Character  &  Context

“Us” and “Them”: The Nature of Intergroup Bias

Image of opposing pairs of businessmen and businesswomen staring each other down, engaging in an arm wrestle

By: Harry Farmer

One only need glance at the news to see the importance of intergroup bias, the tendency to divide people into a favoured in-group and disfavoured out-groups. From the bloody sectarian conflicts tearing apart the Middle East, to the rise of far right anti-immigrant political parties across Europe, to increasing exposure of police brutality against African Americans in the United States, intergroup bias is a leading contributor to human conflict. The three papers reviewing this topic in the special issue of Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences are thus timely in both highlighting our current understanding of intergroup bias and suggesting important paths for future investigations.
 
The rapid growth in social and cognitive psychology in the mid-20th century occurred in the shadow of both the horrors of the Second World War and the ongoing threat of nuclear annihilation created by the Cold War. It is therefore unsurprising that the study of intergroup bias and conflict has been a key area of research within social psychology. One particularly fruitful strand of research has focused on the question of how stereotypes about social groups inform our impressions about individual members of that group. In her contribution to the special issue Susan T Fiske draws on research she has carried out over almost four decades to present her impressive Stereotype Content Model (SCM) and it’s relation to in-group bias 1
 
The SCM shows that our stereotypes about social groups can be mapped onto a conceptual space consisting of only two dimensions: warmth, or how well intentioned the group is, and competence, or how able the group is at achieving their intentions. Surprisingly, this simple model is able to capture the vast majority of variation in stereotypes along a wide variety of dimensions including age, gender, ethnicity, economic status and sexuality. The SCM appears to capture stereotype perceptions at variety of different times and in countries across the globe. It also displays an iterative structure which can explain how the relationship between perceptions of different subtypes within a broader social group, e.g. housewives vs. feminists within stereotypes about women.
 
Unsurprisingly, given our propensity to in-group bias, people tend to rate their own group as being high in both warmth and competence while groups such as immigrants and the homeless are generally seen as low in both warmth and competence. More interestingly, the SCM allows us to understand the negative public perception of high status groups such as bankers by showing that although they are seen as high in competence they are also seen as low in perceived warmth. In contrast other groups such as the elderly or the disabled are seen as high in warmth but low in competence.
 
The greatest value of the SCM however is its ability to map the content of social stereotypes directly to our emotional reactions and behavioural tendencies towards particular groups. Most interestingly each of the four corners of stereotype space can be mapped onto a different social emotion. Thus high warmth, high competence groups, such as the in-group, elicit feelings of pride and admiration. Conversely those seen as low in both warmth and competence elicit feelings of disgust and contempt. Groups seen as high in warmth but low in competence such as the elderly elicit feelings like pity and sympathy. Finally those who are seen as competent but cold, such as the rich or successful minority ethnic groups, tend to elicit feelings of envy. As Fiske notes, this combination means that such groups are often the most likely to be scapegoated and attacked during times of instability and social breakdown.
 
Fiske and colleagues have demonstrated that people’s behaviour towards other groups is more strongly predicted by their emotional prejudices than by stereotype content per se 2. This highlights the motivating power of emotions in intergroup conflict which is the theme of Mina Cikara’s contribution 3.
 
Cikara opens her paper with a puzzle: History is full of wars, genocides and other forms of intergroup violence. However, considerable evidence suggests that people are fundamentally averse to harming others. What is it about group behaviour that allows people to overcome this aversion and participate in collective violence? 
 
In line with the evidence that emotions exert a powerful influence on behaviour, Cikara highlights a specific social emotion that may encourage the emergence of hostile behaviours towards out-group members, namely intergroup Schadenfreude, or the experience of pleasure at the misfortune of another group.
 
By generating a feeling of enjoyment when observing of another’s pain, Schadenfreude means that, over time, people learn to associate pain to the out-group with their own pleasure. This pain-pleasure link that originally develops through passively observing the out-group’s misfortunes can be built up through association until it overcomes our natural resistance to causing harm to others. Clearly Schadenfreude can be adaptive in some contexts, such as zero sum games in which a win for “us” necessitates a loss for “them”. However, our tendency to generalise from one member of a group to all the individuals within that group means that experiencing Schadenfreude in an appropriate context, (e.g., while watching the disappointed expression of a rival football team when they lose a match), can lead to experiencing pleasure in contexts where there is no objective gain to one’s self or one’s group, (e.g. watching a fan of the rival team receive an electric shock). 
 
In support of this theory, Cikara outlines findings from neuroimaging studies that show that experiencing Schadenfreude leads to activation in the ventral striatum a region that is strongly implicated in reward processing and reinforcement learning. Importantly the strength of this activation predicted how strongly participants desired to harm an out-group member and their lack of willingness to experience harm in order to help the out-group member. These findings emphasise the importance of emotion aspects in driving intergroup conflict.
 
Cikara ends her paper with the hope that understanding the emotional basis of intergroup violence will help us to prevent it in the future. In their contribution Naomi Ellemers and Manuela Barreto 4 focus on the question of how to prevent more subtle examples of in-group bias such as work-place discrimination. They note that despite the adoption of anti-discrimination legislation in many countries woman and ethnic minorities are still poorly represented in many high status professions and often have lower pay when working at the same level.   
 
Ellemers and Barreto describe how stereotypes and discriminatory behaviour have shifted away from older more obvious forms of active discrimination towards more subtle group-based expectations that often act to lower the self-esteem of those within that group. In fact they argue that the fact that overt discrimination is now almost universally objected to can make things even more difficult for members of disadvantaged groups. Since members of advantaged groups assume that there is now equality of opportunity, they may fail to realise that subtle incidents of discrimination can cause members of negatively stereotyped groups to suffer poor self-esteem which leads them to underperform. This underperformance is then ascribed by the perpetrators of discrimination to inherent differences in ability between groups leading to a reinforcement of their own implicit biases against the out-group.   
 
Furthermore it is very difficult for members of a disadvantage group to tackle discrimination against a back-drop assumption of equality. Negative stereotypes towards a group can lead group members either denounce or conceal their membership of that group both of which have the effect of devaluing that group further in the eyes of others. Moreover those who do speak out against discrimination face large social costs as they are seen as using the claim of discrimination to justify their own failings.
 
As the three papers reviewed here show, comprehending the ingrained nature of in-group biases underlines the vast difficulties societies face in preventing discrimination. However research into the cognitive and affective processes supporting these biases can play a key role in developing new strategies to minimise conflict by combating group-based discrimination.  
 
References
 
1. Fiske, S. T. Intergroup biases: a focus on stereotype content. Curr. Opin. Behav. Sci. 3, 45–50 (2015).
 
2. Cuddy, A. J. C., Fiske, S. T. & Glick, P. The BIAS map: behaviors from intergroup affect and stereotypes. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 92, 631–648 (2007).
 
3. Cikara, M. Intergroup Schadenfreude: motivating participation in collective violence. Curr. Opin. Behav. Sci. 3, 12–17 (2015).
 
4. Ellemers, N. & Barreto, M. Modern discrimination : how perpetrators and targets interactively perpetuate social disadvantage. Curr. Opin. Behav. Sci. 3, 142–146 (2015). 

 

Dr. Harry Farmer is a Research Associate in Social Neuroscience at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London. 

 
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