Category Archives: Group/Intergroup Processes

Why do we join groups?

By Kevin R. Betts

It seems that we are all a member of at least one group; most of us are a member of many. Although our membership within some of these groups is probably involuntary (e.g., family), we go out of our way to join other groups. We join book clubs, bowling leagues, congregations, and tag-football teams, just to name a few. Some of us even go so far as to join extremist groups such as terrorist cells or violent political movements. What draws us to seek membership within these varied groups? Why are we willing to sacrifice our own time, energy, and resources for the sake of the groups to which we belong?

Hogg, Hohman, and Rivera (2008) examined these questions from a social-psychological perspective by contrasting three motivational accounts for group membership. These explanations originate from work on the sociometer model, terror management theory, and uncertainty-identity theory. The sociometer model argues that people have a need to be belong, and that self-esteem acts as a meter of successful group belonging. Greater feelings of inclusion within groups should equate to higher levels of self-esteem according to this model. Terror management theory argues that people are motivated to reduce fear of their own death, and that groups provide consensual belief-confirmation that drives their members to belong. It is comforting to share our world views with like-minded others and to hear them share similar views because it provides us with a sense of meaningful existence. Uncertainty-identity theory argues that people have a basic need to reduce uncertainty about themselves and their place in the world, and that group identification can reduce such uncertainty. Group membership may reduce this uncertainty through its associated norms that prescribe attitudes, feelings, and behaviors for us.

Hogg et al. (2008) conclude that the sociometer model, terror-management theory, and uncertainty-identity theory each play a role in explaining why people join groups. Yet, they argue that uncertainty-identity theory might provide an especially powerful explanation because of its wide generality to all groups and group contexts. What do you think? Do these explanations account for why you joined the groups that you are a part of, or does some other framework better explain your reasons for group membership?

Read more:

Hogg, M.A., Hohman, Z.P., & Rivera, J.E. (2008). Why do people join groups? Three motivational accounts from social psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1269-1280.

Inside Al Qaeda (Newsweek)

N.Y. Anti-Mosque Leader Defends Group that Clashed with British Police (Newsweek)

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Strategic advantages to helping international out-groups

U.S. aid workers load supplies for relief efforts in Japan

By Kevin R. Betts

The United States has played a supportive role in at least two major world events recently. In response to a natural disaster in Japan, U.S. officials sent monetary and human resources to aid in recovery efforts. In response to government-backed violence in Libya, U.S. officials helped initiate a no-fly zone to protect civilians. One thing that is interesting about these prosocial acts is that they both involve the U.S. helping an out-group. Taking away from limited  resources that might be devoted to local problems, the U.S. has voluntarily sought to help members of the international community. Why might the U.S. see value in helping these international out-groups at the expense of problems at home? Are the intentions of the U.S. government purely humanitarian, or might officials see a more strategic advantage to helping these international out-groups?

Research by van Leeuwen and Täuber (2008) suggests that helping an out-group also garnishes some benefits for the in-group. For one, the act of helping in and of itself is associated with power differentials which may reduce the recipient’s degree of autonomy. When the U.S. offered assistance to disaster-ravaged Japan and war-torn Libya, they placed these countries in a position of dependency on the U.S. Even if assistance is welcomed, it carries with it the implied notion that the U.S. is qualified and able to provide help where these countries cannot help themselves. Helping out-groups also renders the in-group a sense of meaningfulness and purpose to the degree that being able to help implies that the in-group is valued and needed. Providing assistance to Japan and Libya confirms the beliefs of many American citizens that their country holds a valuable position in the world such that other countries rely on their help. Third, out-group helping promotes a favorable image of the in-group in the eyes of beneficiary out-groups and other outside observers. Providing help to Japan and Libya alerts the international community that the U.S. promotes humanitarian values and goals.

Whether or not U.S. officials recognize all of these advantages to helping international out-groups is unclear. Nonetheless, the recent prosocial actions of the U.S. can be expected to sway the power differential in the favor of the U.S., promote a sense of meaningfulness and purpose among American citizens, and enhance the image of the U.S. abroad.

