Updated: In-group bias is ingrained in humans

Adults and children–even children as young as three–“are really quick to sort themselves into … social groups and to form a preference for their in-group.” This tendency has been found in people–again, even children–across “gender, race or ethnicity, language, nationality, and religion.”

Decades of research indicate that in-group favoritism occurs even when the group is based on very superficial criteria; the group does not have to be deeply meaningful (as in, for example, political parties or religious affiliation). Even when the group doesn’t really mean anything “people more positively evaluate their in-group members, allocate more resources to them, and hold stronger … favoritism towards them.”

We may shrug and say “of course, this is obvious.” But, that only shows how deeply ingrained this bias is among humans.

So, what does this mean for us?

Research shows that it takes very little to create strong group attachments; it happens even when groups are formed arbitrarily and at random. This in-group preference leads to “prejudice, bias, and exclusion,” and it happens even when competition and scarce resources are not issues.

The world today (the United States especially) is filled with tribalism and division; social media (among other things) help to create many superficial and random groups. Are there ways that this in-grained human bias can be overcome? Especially with children?

Learn more: In-group favoritism is difficult to change, even when the social groups are meaningless (Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific American, 7 June 2019).

Featured Articles:

*Dunham, Y. (2018). Mere membership. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22(9), 780-793. [PDF] [Cited by]

“Human social groups are central to social organization and pervasively impact interpersonal interactions. Although immensely varied, all social groups can be considered specific instantiations of a common and abstract ingroup–outgroup structure. How much of the power of human social groups stems from learned variation versus abstract commonality? I review evidence demonstrating that from early in development a wide range of intergroup phenomena, most prominently many ingroup biases, follow solely from simple membership in an abstract social collective. Such effects cannot be attributed to rich social learning, and thus (i) constrain theories seeking to explain or intervene on ingroup bias, and (ii) provide reason to think that our species is powerfully predisposed towards ingroup favoritism from early in development.

Ingroup bias in the minimal groups setting extends far beyond mere preferences in favor of the ingroup, and affects many aspects of learning and memory. Because this emerges early in development, it constitutes a powerful learning gradient favoring the further entrenchment of ingroup bias.”

*Taijfel, H. (1970). Experiments in intergroup discrimination. Scientific American, 223(5), 96-102. [PDF] [Cited by]

“Can discrimination be traced to some such origin as social conflict or a history of hostility? Not necessarily. Apparently the mere fact of division into groups is enough to trigger discriminatory behavior.”

*Yang, X., & Dunham, Y. (2019). Minimal but meaningful: Probing the limits of randomly assigned social identities. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 185, 19-34. [PDF] [Cited by]

“The current studies (total N = 151) experimentally manipulated meaningfulness in novel social groups and measured any resulting ingroup biases. Study 1 showed that even when groups were arbitrary and presumptively meaningless, 5- to 8-year-old children developed equally strong ingroup biases as children in more meaningful groups. Study 2 explored the lengths required to effectively reduce ingroup biases by stressing the arbitrariness of the grouping dimension. Even in this case, ingroup bias persisted in resource allocation behavior, although it was attenuated on preference and similarity measures. These results suggest that one needs to go to great lengths to counteract children’s tendency to imbue newly encountered social groups with rich affiliative meaning.”

Questions? Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu).

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