Why are social groups so important to us?

Art by Alyssa Guzman
Racial justice is the path to racial progress. Follow us on twitter @GetRaceRight

Take a minute to think about some of the social groups to which you belong—groups based on biology (gender and age, for example), family history (religion, perhaps, and ethnicity), or personal choice (occupation, place of residence, or political party). Groups meet basic, personal needs for each of us, which is why we take them so seriously, and why we get so emotional about them.

Being affiliated with social groups even promotes physical health, what some researchers have called the “social cure.”  Why?  According to Katharine Greenaway and her colleagues (2015), social groups help us feel supported and esteemed, as we might expect, but they also help us feel capable.  With the support and the esteem comes a stronger sense of personal control over our lives.

Minimal groups, maximal effect

So what leads us to identify with our social groups, to feel that deep sense of our social self? Henri Tajfel helped answer that question 30 years ago. A Polish Jew who was studying in France at the time of the Nazi invasion, Tajfel joined the French army, was captured, and spent time in German POW camps. He survived only because he was able to pass as a Christian. After the war, he returned to Poland to discover that his family and friends had perished in the Holocaust. People cope with tragedy in different ways. Tajfel devoted the rest of his life to studying racial hatred. As a professor of psychology at England’s Bristol University, he began a series of experiments designed to identify which of many different variables is most responsible for the development of prejudice and hate. First, however, he needed some baseline data, so he set out to create a situation in which two groups existed with no history, no competition, no clash of values, nothing that would lead their members to discriminate against each other. After that, he intended to introduce different variables, one at a time, to measure their effect.

Henri Tajfel

Prof. Tajfel brought people into his laboratory and randomly assigned them to one of two groups. The participants never met anyone else in either group (Tajfel and Turner, 1979). All they knew was that two groups existed, and they belonged to one of them. For his baseline measures, Tajfel asked people about the two “minimal” groups, expecting to find no difference in attitudes or actions because no actual differences existed. But he failed. In spite of the fact that there was no basis even for distinguishing between the groups, Tajfel’s research participants exhibited ingroup favoritism and outgroup prejudice on a variety of measures. They claimed to like people in their own group more than they liked those in the other group, and they divvied up research payments in such a way that members of their group benefited even when they personally did not. Over the course of many trials, Tajfel found it impossible to create two groups—even artificial, barely-there groups—without engendering preferences for ingroups and prejudice against outgroups. He explained this in terms of the centrality of group memberships to our sense of ourselves, our “social identity.”

More recently, the brain-scanning techniques of neuroscience have demonstrated that there is significant overlap between the parts of the brain that process information about me and the parts of the brain that process information about us (Cikara and Van Bavel, 2014).  The self is inherently social, and to a degree we often fail to notice.

Biologically wired to be shaped by our circumstances:  Nature loves nurture

Ethiopian babyIsraeli baby

It starts early. Preferring our own groups, at the expense of others, is natural and universal, rooted in our life experiences long before we possibly can be consciously aware of it. Researchers in Israel and Ethiopia (Bar-Haim et al., 2006) demonstrated that infants as young as three months have a preference for looking at same-race, as opposed to other-race, faces.  Black Ethiopian babies spent more time looking at photographs of Black Ethiopian faces than at photographs of White Israeli faces. White Israeli babies did just the opposite. However, Black Ethiopian babies living with their families in Israeli immigration centers (and therefore exposed to both Black and White faces), spent virtually the same amount of time viewing both kinds of faces. Any same-race preference, then, was determined by the kinds of people the babies had seen in the first few weeks of life, not by some innate propensity for one over the other.  Even as babies, we favor the familiar.

The Bottom Line:  Ingroup bias and outgroup prejudice are innate human responses, but the specific groups we prefer, and the ones that mean the most to us, result from experience and social context.

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