Read more:

Tsunami aid and relief: How you can help

Gunfire, explosions heard in Tripoli

van Leeuwen, E., & Täuber, S. (2008). The strategic side of out-group helping. In S. Stürmer, & M. Snyder (Eds.), The psychology of prosocial behavior (pp. 81-99). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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Reshaping reality by reshaping social perceptions: the power of talk in promoting equality

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

If you have taken an introductory social psychology class, you have probably heard of stereotype threat. This is a phenomenon where making people aware of a stereotype that could refer to the self increases the chance that the stereotype will come true. For example, on math tests where the students’ gender is made salient, women tend to perform worse than men. When the researchers emphasized to participants that gender scores on the test tended to be equal, their scores became equal. The same difference has been found on tests between black and white students; when the students’ race was emphasized, black students’ scores were lower than white students, but when equality was emphasized, the scores were the same.

While there are still competing explanations for why stereotype threat occurs, it is a very well documented phenomenon that can help to explain demographic achievement gaps. Fortunately, there are ways to counter the negative effects of stereotype threat and reduce demographic inequalities. One of the earliest ways discovered is to emphasize the expected positive outcomes on a task for under-achieving groups. While this does work, it is not always practical in real-world situations. An ideal solution would be a brief intervention with long-lasting effects that could work across many different situations. Smith and Postmes (2011) found that allowing small groups to discuss and challenge the validity of the stereotype can also reduce stereotype threat, though the duration of this promising positive effect was not fully known. This suggests groups can use discussion to reinterpret negative group stereotypes in a way that can empower the group and overcome negative effects.

A new study in Science advances our knowledge of the positive potential stereotype threat interventions (Walton & Cohen, 2011). The researchers theorized that stereotype threat occurs in part when people construe feelings of social adversity as an indictment of their social belonging. If social adversity can be portrayed by students themselves as universal to all students but temporary, then the negative effects of stereotype threat might be reduced. In the experiment, black and white first-year college students were subtly encouraged to generate such messages in the hopes that it would have long-lasting positive effects throughout their university career. This is indeed what happened, and the effects were powerful and long-lasting: compared to a control group, black students who received the intervention as freshmen achieved higher grades. Not only were their academic scores better, but they reported better health and they visited the doctor less, too. These effects were mediated by the students’ subjective construal of adversity; this means that feelings of social belonging are likely to be a key part of the process in reducing stereotype threat. Interestingly, students did not attribute these positive effects to the brief intervention they experienced three years earlier. Considering the brevity of the intervention, and the durability of its effects, this appears to be a very powerful tool in reducing demographic achievement gaps. More research is needed to better understand the processes behind and effects of the intervention, but it speaks to the power of social expectations to cripple our accomplishments, and yet also of our power to take steps to consciously reshape the social landscape in a way that leads to real and lasting change for the better. People often lament that we talk too much about problems instead of taking action; in some cases, talking may be one of the best actions we can take.

Smith, L. G. E., & Postmes, T. (2011). Shaping stereotypical behaviour through the discussion of social stereotypes. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 50-74.

Walton, G. M., & Cogen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.

Affirmative action for women in Iraq

Iraqi Minister for the Environment Narmin Othman, at a women’s conference in Ramadi, 29 March 2008. Othman is one of the few women in Iraq who has reached the post of Minister. Photo by: Cpl. Erin A. Kirk

A recent Human Rights Watch report outlines ways in which women’s rights became more limited in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.  According to the report, women had a better place in politics and society during the 1970s than at present.  Similarly, an article in yesterday’s New York Times explains how the current struggle for power in the political arena has curtailed women’s rights despite a 25% quota for women in parliament.  Some people think there should be a quota for women in the ministries as well, while others feel women are not qualified or do not belong in politics.

In social psychology research, the study of attitudes about affirmative action has expanded to include gender inequality.  A survey study conducted by Boechmann and Feather (2007) examined attitudes about affirmative action for women in Australia.  For male participants, they found that unfair male advantage was negatively associated with a belief in women’s entitlement to affirmative action. However, when men’s perceptions of personal responsibility and guilt were entered into the model, unfair male advantage was positively related to women’s entitlement and deservingness.

In Iraq, efforts to secure more basic human rights for women might be advanced not just by pushing for more quotas but also by complimentary efforts to increase civic-mindedness and awareness among men.

