• Saransh Sharma

Ingroup Bias - Definitions, Causes, Risks, Advantages & Debiasing



Ingroup bias or ingroup favoritisms is defined as people’s tendency to favour members of their own “in” group over people from outside of that group. Ingroup bias is a member of a family of biases known as intergroup biases. Along with ingroup bias, this family includes outgroup negativity, outgroup homogeneity and ingroup derogation. Outgroup negativity is the tendency to discriminate against the outgroup or perceive them as inferior (Hewstone et al., 2002). Examples of this are plenty and unique in every society, such as racism, sectarianism, communalism and casteism. Outgroup homogeneity is the tendency to perceive ingroup members to be diverse and unique, and outgroup members to be uniform and having the same characteristics (Boldry, 2007). E.g. we perceive a lot of diversity and vibrancy in our own city or country, but perceive all the citizens of a rival city or country to behave and think the same, as per the stereotype we have of them. Ingroup derogation, observed to a lesser extent than other biases in the family, is the tendency to criticize members of one's own group or culture more harshly than members of outside groups. This is more common among members of disadvantaged and minority groups (Rudman et al., 2002).

Ingroup bias has been studied by sociologists as well as psychologists. William Sumner was one of the early sociologists who observed this tendency, proclaiming how "each group nourishes its own pride and vanity, boasts itself superior, exists in its own divinities, and looks with contempt on outsiders". British psychologist, Henri Tajfel, pioneered the study of the psychological roots of in-group bias in the 1970s (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). To study this in the lab, Tajfel and colleagues created minimal groups, wherein complete strangers are formed into groups using the most trivial criteria imaginable e.g. flipping a coin. Participants were informed that the group they were in was just a matter of chance. Next, each participant was given an individual task to award money to other participants, without knowing their identity. They were only given code numbers for the other participants which indicated the group they belonged to and nothing else.

What Tajfel and his colleagues discovered was that participants almost always allotted more money to other participants belonging to their own groups (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Remember, they were partial towards their group members inspite of not knowing any of them, and also while being aware that they were put in the same group because of something as meaningless as a coin toss.

In other studies, Tajfel even found that in minimal groups, participants reported liking the members of their own group better and they rated the members of their in-group as more likely to have pleasant personalities.


Cognitive causes are the psychological mechanisms that explain the bias. It is likely that no one of the multiple explanations can explain every instance of the bias, and each explanation is valid in some cases and invalid in others.

First, the social identity theory, which suggests that our self-image and self-esteem depends to some extent on our social identity i.e. the status and reputation of our social groups. Therefore, people perceive their groups to be superior to other groups so they can maintain a positive social identity, which improves their own self-esteem (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). If we perceive our city, country or religion to be superior to others, we are likely to feel that we are superior as well.

Secondly, the terror management theory which proposes that to deal with the potentially paralyzing prospect of own mortality, we seek symbolic immortality - that is some aspect of us surviving beyond our life . Therefore, we evaluate in-group members positively because they are likely to share some of our beliefs and worldviews, and through them our shared values and cultural worldviews can survive much longer than us (Hewstone et al., 2002).

Realistic conflict theory proposes that each group tries to maintain or enhance their own resources, values, and well-being. The attitudes and emotions toward outgroups are based on whether that group helps our group in this goal or competes with us for the same (Brewer, 2007).

According to differential processing theories, people remember information about ingroup and outgroup members somewhat dif-ferently. As we tend to be more familiar with members of our ingroup, we base our impression of them on specific persons and subgroups, whereas we base our impression of outgroup on stereotyped group characteristics, not individual characteristics (Castano & Yzerbyt, 1998).


Numerous studies have found Oxytocin, which is a hormone and a neurotransmitter, to be involved in intergroup biases. It plays a key role in sustaining and enabling bonding, trust and cooperation among individuals, and creating an ingroup bias is one way it does that (De Dreu et al., 2011). Studies have found that it also promotes a competitive approach towards outgroups in situations where we perceive threat to vulnerable group members, even when we don’t perceive a direct threat to ouselves (De Dreu et al., 2012).


For the bias to be passed down genetically or culturally to us from our ancestors, it must be beneficial in certain conditions.

We can understand the key benefit of ingroup bias in terms of a system of cooperation known as generalized exchange. In this system, people unilaterally provide help without expecting anything in return. In a group that follows this system, each member receives help when they are in need, as other group members are willing to offer it unconditionally. This group-level characteristic benefits each individual and gives them an advantage over members of groups who don’t follow this system. So by cooperating with and favoring members of our ingroup, we benefit all the individuals in the group, including ourselves (Balliet, 2014).


Many discriminatory perceptions and behaviors are motivated primarily by the desire to promote and maintain positive relationships within the ingroup rather than by any direct negativity toward outgroups. Ingroup bias is the primary and a positive drive, but it prepares the ground for outgroup derogation and negativity. The outgroup negativity gets amplified in situations of intergroup competition or perceived threat to ingroup (Time & Brewer).

Individuals express outgroup negativity in behavior even when making relatively consequential decisions. In a field experiment, local government officials were found to be less likely to provide assistance to citizens with certain ethnic names than to ethnically-unmarked peers. Neither deliberate policy of discrimination nor identity-based politics are necessary conditions for large ingroup biases to distort behavior of government functionaries (Distelhorst & Hou, 2014).

Second, we think of morals as rules that should be applied universally, in every situation, but research suggests that we struggle to apply our moral principles equally to our outgroups and ingroups. E.g. liberals apply different moral standards to other liberals than to conservatives, and vice versa.

Next, people often resist ideas, objects and knowledge coming from outgroup members, which creates hurdles for free flow and exchange of innovations and advancements. E.g. companies sometimes do not want to adopt successful practices of their competitors to differentiate themselves from them. (Antons & Piller, 2015)

Finally, group homogeneity leads to stereotyping, which impacts the social identity and self-image of stereotyped individuals and limits the opportunities and choices available to them.


Most important antidote to intergroup biases is contact and cooperation. The optimal conditions include equal status between groups in the context of the given situation, shared goals, support of authoritative figures, and cooperation as opposed to competition (Aronson et al., 2010).

Recategorization is a social identity-based approach to prejudice reduction wherein the members of different small groups are shown that they are members of the same larger group by highlighting their shared values, history or other unifying characteristics (Gaertner et al., 2000). THis is how nations formed from small isolated, towns, villages and tribes

Next, perspective taking is the exercise of examining a situation from the point of view of another individual. Even though we may never be able to fully understand another’s perspective, the very act of empathizing reduces the use of stereotypes because it evokes feelings of similarity and affinity toward the other person.

Next, people are less likely to endorse prejudiced beliefs when their own self-worth is affirmed. A study found that after being made to feel good about themselves, people are more likely to positively rate job candidates from stigmatized groups and less likely to negatively stereotype people from stigmatized groups.

FInally, our level of association or identification with a group membership influences how strongly we exhibit ingroup bias towards that group. Introspection about which group memberships are strongly linked to our self-image and self esteem can help us navigate situations where intergroup biases may be strongly affecting our attitudes and decisions (Tropp & Wright, 2001).



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