Making Your Way in the World Today: Ingroups, Outgroups, and the Trouble They Entail

"Poor people are lazy."

"Transsexuals are confused and mentally ill."

"Rich people are greedy snobs."

"Christians are followers. They are sheep who can't think critically."

Have you ever been at the receiving end of statements like these? Have you ever uttered them yourself? 

Maybe, if you identify as a Very Nice Person, you would never dare to speak these kinds of things out loud or type them to another on the internet. You are too nice for that. But even you, oh sweet one, admittedly have these thoughts on occasion. No one is immune to thinking in these ways, no matter how affable or peace-loving they are.

When we make statements like these, either out loud or internally, we are identifying ourselves as the opposite of the person or persons we are addressing and labelling. The person who rails against the "stupid, intolerant Conservative," for example, is identifying themselves as Liberal and the epitome of tolerance. The person claiming that Christians are mere followers who can't think critically are, by extension, identifying themselves both as non-Christian and as independent, critical thinkers. And so on. They are drawing clear distinctions between themselves/their group and others.

We can also make direct statements about ourselves that stand as claims regarding what we are and what we are not.

For example:

I am stubborn. By saying this, I'm also saying that I am not complaisant or obliging. Whether I am actually stubborn or simply perceive myself this way is besides the point. What is important for our purposes here is that there are others who are stubborn and identify as such. Me and all of the other stubborn folks have shared characteristics, annoying though they may be to the non-stubborns of the world, or at least we perceive that we do. We understand ourselves by way of our shared obstinacy and our mutual understanding of what this means.

I am an introvert. By saying this, I am also saying that I am not extroverted. When I learn someone I've just met also classifies themselves as an introvert, I feel an instant affinity towards them, and may want to be their best friend. An introvert will get me, they will understand me, surely more than an extrovert would!


Of course, this may not be the case at all, but it's the kind of largely unconscious assumptions we all make when we meet another who belongs in the same "category" or "group" that we do. And these unconscious assumptions drastically influence how we behave towards others.

To those we perceive as co-members of our group, we tend to be more trusting, more open, and more willing to help. To those we perceive as not belonging to our group, we are more cautious, more suspicious of potential ulterior motives, and less willing to help during times of crisis. 

In my example of being an introvert, introverts are my ingroup, while extroverts are an outgroup.

Ingroups and Outgroups

"Ingroups" and "outgroups" are terms frequently used in sociology and social psychology. An ingroup is simply a social group to which one identifies as being a member, while an outgroup is a social group to which one does NOT identify as being a member.

There are four different types of groups:

  1. Intimate: family, friends, etc. (e.g. Trump family, group of close friends that meets every Sunday night to watch Game of Thrones)
  2. Task: work, sports teams, etc. (e.g. Apple employees, local softball team, fantasy football league)
  3. Social: race, ethnicity, gender, etc. (e.g. Italian, expatriate, genderqueer)
  4. Loose associations: interests (e.g. board game enthusiasts, dog lovers, book lovers, sex toy collectors)

Each person could belong to an infinite number of groups, yet there are a small number of groups that come to mind for most individuals when they are asked. For me, it would be American-Canadian, politically moderate, writer, madre, Midwesterner, cancer survivor, minimalist, former Fundamentalist Christian, agnostic-atheist, in no particular order. In merely listing these affiliations, you either identified with me or distanced yourself from me in your own mind.

The order of importance of all of these affiliations changes depending on the context in which I find myself: with whom I'm speaking, in what setting I'm in, the geo-political landscape I'm inhabiting at a particular moment in time, my mood and the mood of others around me, and so on.

Our classification of ourselves and others into various groups and affiliations has a wide array of purposes. For one, our sense of self--our identity or self-construct--almost entirely depends on it. I know who I am only through comparing and contrasting myself to others. 

Also, it almost certainly has evolutionary roots, in that it is likely a trait that aided in survival and reproduction, and, in some rare cases, might continue to aid in survival. In an unstable environment of warring clans or tribes, for example, being extra cautious around outsiders was probably the wisest way to proceed. To avoid, you know, getting killed.

