Mind Matters: In-groups

Do you cheer for certain sports teams? Do you cheer for Aussie athletes in the Olympics? You are favouring your team.

Aligning yourself with a certain group is very human of you.

We tend to think of ourselves as members of some groups and not others. Psychologists refer to these as in-groups and out-groups.

Why do we identify with groups?

First, early humans who did not stick with a group did not survive. Their go-it-alone genes are gone now.

Second, thinking of ourselves as part of a powerful or appealing group helps us feel good, especially if the group is successful in some way.

When we identify with a group, we may feel superior to others.

Do you feel superior to members of a political party that is not your own? I sometimes do.

Third, when times get rough, groups can provide us with crucial help. For instance, religious groups may give food and social support to members in need.

Why do we choose specific groups as ours? Mostly we follow the model of our parents and others. I became a Catholic because my parents were Catholic.

I started rooting for the New York Yankees baseball team when I was a child because my older brothers did.

I felt the in-group effect recently when I joined a departmental volleyball team. My thinking of myself as part of the team led me to feel closer to the other team members.

The joint efforts of the team members against a common foe intensified the effect. So did winning and losing as a team.

We humans have something in common with dogs. We like to run with our pack.

The downside of group identification is that it can lead to prejudice, discrimination, and killing. History is filled with wars between different groups.

So I try not to see myself as superior to anyone outside my groups. It is not easy. I do my best to view out-group members as human beings with hopes and fears not that different from mine.

I hope that individuals who think of me as a member of a loathed out-group will try to see me as a kindred spirit.

We might all do better if we think of ourselves as being on the same team, the Humans. We just need to get threatened by aliens from space. Then we would all stick together like a bunch of bananas.

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England.