An ingroup is a social group that a person identifies as being a part of, based on factors like nationality, race, religion, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation.
An outgroup is a social group that a person does not identify with, based on similar factors as would cause that person to identify with an ingroup (e.g., nationality and religion).
For example, a religious person might view members of their religion as being a part of their ingroup, while viewing members of other religions as being a part of their outgroup.
The concept of ingroups and outgroups has important implications in a wide range of contexts, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about this aspect of social identity, understand the psychology behind it, and see what you can do to account for it in practice.
Examples of ingroups and outgroups
One example of an ingroup and an outgroup appears in the case of a teenager, who views other teenagers as members of their ingroup and adults as members of their outgroup, based on their age.
Another example of an ingroup and an outgroup appears in the case of a college student, who views other students from the same major as belonging to their ingroup, and views students from other majors as belonging to their outgroup.
Many other examples of ingroups and outgroups exist, as people can develop their social identity based on various criteria, such as nationality, ethnicity, race, age, language, socioeconomic status (or social class), and occupation. The following are specific examples of ways people categorize their ingroups and outgroups, which also illustrate how this type of social identity can influence people’s thoughts and actions:
- In the case of gender, people are sometimes more sympathetic toward members of the same gender as them.
- In the case of religion, people sometimes have negative attitudes toward members of religions other than their own.
- In the case of political affiliation, people sometimes discriminate against members of political movements that rival their own.
- In the case of sports, people are sometimes more likely to view certain behaviors as “rough and dirty” when they’re performed by members of an opposing team, compared to when they’re performed by members of one’s favorite team.
Accordingly, the concept of ingroups and outgroups is associated with various common phenomena, including racism, sexism, nationalism, patriotism, tribalism, collective narcissism, groupthink, and a polarized “us vs. them” mentality.
In addition, given the wide range of criteria that people can use when distinguishing between ingroups and outgroups, there is a huge number of ingroups and outgroups that a person can reasonably identify. Some of these groups will be more important to them than others, though which are more important can vary under different circumstances, for example if the question of membership in a certain group is particularly salient in a certain situation.
People’s tendency to consider ingroups and outgroups is such an innate and powerful impulse that they can be made to identify with a new minimal ingroup based on entirely random, arbitrary, and meaningless criteria. Essentially, the simple act of being told that they’re part of a group can make people identify with it socially, even if the group members have nothing else in common.
Furthermore, the role of social identity has also been found in animals. For example, chimpanzees are more likely to experience contagious yawning when they see a member of their social group yawning, compared to when they see a member of a different group yawning.
Psychology of ingroups and outgroups
A key framework that’s used to explain why and how people distinguish between ingroups and outgroups is social identity theory, which explains this phenomenon as follows:
“We can conceptualize a group… as a collection of individuals who perceive themselves to be members of the same social category, share some emotional involvement in this common definition of themselves, and achieve some degree of social consensus about the evaluation of their group and of their membership of it…
Social groups… provide their members with an identification of themselves in social terms. These identifications are to a very large extent relational and comparative: they define the individual as similar to or different from, as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than, members of other groups…
It is in a strictly limited sense, arising from these considerations, that we use the term social identity. It consists… of those aspects of an individual’s self-image that derive from the social categories to which he perceives himself as belonging. With this limited concept of social identity in mind, our argument is based on the following general assumptions:
- Individuals strive to maintain or enhance their self-esteem: they strive for a positive self-concept.
- Social groups or categories and the membership of them are associated with positive or negative value connotations. Hence, social identity may be positive or negative according to the evaluations (which tend to be socially consensual, either within or across groups) of those groups that contribute to an individual’s social identity.
- The evaluation of one’s own group is determined with reference to specific other groups through social comparisons in terms of value-laden attributes and characteristics. Positively discrepant comparisons between in-group and out-group produce high prestige; negatively discrepant comparisons between ingroup and out-group result in low prestige.
From these assumptions, some related theoretical principles can be derived:
- Individuals strive to achieve or to maintain positive social identity.
- Positive social identity is based to a large extent on favorable comparisons that can be made between the in-group and some relevant out-groups: the in-group must be perceived as positively differentiated or distinct from the relevant out-groups.
- When social identity is unsatisfactory, individuals will strive either to leave their existing group and join some more positively distinct group and/or to make their existing group more positively distinct.
The basic hypothesis, then, is that pressures to evaluate one’s own group positively through in-group/out-group comparisons lead social groups to attempt to differentiate themselves from each other…”
— From “An integrative theory of intergroup conflict” (Tajfel & Turner, 1979)
Other theoretical frameworks have also been proposed to explain the concepts of ingroups and outgroups, including optimal distinctiveness theory, subjective uncertainty reduction theory, and social dominance theory.
Furthermore, various explanations have been proposed for specific phenomena that are associated with the distinction between ingroups and outgroups. For example:
- Generalizations about outgroup members have been attributed in some cases to the generally higher cost of social interaction with outgroup members, which can arise due to issues such as differences in social norms.
- Devaluation of attributes that are absent from one’s ingroup or that one’s ingroup is low in has been attributed in some cases to the desire to protect personal or collective self-esteem.
