What does it take to spark prejudice?

Short answer: surprisingly little. Continuing the theme of revisiting classic experiments in psychology, last week’s BBC Future column was on Tajfel’s Minimal Group Paradigm. The original is here. Next week we’re going to take this foundation and look at some evolutionary psychology of racism (hint: it won’t be what you’d expect).

How easy is it for the average fair-minded person to form biased, preconceived views within groups? Surprisingly easy, according to psychology studies.

One of the least charming but most persistent aspects of human nature is our capacity to hate people who are different. Racism, sexism, ageism, it seems like all the major social categories come with their own “-ism”, each fuelled by regrettable prejudice and bigotry.

Our tendency for groupness appears to be so strong there seems little more for psychology to teach us. It’s not as if we need it proven that favouring our group over others is a common part of how people think – history provides all the examples we need. But one psychologist, Henri Tajfel, taught us something important. He showed exactly how little encouragement we need to treat people in a biased way because of the group they are in.

Any phenomenon like this in the real world comes entangled with a bunch of other, complicating phenomenon. When we see prejudice in the everyday world it is hard to separate out psychological biases from the effects of history, culture and even pragmatism (sometimes people from other groups really are out to get you).

As a social psychologist, Tajfel was interested in the essential conditions of group prejudice. He wanted to know what it took to turn the average fair-minded human into their prejudiced cousin.

He wanted to create a microscope for looking at how we think when we’re part of a group, even when that group has none of the history, culture or practical importance that groups normally do. To look at this, he devised what has become known as the “minimal group paradigm

The minimal group paradigm works like this: participants in the experiment are divided into groups on some arbitrary basis. Maybe eye-colour, maybe what kind of paintings they like, or even by tossing a coin. It doesn’t matter what the basis for group membership is, as long as everyone gets a group and knows what it is. After being told they are in a group, participants are divided up so that they are alone when they make a series of choices about how rewards will be shared among other people in the groups. From this point on, group membership is entirely abstract. Nobody else can be seen, and other group members are referred to by an anonymous number. Participants make choices such as “Member Number 74 (group A) to get 10 points and Member 44 (group B) to get 8 points”, versus “Member Number 74 (group A) to get 2 points and Member 44 (group B) to get 6 points”, where the numbers are points which translate into real money.

You won’t be surprised to learn that participants show favouritism towards their own group when dividing the money. People in group A were more likely to choose the first option I gave above, rather than the second. What is more surprising is that people show some of this group favouritism even when it ends up costing them points – so people in group B sometimes choose the second option, or options like it, even though it provides fewer points than the first option. People tend to opt for the maximum total reward (as you’d expect from the fair-minded citizen), but they also show a tendency to maximise the difference between the groups (what you’d expect from the prejudiced cousin).

The effect may be small, but this is a situation where the groups have been plucked out of the air by the experimenters. Every participant knows which group he or she is in, but they also know that they weren’t in this group before they started the experiment, that their assignment was arbitrary or completely random, and that the groups aren’t going to exist in any meaningful way after the experiment. They also know that their choices won’t directly affect them (they are explicitly told that they won’t be given any choices to make about themselves). Even so, this situation is enough to evoke favouritism.

So, it seems we’ll take the most minimal of signs as a cue to treat people differently according to which group they are in. Tajfel’s work suggests that in-group bias is as fundamental to thinking as the act of categorisations itself. If we want to contribute to a fairer world we need to be perpetually on guard to avoid letting this instinct run away with itself.

12 thoughts on “What does it take to spark prejudice?”

  1. Your posts always get me thinking and yes I do want to be active and participate in a fairer world.
    Something happened to me today where on reflection I may have misjudged someone’s desperation as aggression because we didn’t speak the same language. Which I believe directly relates to the point you make. What should have been a positive experience, my intention, turned out negative. I rely on my instincts but maybe they need honing sometimes.

  2. So this stuff has been confirmed in additional studies with larger sample sizes? Tajfel’s original 1970 study used a group of 64 boys, which is a bit small – I’m not sure if it’s actually representative even when drawn randomly.

  3. Very insightful. I sometimes hear people wish for a “race-neutral world”. I think this would be a shame. Our backgrounds and ancestry makes the world more interesting. If we group like people, it sounds inevitable that some other difference will be targeted within that group. Thanks for this article.

    Also if people want to drive this home on an emotional level as well, the movie District 9 is the obvious choice.

  4. Beside such “people`s” prejudices like sexism, racism or ageism I am also quite concerned about our speciesism, as they call it. I`d be interested in your thoughts on that – or perhaps the next week`s article will cover it as well?

    1. Speciesism is my main interest as well, but can research on human groupism cover this? In the human group business, members of each group would have to have some awareness of themselves as members (Group “A”, the Blues, the Working Class, whatever)and I don’t think nonhumans could be said to have this. Perhaps that’s why the position of nonhumans is the final frontier for ethics?

  5. “Speciesism” is kind of an Ingridism, a melodramatic figment of PETA’s imagination. As of yet we don’t have even a weak grasp on human-animal relationships. Pat Shipman has a decent hypothesis about pets, but by the time we understand human’s connection to the natural world it will be too late anyway.

  6. I’m shocked to learn that people behave in a manner that maximizes their expected return (and that some have sublinear utility functions).

  7. “Racism, sexism, ageism, it seems like all the major social categories come with their own “-ism”, each fuelled by regrettable prejudice and bigotry.”

    We make broad judgements based on those categories because often they are based on truth across large populations. Crime statistics based on race, age and gender shows very clear differences. Contrary to what the author wrote this is not the same as ‘hate’ – it’s common sense based on experience.

    1. …except that “truth across large populations” is often the result of prejudice, not of any measurement process such as “crime statistics”.
      Given the history of humanity, we can be pretty sure that many “truths across large populations” of the past -and of the present!- are nothing more than a side effect of our group-oriented mind wiring.

  8. It only becomes problematic because we’re afraid to point out differences. We shouldn’t assume a 70 year old will work slower, or that a woman is more nurturing. But sometimes it’s true. Businesses that reject these workers fall into the trap of thinking there’s only one correct way to do the job.

    Yes, among your group of friends at the dinner table there will be one person who manages to piss off both the liberals and conservatives. Maybe realize it’s good to have differences of opinion to open your mind.

    When a person from NY goes to work down South (or vice versa) no one objects when people joke about their differences, workers see how their style can compliment the work force.

  9. Strong in-group identification and subsequent out-group prejudice play vital roles in seventh grade cliques and global affairs alike. Terrorism in the United States relies heavily on the externally preconceived notion that Americans differ from other people on some fundamental level. Terrorists then use these apparent differences to justify violent and devastating retribution. Many would argue the case for political incentive over clear-cut bigotry, but Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev shed new light on radical motives during the recent Boston Marathon tragedy. While their diabolical scheme unfolded, the brothers planned to “do away with” a taxi driver whose car they jacked according to CNN’s report of the incident. However, the taxi driver kept his life that day because he appeared “un-American”. This begs the question- what defines an American? The driver probably may have been a citizen, yet having a darker skin tone and an accent prevented association with the typical Caucasian-American. If terrorist attacks purely occurred on the grounds of political incentive, though, any American citizen should warrant the same kind of retribution. Implications of Henri Tajfel’s study on prejudice provide a possible explanation for this phenomenon. The Tsarnaev brothers might have identified more closely with the driver such that seemingly irrelevant characteristics prevented an otherwise fatal situation. I believe this directly relates to the fact that participants in the experiment clearly favored people they perceived to be in their in-group even when the designation had no bearing on the situation at hand. These occurrences undoubtedly support the theory of similarity attraction.

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