Whether cheering on your favorite NBA team, wearing your university letters or hugging strangers at a political rally, it feels undeniably good to be part of a group. A university student might make a new friend while traveling thousands of miles away simply because they both go to the same school, and you might get beaten up for wearing team colors in a different city.
All of these situations are examples of intergroup bias, a psychological phenomenon behind behavior ranging from racism to patriotism, from team spirit to school pride on Picnic Day.
“Intergroup bias is a psychological or behavioral competition between two groups based on group membership,” said Jeff Sherman, a professor of psychology at UC Davis. “It amounts to treating people differently based on [group] membership.”
Essentially, intergroup bias is the basis for all exclusionary behavior we exhibit. It is why racism exists, why private social clubs exist and why career favoritism exists. While modern human society has evolved millions upon millions of subgroups, this preferential group treatment goes back to the most basal of survival instincts.
“[Intergroup bias] has some evolutionary basis,” Sherman said. “There is an expectation of future interactions with group members, so individuals will share resources with their own group rather than an outgroup.”
As group identification shifted from pure survival into the more social realm of personal identity, intergroup biases shifted along with it. Differential treatment evolved to justify a bias, and biases emerged to justify differential treatment. The simple state of belonging to a group can lead to biases we are completely unaware of. But why do we attach ourselves to groups in the first place?
“There is value to being accepted into a group,” said Cynthia Pickett, an associate professor of psychology at UC Davis who studies social identity. “There is value in having people living with you, hunting with you and sharing with you. People feel emotions based on their group and group pride can serve a f
When many individuals become part of a close group, they experience strong intragroup cohesion and show more support to group members. Humans are social creatures by nature, and there is a strong desire to identify with a group. However, the same behaviors that lead to strong group loyalty also lead to strong competition and discrimination against other groups. Even competing groups can belong to the same overarching superordinate group, such as a nation or species.
“Strong group cohesion formed because originally, group members were more related [to each other] than they were to members not in their group,” said Karen Bales, an associate professor of psychology at UC Davis. “Evolution favored kin selection and sacrifice to protect the group because it would help pass on [family] genes.”
But humans are finicky, and although we strongly desire to be part of a group, we also have a desire to maintain a personal identity. Pure cooperative living, while appearing to be a sound theory on paper, often fails because of the individual’s desire to be … individual.
“People want to belong to groups, but they want to be distinctive, to be set apart from other people,” Pickett said. “There are superordinate groups, like humans, but they are divided internally into smaller groups. People do not like to discard identity and just be humans.”
So let’s go back to Picnic Day. While not everyone who came to experience Picnic Day was a Davis student, the event was instrumental in generating and maintaining school pride. According to Pickett, the emotions of loyalty and pride felt by students and alumni create substantial financial support in tough economic times.
Ultimately, people will find a balance between a group identity and their own personal identity, which can give them the social comfort of belonging to a group and the psychological pride of being an individual.