- Derogation of outgroup members has been attributed in some cases to the desire to enhance a person’s insecure status within a desirable ingroup.
- Many types of intergroup biases have been attributed to increased empathy toward ingroup members, which is sometimes combined with decreased empathy toward outgroup members.
Note: Just because someone views a certain group of people as being in their ingroup, doesn’t necessarily mean that these people also identify with this ingroup, or consider this person to be a part of it.
Affirmational and negational categorization
When it comes to how people categorize ingroups and outgroups, there is an important distinction between affirmational and negational categorization:
- Affirmational categorization involves defining people by what they are (e.g., a liberal or a conservative).
- Negational categorization involves defining people by what they aren’t (e.g., not a liberal or not a conservative).
These types of categorizations can result in different social groups, and in different cognitive and behavioral outcomes. For example, one study found that negational categorization leads to increased outgroup derogation, compared to affirmational categorization.
Superordinate groups and subgroups
In the context of ingroups and outgroups, a superordinate group (or superordinate category) is a social group within which social subgroups (or subordinate groups/categories) exist. For example, a university student might view university students as a superordinate group within which there are various subgroups of students (e.g., as differentiated based on major or the university they’re attending).
The concept of superordinate groups and subgroups is important when it comes to how people view ingroups and outgroups. As one paper notes:
“From the perspective of the ingroup projection model, the evaluation of intergroup differences depends, first, on whether the ingroup and outgroup are perceived to be included in a shared superordinate category.
If not, there is no expectation that the outgroup comply with the same norms or values as the ingroup. The outgroup’s difference is not identity threatening and can be observed in a neutral or even interested way, as something irrelevant or perhaps exotic.
If, however, ingroup and outgroup are perceived to be included in a superordinate category, the value or status differentiation between the groups depends on their relative prototypicality for the superordinate group. If there is agreement between the groups about the representation of the superordinate group and the subgroups’ relative prototypicality, the implied value differentiation will be regarded as legitimate and will be non-conflictual. If there is a tendency for one group or both groups to project their own group’s characteristics onto the superordinate group, basically representing it in their own group’s image, the two groups will likely disagree about their subgroups’ relative prototypicality, value, and status, implying intergroup conflict and intergroup discrimination.”
Fluidity of social identity
Social identity can be fluid, rather than stable, meaning that it can change based on factors like the environment a person is in. For example, while a supporter of an opposing sports team might be construed as an outgroup member in some situations, the same person might be recategorized as an ingroup member in other situations, such as when the salient social identity is the superordinate category of “sports fan”.
Accounting for ingroups and outgroups
Accounting for the concept of ingroups and outgroups can be useful in various situations, such as when you want to understand and predict people’s behavior, including your own. For example, this can help you understand why some people apply double standards by criticizing members of their outgroups for behaviors that they fully tolerate among members of their ingroup.
When accounting for ingroups and outgroups in this manner, there are various factors that you can consider in any given situation, including:
- What ingroups and outgroups does the person in question identify?
- What could prompt this person to care about the ingroup/outgroup distinction?
- What are the distinguishing features of each group?
- What do the different groups have in common?
- What are potential points of disagreement between the groups?
- How can the division into social groups influence this person’s behavior toward members of their ingroup and toward members of their outgroup?
The intergroup bias
People often treat others differently based on whether they are members of their ingroup or outgroup, a phenomenon referred to as the intergroup bias (or the ingroup-outgroup bias).
The intergroup bias can influence cognition (i.e., thoughts about people, for example in the form of stereotyping), attitude (i.e., evaluation of people, for example in the form of prejudice), and behavior (i.e., actions toward people, for example in the form of discrimination). Its influence can be explicit, when the person who’s displaying it is aware that they’re doing so, or implicit, when the person who’s displaying it is unaware that they’re doing so, and may even be trying to avoid being biased.
There are two main ways in which the intergroup bias manifests:
- Ingroup favoritism (sometimes referred to as ingroup bias). This involves favoring one’s ingroup, as well as things that are associated with it (e.g., its characteristics), often at the expense of outgroup members. This type of bias is associated with phenomena such as nepotism and cronyism, which involve giving preferential treatment to one’s family, friends, or associates, for example when it comes to hiring situations.
- Outgroup antagonism (sometimes referred to as outgroup bias). This involves displaying negative thoughts, statements, or behaviors directed at outgroups and things that are associated with them, often in the form of outgroup derogation or outgroup hostility. For example, this can involve being prejudiced against outgroup members, and in some cases even infrahumanizing or dehumanizing them.
The intergroup bias can also manifest in various other ways. For example, the linguistic intergroup bias means that people tend to encode and communicate positive ingroup and negative outgroup behaviors more abstractly than they do negative ingroup and positive outgroup behaviors. Similarly, the outgroup homogeneity effect, can lead the outgroup to be viewed as being more homogeneous than it is or than the ingroup is, and this effect is associated with various cognitive and behavioral patterns, such as generalizing or stereotyping outgroup members (though an ingroup homogeneity effect can also occur in some cases). Moreover, people generally have an easier time communicating with people in their ingroup than with people in their outgroup.
