In-groups can be formed on a wide range of attributes, including gender, race, ethnicity, age, neighborhood, geographic region, religion, nationality, or sports team (just to name a few).
One of the first scholars to write about this phenomenon was the sociologist William Sumner (1906): “Each group nourishes its own pride and vanity, boasts itself superior, exists in its own divinities, and looks with contempt on outsiders” (p. 13).
Individuals that are members of our group are favored, while those that are outside this group are not. This is referred to as ingroup-outgroup bias.
Ingroup Bias Examples
- Preferring to socialize with people that are also fans of our favorite team
- Congregating with our own age group
- Perceiving people that are similar to ourselves as more intelligent than most other people
- Letting a person get in front of us in line for a movie because they are wearing a t-shirt with a political slogan we agree with
- Favoring a job applicant because they were a member of our fraternity in college
- School athletes sitting next to each other at lunch
- A teacher favoring students that are of his same ethnicity
- A flight attendant being extra nice to passengers from her home country
- Apple users displaying an air of superiority over Windows users
- Vegetarians and everybody else
5 Best Examples
1. Political Affiliations
There’s an old saying that you should never discuss religion or politics at the dinner table. There are no more divisive subjects that these. People take their religious beliefs and political ideology extremely seriously, so if you want to keep your friends, it’s best to keep the chatter to sports and movies.
Although that is sound advice, adhering to it is pretty difficult. People just have a tendency to talk about current events, and those often involve politics these days.
It seems perfectly reasonable that we would prefer to socialize with people that we have things in common with. People that share our values are easy to talk to and the likelihood of a heated debate are minimal. Afterall, who wants to have a friend that always disagrees with them?
While all of this is understandable, the problem occurs when the “bias” part of ingroup bias comes into play. Denying people jobs or social rights is taking ingroup preferences a bit too far.
2. Military Vets and Civilians
The military changes people. Strict adherence to rules and protocols becomes firmly ingrained into a person’s psyche. Unrelenting respect for authority and following orders becomes second nature to anyone that has joined the armed services.
That’s why we often see people with military experience preferring to socialize with others that have also served. They share certain values, mindset, and way of life. They have a ‘brotherhood’.
Having combat experience can take those characteristics to the next level. Civilians are just different. They have not seen the tragedies of conflict or had to learn how to handle the possibility of losing one’s life at any moment. Those experiences change a person’s personality forever.
It seems a little unfair to describe the preference to be around others that have endured these traumatic experiences as an ingroup “bias”. Perhaps a new term can be invented for this scenario, such as ingroup preference or ingroup matching.
3. Ingroup Bias and Eyewitness Testimony
Several decades of research have demonstrated the fragility of eyewitness testimony. People’s memory of events and people are far more susceptible to distortion than we realize. This calls into question the credibility of eyewitness testimony.
Lindholm and Christianson (1998) examined the role of ingroup bias in eyewitness testimony. Swedish students and immigrants watched a film depicting a simulated robbery. The perpetrator was either an immigrant or a Swede.
The results were quite interesting: both groups rated members of their outgroup as more culpable than members of their ingroup.
So it seems that the ingroup bias not only has implications for who we prefer to socialize with, but it can also have more serious ramifications regarding eyewitness testimony.
4. Cross-Cultural Conflicts
Nationality is a prominent grouping variable. Most people in the world have a very strong tie to their native homeland. They have internalized the values, customs, and beliefs of the culture every day of their lives.
This is completely natural. Nearly every one of us is the same in this regard. Unfortunately, this devotion to our nationality can sometimes lead to a divergence of treatment between locals and natives that borders on the unfair.
For example, as many ex-pats will attest, whenever there is a disagreement between a local and a foreigner, the local authorities have a slight tendency to point the blame in one direction.
Whether this is intentional or not is hard to say. The ingroup bias is often an unconscious act that may be difficult to control. We also sometimes call this ‘cultural bias‘.
5. A Class Divided
Maybe one of the most compelling demonstrations of ingroup bias occurred in the third-grade classroom of a small school in Iowa.
In 1968, Jane Elliot turned her adorable third-graders into students filled with prejudice and bias.
Simply by dividing the class into two groups based on eye-color, the students began to turn on each other and show signs of hostility that are reflected in the world on a daily basis.
Students in the outgroup began to perform poorly and show signs of anxiety and depression almost immediately. The next day, when the roles were switched, so did their psychological states.
The PBS Frontline Documentary “A Class Divided,” tells the fascinating story of Elliot’s simple but extremely powerful experiment.
Related Psychological Bias: Outgroup Homogeneity Effect
The ingroup bias means we prefer to be around others like ourselves. This includes people of our same race or ethnicity, political or religious affiliation, or even others that are also fans of our favorite sports teams.
The ingroup bias can manifest in a variety of ways. For instance, doing favors for our fellow ingroup comrades, perceiving them as more intelligent, or even being more likely to give them a job.
Although it may be unfair to outgroup members, we can’t blame people completely for engaging in this bias because it is often unconscious and uncontrollable.
Sumner, W. G. (1907). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. Boston: Ginn and Co.
Brewer, M. B. (2007). The social psychology of intergroup relations: Social categorization, ingroup bias, and outgroup prejudice. In A. W. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles (pp. 695–715). The Guilford Press.
Tajfel, H., & Turner J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations (pp. 7-24). Chicago: Nelson Hall.
Hamley, L., Houkamau, C., Osborne, D., Barlow, F., & Sibley, C. (2019). Ingroup love or outgroup hate (or both)? Mapping distinct bias profiles in the population. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219845919
Lindholm, T., & Christianson, SA. (1998). Intergroup biases and eyewitness testimony. The Journal of Social Psychology, 138(6), 710-723. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224549809603256
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.