Understanding Prejudice
Understanding Prejudice
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The Psychology of Prejudice: An Overview

Ingroup Favoritism

When most people think of racism and other forms of bias, they picture one group having negative feelings toward another group. Although this dynamic certainly takes place, research since the 1970s has found that many group biases are more a function of favoritism toward one's own group than negative feelings toward other groups. As Marilyn Brewer (1999, p. 438) put it in her summary of the evidence, "Ultimately, many forms of discrimination and bias may develop not because outgroups are hated, but because positive emotions such as admiration, sympathy, and trust are reserved for the ingroup." The tendency of people to favor their own group, known as "ingroup bias," has been found in cultures around the world (Aberson, Healy, & Romero, 2000; Brewer, 1979, 1999).

One of the most startling aspects of ingroup bias is how easily it is triggered. This finding was documented in a series of experiments in Bristol, England, by Henri Tajfel (1970, 1981). Tajfel and his colleagues invented what is now known as the "minimal group procedure" -- an experimental technique in which people who have never met before are divided into groups on the basis of minimal information (e.g., a preference for one type of painting versus another, or even just the toss of a coin). What Tajfel discovered is that groups formed on the basis of almost any distinction are prone to ingroup bias. Within minutes of being divided into groups, people tend to see their own group as superior to other groups, and they will frequently seek to maintain an advantage over other groups. One study even found that when participants were given the reward matrix in Table 2, they preferred an ingroup/outgroup award distribution of 7/1 points rather than 12/11 points, denying members of their own group 5 points (7 instead of 12) in order to maintain a high relative advantage over the outgroup (Allen & Wilder, 1975; Wilder, 1981).

Table 2. Sample Reward Matrix Used in Minimal Group Research

Member no. ____ of ____ group 7
Member no. ____ of ____ group

Note: Participants in a study by Allen and Wilder (1975) were given a matrix with points that corresponded to money. Their task was to allocate points to someone in their group (top row) and someone in the outgroup (bottom row) by choosing one of the 13 options above (e.g., 7 points for the ingroup member and 1 point for the outgroup member).

While it may seem odd that ingroup favoritism develops so easily, these findings are consistent with research showing that social bonds and attraction can readily form on the basis of seemingly minor characteristics. For instance, one study found that people are more likely to cooperate with another person when they learn that the person shares their birthday (Miller, Downs, & Prentice, 1998). Even major life decisions -- such as whom to love, where to live, and what occupation to pursue -- can be influenced by relatively minor similarities. In a well-crafted set of studies, Brett Pelham and his colleagues (Pelham, Jones, Mirenberg, & Carvallo, 2002; Pelham, Mirenberg, & Jones, 2002) found that when compared with the percentage expected by chance:

  • Women are more likely to marry men who share the first letter of their (pre-marriage) last name.

  • People are more likely to live in cities that include their birthday number (e.g., people born on March 3rd are more likely than others to live in Three Rivers, Michigan).

  • People named Louis are more likely to live in St. Louis, people named Paul to live in St. Paul, people named Helen to live in St. Helen, and people named Mary to live in St. Mary.
Pelham and his colleagues explain these results in terms of "implicit egotism," or an unconscious preference for things associated with the self. According to Pelham, even though letter and number preferences may seem trivial, such preferences are psychologically meaningful because of their connection to people's self-concept and identity. In keeping with this account, laboratory research on implicit egotism has found that when people high in self-esteem are dealt a blow to their self-concept, they display an increased preference for the letters in their name and the numbers in their birthdate, as if to restore their sense of worth (Jones, Pelham, Mirenberg, & Hetts, 2002).

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