Conflict And In-Group Bias
August 2007 - A recent address by Marilynn Brewer, professor of psychology at Ohio State
University to mark the award of Distinguished Scientific Contribution for 2007 by the American Psychological
Association challenged the concept that conflict is an inevitable and necessary part of interaction between groups.
Marilynn Brewer said:
"There's still this belief that a group's cohesion depends on conflict with other groups, but the evidence doesn't support that. Despite evidence to the contrary, you still see this theory in the research literature and in many textbooks."
Recent evidence suggests that people join groups in order to feel secure; attachment to in-groups has nothing to do with conflict or any other kind of relation to out-groups. In one study, for example, she found that people tended to put more trust in a total stranger who had attended the same university.
Marilynn Brewer explained:
"Simply put, we prefer people of our kind, people we know we can rely on. That doesn't mean you
have to hate anyone else. But you will be more likely to trust people from your own group...All you need is to have that shared group identity."
Human evolutionary history suggests that inter-group conflict is not an essential element in in-group formation. Early humans lived in sparse population densities and competition for resources was unnecessary. Groups would have been more likely to flee than fight.
Marilynn Brewer commented:
"That doesn't mean in-group bias is benign. In-group bias is the basis for discrimination, the favoring of people in your group over those in another. You don't have to hate people from other groups in order to disadvantage them and to deny them the opportunities you have in your group. That's a real downside to in-group bias."
She also challenged the common misconception that people join groups to boost their self-esteem. Research indicates that when people are asked why their in-group is superior, they tend to identify traits such as trustworthiness, friendliness and kindness.
Marilynn Brewer said:
"Most people are reality bound. They know if their group is not as good as others when it comes to things like wealth, and they won't pretend otherwise. If people were just looking for self-enhancement, they would just say their group is the best at everything, and that isn't the case. What people are really looking for is trust and security."
However, it is self evident that inter-group conflict does occur frequently, especially over resources or threats to identity or values. In these circumstances people may support conflict as a way of enhancing group cohesion and marginal members will be most committed to maintaining a hostile distance between groups. One way to minimize this may be to take advantage of the fact that people belong to many groups; national, racial, occupational, religious, school, alumni, neighborhood, hobby, club and so on.
Marilynn Brewer concluded:
"People have these different group identities and we've been working on ways to find out how people understand these memberships and how it affects their attitudes toward other groups. We do find that those people who have multiple identities and experience these identities in complex, cross-cutting ways, are indeed more accepting of diversity and have more positive feelings toward racial and religious out-groups. That suggests that there are psychological ways of breaking the boundaries of our small in-group/out-group distinctions."