Boeckmann, R. J. & Feather, N. T. (2007). Gender, discrimination beliefs, group-based guilt, and responses to affirmative action for Australia women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31, 290 – 304.

Iraqi women feel shunted despite election quota by Michael S. Schimdt and Yasir Ghazi, published March 12, 2011

At a crossroads: Human rights in Iraq eight years after the US-led invasion, Human Rights Watch, February 2, 2011.  See Section I. Rights of women and girls

Bystanders… just standing by. When do people help and when do they not?

By Erica Zaiser

Understanding when and why people intervene to help others, or when they don’t, is at the heart of social psychology. All students of psychology study the famous case of Kitty Genovese, whose screams while being attacked failed to elicit help from the nearly 40 bystanders. Most research on bystander intervention has found that the size of the group greatly impacts the likelihood of intervention. Too big of a group and everybody shifts responsibility assuming that someone else will help but the more people the less likely that any individual will help.

It seems hard to imagine that people would not help when someone is in trouble, wounded, or in danger, yet it happens all the time. Recently I myself stumbled upon a scene of bystander non-intervention which I have since struggled to understand.

The other day while walking home I came upon a man running up and down the street with no shoes or coat holding a phone out shouting at the people on the street and stopping cars banging on the windows. I took a second to survey the scene and it was clear this man was trying to get something from those around him. However nobody was answering him and none of the cars even rolled down their windows to listen. I heard his questions loud and clear, albeit in broken English, “How to call an ambulance?” Still nobody was saying anything. I shouted to him that he needed to call 999 and he came over profusely grateful for my help and I helped him make his emergency call and assisted him and his family until paramedics could arrive. His mother had fallen unconscious in their flat and he had run into the street desperate to know how to call emergency services in this country. I learned that he and all his family was from eastern Europe and they knew very little English. He also told me that he had been trying to get the number for quite some time but nobody had been willing to help.

Having read work on bystander behaviour I shouldn’t have been that surprised that nobody helped but the situation just didn’t fit the common notion that with greater numbers people are less likely to help. Most of the famous incidents involving non-helping behaviour has been within large crowds. There were maybe 7 or 10 people on the street when I arrived. Most were just standing and watching. I don’t have a great answer for why people didn’t help, maybe they couldn’t understand his question… but it seemed quite clear to me. Maybe they feared that it was some type of scam.. but certainly it can’t hurt to tell someone a phone number.

Even more frustrating than not understanding the lack of help was the sneaking suspicion that had he been British, white, or at least a native English speaker, maybe someone would have helped. Research by Levine and colleagues suggests that there might be an element of truth to that. In a study of non-intervention, their research suggests that bystanders are much more likely to help people when they feel that the person seeking assistance is part of their ingroup. This effect holds true even when controlling for the severity of the situation and the emotional arousal felt by bystanders. In other words, no matter how bad the situation or how badly the bystanders felt, they were still less likely to help when the victim was an outgroup member.

This all makes sense from a social psychological perspective and lines up with other research. People tend to behave better to people in their own group in general. But seeing it play out… was still a little depressing.

Read More: Self-Categorization and Bystander Non-Intervention

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Cooperation begets cooperation

Volunteers organize to fight a Spring flood in Fargo, ND. Image courtesy of Adam Fetterman.

By Kevin R. Betts

When we anticipate that others will act cooperatively, it is easy for us to cooperate too. Donating money, volunteering, and other altruistic behaviors are all easier to engage in when we trust that others similar to us will engage in similar actions. In contrast, we may hesitate to act cooperatively when we anticipate that others will not follow suit. If we do not believe that others will contribute to collective goals to the same degree we have, our interest in engaging in these cooperative pursuits may begin to dwindle. But what would happen if we acted cooperatively even when we anticipated that others would not? Our cooperative efforts might be taken advantage of initially, but we might also inspire others to begin acting cooperatively down the line.

