Let’s say I show you a series of abstract paintings you’ve never seen before and ask you how much you like each one. I tell you that some are by Paul Klee and some by Wassily Kandinsky, but the signature on each has been covered. When you’re finished, I inform you that everyone tested so far appears to prefer one artist or the other and your ratings show that you’re among the half who favour Klee.
Then I ask you if you’ll take part in a second test and since you’re not completely bored yet, you agree. This time I want you to help me divide up some prizes for the participants in the experiment above. I give you a list of strangers’ names, along with whether they favoured Klee or Kandinsky, and ask you to allot the prizes, which are all of different values. I mention that other participants are choosing which prize will be allotted to you.
Are your prize choices likely to favour the participants who preferred Klee?
They are – although you might not be aware of it.
Studies have shown that even the most trivial division of individuals into two groups is enough to cause discriminatory behaviour in favour of an individual’s own group. It can happen without knowing or meeting other group members – and even when the individual has nothing to gain or lose by expressing a preference.
Some of the earliest research demonstrating this was done by Henri Tajfel and his colleagues in 1971. They asked teenagers to rate abstract paintings, just like you did above, then randomly told them they were in the Klee-preferring group or the Kandinsky-preferring group. They were then asked to distribute small sums of money to the other members of both groups, who were each identified only by a code number and which group they were in.
In repeated experiments, the teens consistently distributed more money to members of their ‘own’ group and less to members of the ‘other’ group – even when acting differently would have resulted in greater profits for all the teens as a whole.
It doesn’t take a supposed shared artistic preference to create a sense of group membership. A few years later, Anne Locksley’s research group showed that even being assigned to a group by pulling a slip of paper out of a hat was enough to cause preferential behaviour toward complete strangers who had been randomly assigned to the same group.
Tajfel used the results of these and other experiments to create social identity theory, which describes how we build our identities based on the groups we belong to (and how we want those groups to have the highest possible status). I’m more interested in applying this information toward our own world-changing goals.
The most obvious way, of course, is to foster a sense of membership in your group when you want people to work toward the group’s goals. The downside is that this technique requires you to promote a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’, which may conflict with your preferred methods. I suspect it’s pretty easy to give people the perception that they’re in the group who “gets it” when so many don’t, but you’ll have to decide whether the results are worth it.
There may also be ways to diminish a sense of group membership: Locksley’s research found that if study participants were told that their own group did not value them or that the other group did value them, their group favouritism disappeared. I’ll leave it to my readers how (and whether) they want to use this information.
I wonder whether this technique might also be useful in reducing prejudice. If you draw the lines such that the prejudiced person’s ‘us’ group includes those he is biased against, would it help?
We’re ridiculously tribal, we humans (and there’s a big ‘us’ group for you), but at least we know it. Now let’s figure out how to use it for good. Ideas?
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