In-Group Bias

From “The Seven Democratic Virtues: What You Can Do to Overcome Tribalism and Save Our Democracy” by Christopher Beem

So how does bias operate with respect to groups? Whenever our tribe is involved in a dispute, our notion of what’s fair is unconsciously modified. Just as in those close calls in sports, in-group bias causes us to process information differently. We more readily recall and give more weight to information that supports our side, and we find reasons to discount and even “forget” information that supports the other side. And we do all this unconsciously and all in ways that favor us over them.

We all know examples of this bias, especially as it becomes more extreme. We have seen that bias can extend into overt prejudice: a racist, for example, is very explicit about her favoritism. Alternatively, we might know people who have experienced so much racism from the dominant social group that they have grown distrustful of any member of that group. (As we shall see, tribalism grows through the perception of and reaction to threat. Sometimes that threat is real and sometimes it isn’t, but it is the perception that matters.) But the hard fact is that the difference between all of us and the racist is one of degree. The racist constructs her very identity around her inability to perceive the world accurately, but none of us are immune. Bias is operative in all of us, even if we insist that it is not. Like all biases, the in-group bias is not conscious. And that means that we don’t always know that we are acting in a biased way, and we are always incapable of fully appreciating bias’s effects. 

Just as every us creates a them, favoritism toward some necessitates prejudice against others. For all of us, defining anyone as them affords that individual a different and diminished status. In short, the drive to form groups, the inclination to favor members over nonmembers, is of a piece with the fact that we have less connection to them, less inclination to trust them, and less investment in their winning. In fact, we are actually invested in their losing, even when we don’t win. In the Klee and Kandinsky group experiment, a statistical analysis of the boys’ decisions showed that their choices didn’t lead to the maximum payoff for their side. Instead, the boys sought the maximum possible difference between their side and the other. In other words, the boys of Team Kandinsky were more interested in being as far ahead of Klee folk as possible than they were in making more money for themselves. The authors of study concluded, “It is the winning that seems more important to them.” 

The flip side is likewise manifested neurologically. Mina Cikara examined brain activity of Red Sox and Yankees fans while showing them an animated baseball game. These subjects were selected based on their knowledge of their team as well as their level of passion both for their team and against the other one. (Thatis, it was not enough that they loved their team; they also had to hate the opposing one.) Participants showed signs of pleasure when their team succeeded and pain when they failed. No surprise there. But the same patterns were elicited when their hated rival did badly or well. In fact, this pleasure obtained even when the failure took place against some other team: even when the Red Sox lost a game against the Orioles, for example, Yankees fans felt pleasure. In short, from a neurological point of view, the pleasure associated with my tribe’s winning and your tribe’s losing is quite similar. Schadenfreude is not a feeling that we are proud to have. It is a genuinely guilty pleasure – but it is real. 

Worse, because we attach less significance to them, because we feel pleasure when they lose, we also are less interested in distinctions within that group. Just as types of beers are irrelevant to someone who drinks iced tea, all of us are less invested in them. Therefore, there is a neurological foundation for the bigot’s almost inevitable claim: “They’re all alike.” But here again, the same inclination that leads a bigot to say vile things is present in all of us. We all possess the tribal instinct, and that instinct simply makes it easier for us to diminish individual differences among those outside our group. Ultimately, tribalism leads to dehumanization of the other. In languages all over the world, the word for our group, for us, corresponds to the word for human. (For example, the English word barbarian comes from an ancient Greek word for people who did not speak Greek.) And people attribute human descriptors (person, people, citizens) to members of their tribe, while they are more likely to use animal words (e.g., wild, creature, breed) to outsiders. If you are not part of us, you are literally less of a human being.

This trail from dehumanization to discrimination reveals a natural human inclination. We might not be aware of it. But it is the rare human being who does not manifest this legacy of our tribal beginnings. Again, the danger of bias only begins with bigotry and unfairness. When this impulse to dehumanize is unchecked, us and them grows from unconscious favoritism to animus, enmity, and ultimately violence. Few patterns are more frequently represented in human history.