A study by Rahn (2008) provides evidence for this assertion. She predicted that interpersonal trust would encourage cooperation under some circumstances, while the reverse relationship would be true under other circumstances. That is, cooperation may lead to trust so long as it is reciprocated. To investigate this hypothesis, her research team interviewed 730 adults from 47 different communities. She asked respondents to evaluate the trustworthiness of residents in their community, to indicate their personal level of engagement in their community, and to specify the degree to which they felt they could have an impact on making their community a better place. Additionally, she sought out response rates to the 2000 U.S. Census and crime rates as objective measures of cooperation by community. Her results revealed that in communities characterized by high levels of cooperation, perceived trustworthiness of community members tended to also be high. In some communities, high levels of trust led to cooperation. In other communities, reciprocated cooperation led residents to trust one another.

Rahn’s (2008) findings allude to the idea that cooperation may enhance interpersonal trust so long as that cooperation is reciprocated. Returning to our original question, it may be worthwhile to engage in cooperative acts even when we do not expect others to do the same. If cooperation inspires trust, and trust inspires cooperation, then cooperation may also beget cooperation.

Read more:

Impact your world (CNN)

Rahn, W.M. (2008). Cooperation with and without trust: Evidence from local settings. In B.A. Sullivan, M. Snyder, & J.L. Sullivan (Eds.), Cooperation: The political psychology of effective human interaction (pp. 259-274). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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Will Libya be the next Egypt and Tunisia?

Libyans in Dublin march in protest against al-Gaddafi

Representatives of the Libyan Community in Ireland handed a letter to the Department of Foreign Affairs today urging the Government, the EU and the UN to stand by the people of Libya. Courtesy of William Murphy, 21 February 2011. http://www.flickr.com/photos/80824546@N00/5465577884

Will Colonel Muarrar al-Gaddafi, the authoritarian leader of Libya, be able to maintain power amid the current protests and uprising or will the story of Libya become similar to that of Egypt and Tunisia?

Al-Gaddafi has brutally controlled Libya without impunity for the last 42 years.  He is one of the longest serving leaders of the country, and he has experienced little threat from dissent or protest in the past because of his repressive methods, but the political climate in the region and the country may empower Libyans to challenge the status quo.

According to research by Drury and Reicher (2005) Libyans might be empowered by protest against al-Gaddafi’s government if collective action is understood as an expression of social identity.  Other research by Mannarini, Roccato, Fedi, and Rovere (2009) similarly points to the role of social identity in determining support for protest, as well as the perception of injustice and the perception that a vast majority of people are behind the movement.  Political pressure, not just from within Libya but from the international community, is highlighting the illegitimacy of al-Gaddafi’s rule.  Emboldened social identity of the Libyan people re-framed in the context of the political changes in Egypt and Tunisia may be enough to tip the tides.

To read more:

Libya: Past and future? – al-Jazeera, 24 February 2011

Drury, J. & Reicher, S. (2005). Explaining enduring empowerment: a comparative study of collective action and psychological outcomes. European Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 35–58.

Mannarini, T., Roccato, M., Fedi, A. & Rovere, A. (2009). Six Factors Fostering Protest: Predicting Participation in Locally Unwanted Land Uses Movements. Political Psychology, 30, 895–920.

Help yourself by helping others: Lessons from the Fargo flood fight

Image created by contributors to the Fargo Forum

By Kevin R. Betts

Around this time of year almost annually, residents of Fargo, ND and surrounding cities get together to do something most people couldn’t imagine doing even once. They self-mobilize to fight a flood that threatens to destroy the livelihoods of thousands of citizens. Residents voluntarily take time off from work or school, show up at various locations specified by city officials, and fill and place millions of sandbags. In 2009, residents witnessed a 43 foot river crest that likely would have overtaken the city without these efforts. With record precipitation levels this year, city officials are again asking residents to volunteer their time to flood protection efforts. This year’s goal: three million sandbags.

If you imagine yourself faced with fighting a flood year after year to save your own city, you might direct your attention to the psychological or financial costs of such a fight. And certainly these costs are real. Yet, as a current resident of Fargo, I can tell you that volunteers in this effort accrue social and psychological benefits as well. I’ve listened to friends and neighbors describe these benefits, as well as experienced them myself. For example, the yearly flood fight brings the region’s citizens together in unique ways. Ensuring that the region is protected from the flood is a common goal that all the volunteers share. Thus, volunteers can often be seen working collaboratively with individuals they might not normally associate with. It is clear that volunteers derive a sense of self-worth from having contributed to these common goals as well. Working together and helping one another feels good. It is with an immense sense of pride that volunteers can say that they themselves prevented an environmental catastrophe.

