people see the world.

But what is equally interesting, in my mind at least, is the quickness with which people form in-group favoritism. Dozens and dozens of studies have assessed this, in what is called the minimal groups paradigm. In essence, researchers sought to achieve the absolute "minimal" conditions in which a group could be formed that would lead people to favor one group over another.

The results were rather shocking. Psychologists would bring groups of participants into a lab. They would divide these people in seemingly mundane ways possible, like shared hair color or height, or giving them a randomly assigned team name. They would find that when these groups were later allowed to allocate money, they would allocate more money to their own group. They also would show more positive attitudes in general towards their own group, even though it was just created minutes prior.

Psychologists then pushed the envelope a bit. They decided to create the groups using random number generators and the participants would know this. So what happened? Well, people still favored their own newly formed group over the other group. What had started as a randomly created group had lead participants to ultimately conclude that they had more of a social connection with these people.

A shared random assignment had lead to social bonding.

This attests to the human proclivity to form and seek out social bonds. Almost any shared characteristic, even when it actually has nothing to do with you, can be a basis for a social bond. While this is kind of nice in a way, it can turn quite dark when it turns into favoring your own group over another group.

More from Nathan A Heflick Ph.D.
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More from Nathan A Heflick Ph.D.
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