Group affiliation can sometimes be so strong that individuals are willing to sacrifice their lives for the benefit of the group, which some might construe as having an evolutionary advantage. A parent who is willing to sacrifice their life to save their offspring, for example, has ensured the passing on of their genome. Yes they lost their own life, but they saved the life of their child, and that child may eventually decide to reproduce.

Though there's nothing wrong with group affiliation in itself, the act of classifying ourselves and others can lead to ugly, hateful, downright disgusting behaviour.

After all, ingroup-outgroup bias forms the core of racism, xenophobia, and sexism. 

How closely we identify with any particular group will largely determine how we perceive and behave towards the opposing outgroup.

For example, if being a man is very central to my identity, more so than almost any other identifying factor in my self-construct, then I am likely to view women as more different and more "other"--in some cases, even alien--when compared to myself and all other men. I may even perceive women as threatening or dangerous, especially when I feel that my identity as a man is called into question.

If my identity as a man is less important or less central to my self-concept, on the other hand, I am far less likely to draw knee-jerk, stereotypical distinctions between men and women, and I am less prone to perceiving males and females as inherently deeply contrasting groups. In other words, I will see more similarities than differences between men and women if being male is not central to my identity.

When Ingroup-Outgroup Bias Leads to Extreme Polarization and Bad Behaviour 

It has been noted elsewhere that for every group committing anti-social or hateful or violent acts against others, there is another group doing the exact opposite. For every white supremacist group spreading anti-social dogma related to shared views of racial superiority, for example, there is a humanist group spreading information regarding progress and betterment for all, regardless of race, gender, or creed.

Indeed, we can unite in groups and identify ourselves according to shared values and goals, for better or worse. This is important to remember, as I do not wish to imply that group membership should be avoided. Being closely aligned with a group or several groups can be a source of strength, improved well-being, and improved ability to affect change. There is, to be sure, strength in numbers.

What should be avoided is the denigration and vilification of those who do not belong to one's own group. Iyengar and Westwood have shown how polarization between political groups has increased in the last few decades, to the extent that discrimination between political parties in the US is now worse than discrimination based on race.

They say this has happened due to the fact that, for the most part in Western culture, there are no social pressures "to temper disapproval of political opponents." In many cases, slandering one's political opposite is encouraged, cheered, and celebrated. While racial discrimination has become taboo in most social circles, and discrimination based on sexual orientation has largely followed suit, most are blind to partisan discrimination.

Partisan polarization has gotten so bad, they say, that it is now not uncommon for parents to disapprove of their son or daughter's mate selection due to party affiliation with the "enemy" side. In other words, political affiliation is directly determining our social lives: who we'll marry, where we'll live, who we'll do business with, and who our kids can play beside.

Even members from groups that are touted as benevolent and unifying can frequently be seen cruelly denigrating and belittling those outside the group.

As James Rohrer writes:

[The online comment section] demonstrates that people who belong to groups that are committed to rational analysis and social tolerance are nonetheless capable of verbally abusing others in language that can reasonably be defined as bullying or even “hate speech” when they imagine that they are addressing some hated “them” and when they are shielded by the cloak of anonymity.

But where does this bullying and hate-slinging get us?

Common to ingroup-outgroup thinking, members of groups who are involved in this type of behaviour often believe they are doing good, or at least achieving some beneficial end for their group and their group's agenda. They are able to behave in an inhumane way towards another, since ingroup-outgroup thinking effectively strips the "other" of their individuality and personhood.

The other is object, enemy, not me, not us, foreign, dangerous, cause of all that's wrong in the world, and on and on and on. If this enemy entity is so terrible, then clearly they deserve such treatment. Or, since they have no unique identity, they can take the abuse.

But I don't think they can.

I think it's time to change the way we treat each other. Join groups of like-minded individuals, yes, keep doing that. But think twice, or five times, before using harsh words towards another. Truly listen and try to understand. See the human. See the individual, and respond, or remain silent, accordingly.

I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me. -Terence (195-159 BCE)

We are all in this together. Nothing that is human is alien to me. Nothing that is human is alien to us.


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(image 1 by Davide Ragusa via Unsplash; image 2 by Stuart Vivier via Unsplash)