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It's natural, but is it acceptable?

Category: Blog & News

I’ve found myself talking a lot about in-group bias recently.

It's our tendency to favour our group over others. 
 
What’s our group? It could be our family, footy team, hair colour, ethnicity, choice of car, nationality, or even, as I have witnessed during Melbourne’s second lockdown, suburb.
 
We naturally sift and sort people into categories so we can navigate the world, separating “us” and “them” as we go. From an evolutionary perspective it made sense, helping us shortcut the question of “friend or foe?”
 
But there’s a dark side too.
 

Groups are arbitrary

 
It turns out the designation of our group can be as arbitrary as a coin toss (Billig & Tajfel, 1973), lottery (Locksley, Ortiz & Hepburn, 1980) or, as Jane Elliott famously demonstrated in her 1968 classroom experiment, eye colour. Within hours of the blue-eyed children being set apart from their brown-eyed peers, Elliott’s previously united third grade classroom became a microcosm of societal divide and discrimination.
 
Believing you share a birthday is enough to form an in-group bond, too. Participants in the “prisoner’s dilemma” game were more likely to share money with their (fictitious) fellow participant when told they were born on the same day (Miller, Downs & Prentice, 1998). They were also more likely to react negatively to betrayal.
 
In-group favouritism can even be triggered by something as simple as a label (e.g. You are assigned group “A” or “B”) (Abbink & Harris, 2019).

Clearly it doesn’t take much for us to draw a line between us and others.
 
And once the lines are drawn, our behaviour changes.
 

We favour our in-group and disregard the out-group

 
Despite whatever flimsy rationale we use to define a group, once we’re "in" the fun really starts.
 
For one thing, we think of our in-group more highly. We may characterise the group as having broad, positive traits (“we’re tolerant and community-minded”) while offloading any negative behaviours to individuals (“Jane is very selfish”) (Maass, Ceccarelli & Rudin, 1996).
 
Our expectations of group members change, too. In a study by Howard & Myron (1980), strangers were randomly assigned a group and then given positive and negative information about members inside and outside. Expectations of people in their in-group were much more favourable than those in the out-group, even though they didn’t know any of the people personally. They also remembered more negative information about the out-group, suggesting we hang on to these biased and flawed impressions.
 
It seems no one is immune to the in-group bias, either. Take members of an Israeli kibbutz, for example. They are widely known for their collectivist spirit, being drawn to the communal nature of humanity. In theory this should extend beyond the settlement and there should be no in-group, out-group favouritism. That’s not what Ruffle & Sosis (2006) found, with kibbutz members more cooperative towards anonymous kibbutz members than anonymous town residents.
 
Favouring your in-group is one thing, but it is the treatment of out-groups that can be most alarming.
 
Disregard can be relatively benign. You simply don’t think much about the out-group. Here the work is to get people to bother.
 
But disregard can also lead to discrimination and hostility. As Abbink & Harris (2019) discovered when studying rival political groups in Thailand, discrimination against the out-group is triggered when there is competition for resources. Being a part of a group isn’t sufficient in itself, there needs to be a rivalry.
 
It is when times are difficult, when resources are tight, that the worst of behaviour towards out-groups flares. When people feel their rights, entitlements or resources are being taken away, things get ugly. Sound familiar?
 
Our work here is two fold. Make people feel safe and extinguish ill-treatment.
 

If we can’t escape in-group bias, how do we live with it?


The tendency to in-group and out-group is natural - it helps us feel in control. But just because we think this way doesn’t mean the basis we use for grouping is acceptable. We’ve seen how arbitrary it can be.

Perversely, this flimsiness of categorisation can be a good thing. It means the bar is low to bring people into the fold - any reason will do.
 
Where possible, seek to find common interests so your in-group expands. Where you have out-groups, make the metaphorical boundaries low and permeable. Just because someone is not in your in-group doesn’t mean they are the enemy.
 
In-group bias is exacerbated by the empathy-gap, the difficulty we have in seeing something from another person’s point of view. As Covid-19 puts pressure on communities and society in general, our opportunity is to take our experiences of being “othered” and use them to regard out-groups with more compassion. As Elliott suggested, “once you've been the victim of out-group stereotyping, you are more likely to treat your own out-group more humanely.”