These various can co-occur and influence one another, but this doesn’t always happen. For example, it’s possible for intergroup discrimination to occur due to ingroup favoritism, even in the absence of outgroup antagonism.
In addition, various moderating factors can influence the intergroup bias, for example when it comes to the way in which it manifests. Such factors include, for example, intergroup competition, intergroup similarity, ingroup essentialism, cultural background (e.g. individualistic or collectivist), and the age and self-esteem of group members.
Overall, the intergroup bias leads people to treat their ingroup and outgroup differently, for example by favoring things that are associated with their ingroup and devaluing those that are associated with their outgroup. This bias can take many forms, and various factors, like intergroup competition, can influence the likelihood that people will display it, as well as the way in which they do so.
Note: It’s possible to conceptualize the intergroup bias as a type of bias, and consequently to categorize the various manifestations of this bias (e.g., ingroup favoritism) as intergroup biases. There are various types of intergroup biases, such as group-serving biases, which cause people to overvalue their ingroup (e.g., by attributing its failures to external factors and its successes to internal factors). In addition, the intergroup bias itself can be considered to be a type of group bias, since it involves social groups.
How to reduce intergroup bias
To reduce the intergroup bias, you can use various combinations of the following techniques:
- Increase awareness of the issue. For example, you can explain what ingroups and outgroups are, why people form them, and how they can influence people’s thoughts and actions.
- Increase the motivation to change. For example, you can explain why the intergroup bias can be problematic, both in general and in the current circumstances.
- Look for things that are shared between the groups. For example, try to find common struggles that the people in both groups share, or characteristics that are shared by members of the two groups.
- Create a shared group identity. For example, you can encourage people to create a group identity that is shared by those in their ingroup and outgroup, potentially while maintaining the distinctiveness of each of the subgroups.
- Identify positive things about the outgroup. For example, try to identify attributes in the outgroup that you find admirable.
- Identify negative things about the ingroup. For example, try to identify attributes in the ingroup that you would criticize if they were displayed by outgroup members.
- Consider the heterogeneity of the outgroup. For example, try to find ways in which the members of the outgroup are different from one another, particularly when it comes to factors that are considered stereotypical of the outgroup.
- Empathize with outgroup members. For example, consider how outgroup members might feel when you act toward them in a certain way, and how you would feel if someone acted the same way toward you.
- Get the perspective of outgroup members. For example, ask someone in the outgroup to explain their beliefs to you.
- Increase contact between group members. Interactions, extended contact, and positive connections across groups can reduce the ingroup bias. Such connections can involve many things, such as direct friendship, cooperation in specific situations, knowledge that an ingroup member has a close relationship with an outgroup member, and even imagined interactions with outgroup members.
- Use general debiasing techniques. For example, you can set up optimal conditions for interactions between group members, and ask people to slow down their reasoning process.
When deciding which techniques to use and how to use them, you should consider both personal and situational factors that pertain to the situation, like:
- Who are the people involved? For example, are you trying to influence yourself, someone else, or a group of people?
- In what context are you trying to influence the people involved? For example, are you their friend in school or their supervisor at work?
- What kind of intergroup bias exists? For example, how do the people in question feel about outgroup members? Are there any active disagreements between groups or just a lack of connection? Are people aware of the bias? If necessary, you can gather information about this to understand the situation better, for example by asking people for their input.
- What are you trying to achieve? For example, are you trying to get people to sympathize more with those that they currently consider to be in their outgroup, or are you trying to get people to be more critical of their own ingroup? Are you trying to only change people’s behavior, or also their underlying attitudes?
It’s important to note that people generally tend to attribute more biased intergroup beliefs to others than to themselves. This is important when it comes to dealing with the intergroup bias, since it means that people, including you, might not realize that they suffer from this bias, or might not realize the extent to which they suffer from it.
Overall, you can reduce the intergroup bias in various ways, including increasing awareness of the issue, creating shared group identity, identifying positive things about the outgroup and negative things about the ingroup, empathizing with outgroup members, and increasing contact between group members. When deciding which techniques to use and how to use them, you should consider relevant personal and situational factors, like who are the people involved and what kind of intergroup bias they’re displaying.
Summary and conclusions
- An ingroup is a social group that a person identifies as being a part of, based on factors like nationality and religion, while an outgroup is a social group that a person does not identify with, based on similar factors.
- For example, a religious person might view members of their religion as being a part of their ingroup, and at the same time view members of other religions as being a part of their outgroup.
- People can identify with ingroups and outgroups based on many factors, like ethnicity, gender, age, occupation, political affiliation, and even arbitrary criteria like being told they’re part of team A and someone else is a part of team B.
- The intergroup bias involves unequal treatment of ingroups and outgroups, for example in the form of blindly favoring the ingroup and hating the outgroup.
- You can reduce the intergroup bias in various ways, including increasing awareness of the issue, creating shared group identity across groups, identifying positive things about the outgroup and negative things about the ingroup, empathizing with outgroup members, and increasing contact between group members.