My observations and experiences in Fargo suggest that volunteer work has social and psychological benefits. Research by Piliavin (2008) supports this notion empirically and takes it one step further. She provides evidence that volunteer work over one’s lifetime contributes not only to positive psychological health outcomes, but also to positive physical health outcomes. She draws these conclusions based on longitudinal data from 10,317 women and men who varied in the extent to which they volunteered throughout their lives. Although the manner in which lifelong volunteer work impacts psychological and physical health is complex, it is not difficult to understand because it follows a relatively straightforward path. First, volunteering enhances social integration. Second, social integration attained through volunteering promotes volunteer motives and identity. Third, this volunteer identity promotes a sense of personal worth from having contributed to helping others. Finally, this sense of personal worth enhances psychological well-being which can impact physical health. This is important. People who volunteer consistently throughout their lives are healthier psychologically and physically as a result.

Although the costs of fighting a flood almost annually are enormous, my observations along with research by Piliavin (2008) suggest that volunteers may accrue some benefits. If you are looking for another reason to volunteer your time to cause that matters to you, remember that you may be doing more than helping others. You may be helping yourself!

Read more

Lines of defense: Fargo planning sandbag distribution around city (Fargo Forum)

Piliavin, J.A. (2008). Long-term benefits of habitual helping: Doing well by doing good. In B.A. Sullivan, M. Snyder, & J.L. Sullivan (Eds.), Cooperation: The political psychology of effective human interaction (pp. 241-258). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

See other posts by Kevin R. Betts

We’re all in this together… doing it in our own way

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

Yep, this picture is kind of cheesy.For better or for worse, global issues like climate change are bound up with existing social identities (Recap: a social identity is any type of social group in which someone is a member and feels a psychological sense of identification with the group.) This means that the practical scientific issues become entangled with social psychological issues. Protection of the natural environment has become associated with particular identities – you can imagine the stereotype of an environmentalist, and the many epithets this evokes (“granola eater,” “tree hugger,” etc.) This means people who identify as an environmentalist may be spurred to further positive action, but people who do not identify with the stereotype of an environmentalist may be put off from taking positive environmental action. In America, belief in climate change is segregated by party lines.

For issues like climate change, a small group of people, no matter how committed, just won’t be enough to cut it. We need all types of people, especially people that are psychologically repelled from the issue because of antagonism towards the stereotype of environmentalists. This is a problem, but it can be overcome. For example, Cohen (2003) experimentally demonstrated that people did not support political policies based on whether the policy matched their stated political views. Instead, the biggest factor was whether people identified with the political party that proposed the policy – if “we” support it, it must be good, but if “they” support it, it must be bad.

Ultimately, this means that dissimilar people are much more likely to get on board for taking action on climate change if their leaders forge their own self-determined path to promote the issue of climate change. Importing a disliked outgroup’s “brand” of environmentalism can backfire spectacularly. Disparate social groups need their own unique style of environmentalism. Fortunately, that is already happening. For example, Carbon Nation is a new documentary about climate change, aimed at politically conservative people who are typically resistant to the conventional image of environmentalism, and would not respond to a movie like An Inconvenient Truth. In Carbon Nation, the people who speak about climate change are a former CIA director, a conservative Alaskan, an army colonel, and a Texan farmer. To be sure, we need people like Al Gore and the self-identified tree huggers, but – like it or not – we especially need the hunters, the blue collar workers, and the truck drivers if we are to see effective public action on climate change. You can see the trailer for Carbon Nation here:

If you want a more detailed look at these kinds of issues, my PhD research uses experimental studies to investigate social identity’s role in environmental issues.

Cohen, G.L. (2003). Party over policy: The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(5), 808–822.

Duke, C. C. (2010). Social identity and the environment: The influence of group processes on environmentally sustainable behaviour.

‘Will Carbon Nation succeed where An Inconvenient Truth failed?’ The Guardian.