I’ve found myself talking a lot about in-group bias recently, << Test First Name >>.

It's our tendency to favour our group over others. 
 
What’s our group? It could be our family, footy team, hair colour, ethnicity, choice of car, nationality, or even, as I have witnessed during Melbourne’s second lockdown, suburb.
 
We naturally sift and sort people into categories so we can navigate the world, separating “us” and “them” as we go. From an evolutionary perspective it made sense, helping us shortcut the question of “friend or foe?”
 
But there’s a dark side too.
 

Groups are arbitrary

 
It turns out the designation of our group can be as arbitrary as a coin toss (Billig & Tajfel, 1973), lottery (Locksley, Ortiz & Hepburn, 1980) or, as Jane Elliott famously demonstrated in her 1968 classroom experiment, eye colour. Within hours of the blue-eyed children being set apart from their brown-eyed peers, Elliott’s previously united third grade classroom became a microcosm of societal divide and discrimination.
 
Believing you share a birthday is enough to form an in-group bond, too. Participants in the “prisoner’s dilemma” game were more likely to share money with their (fictitious) fellow participant when told they were born on the same day (Miller, Downs & Prentice, 1998). They were also more likely to react negatively to betrayal.
 
In-group favouritism can even be triggered by something as simple as a label (e.g. You are assigned group “A” or “B”) (Abbink & Harris, 2019).

Clearly it doesn’t take much for us to draw a line between us and others.
 
And once the lines are drawn, our behaviour changes.
 

We favour our in-group and disregard the out-group

 
Despite whatever flimsy rationale we use to define a group, once we’re "in" the fun really starts.
 
For one thing, we think of our in-group more highly. We may characterise the group as having broad, positive traits (“we’re tolerant and community-minded”) while offloading any negative behaviours to individuals (“Jane is very selfish”) (Maass, Ceccarelli & Rudin, 1996).
 
Our expectations of group members change, too. In a study by Howard & Myron (1980), strangers were randomly assigned a group and then given positive and negative information about members inside and outside. Expectations of people in their in-group were much more favourable than those in the out-group, even though they didn’t know any of the people personally. They also remembered more negative information about the out-group, suggesting we hang on to these biased and flawed impressions.
 
It seems no one is immune to the in-group bias, either. Take members of an Israeli kibbutz, for example. They are widely known for their collectivist spirit, being drawn to the communal nature of humanity. In theory this should extend beyond the settlement and there should be no in-group, out-group favouritism. That’s not what Ruffle & Sosis (2006) found, with kibbutz members more cooperative towards anonymous kibbutz members than anonymous town residents.
 
Favouring your in-group is one thing, but it is the treatment of out-groups that can be most alarming.
 
Disregard can be relatively benign. You simply don’t think much about the out-group. Here the work is to get people to bother.
 
But disregard can also lead to discrimination and hostility. As Abbink & Harris (2019) discovered when studying rival political groups in Thailand, discrimination against the out-group is triggered when there is competition for resources. Being a part of a group isn’t sufficient in itself, there needs to be a rivalry.
 
It is when times are difficult, when resources are tight, that the worst of behaviour towards out-groups flares. When people feel their rights, entitlements or resources are being taken away, things get ugly. Sound familiar?
 
Our work here is two fold. Make people feel safe and extinguish ill-treatment.
 

If we can’t escape in-group bias, how do we live with it?


The tendency to in-group and out-group is natural - it helps us feel in control. But just because we think this way doesn’t mean the basis we use for grouping is acceptable. We’ve seen how arbitrary it can be.

Perversely, this flimsiness of categorisation can be a good thing. It means the bar is low to bring people into the fold - any reason will do.
 
Where possible, seek to find common interests so your in-group expands. Where you have out-groups, make the metaphorical boundaries low and permeable. Just because someone is not in your in-group doesn’t mean they are the enemy.
 
In-group bias is exacerbated by the empathy-gap, the difficulty we have in seeing something from another person’s point of view. As Covid-19 puts pressure on communities and society in general, our opportunity is to take our experiences of being “othered” and use them to regard out-groups with more compassion. As Elliott suggested, “once you've been the victim of out-group stereotyping, you are more likely to treat your own out-group more humanely.”


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