Intergroup Relations

Intergroup relations involve the feelings, evaluations, beliefs, and behaviors that groups and their members have toward another group and its members. Negative intergroup relations typically involve prejudice (negative feelings and evaluations), stereotypes (beliefs about groups and their members), and discrimination (unfair treatment). However, intergroup bias does not necessarily require negative orientations. Bias may reflect unusually favorable attitudes and beliefs about members of one’s own group and preferential treatment toward them. The nature of intergroup relations is determined by psychological processes associated with social categorization, by the personalities and motivations of group members, and by the functional relationship between the groups. These processes apply to a wide range of groups, including work teams, divisions within an organization, companies, and countries.

Social Categorization and Intergroup Relations

Social categorization involves identifying people primarily on the basis of overt similarities and presumed group membership. Because group membership is critical to human functioning and survival, the tendency to categorize people as members of different groups is fundamental to social perception. This social categorization process, however, involves more than distinguishing people by group membership. The recognition of different group memberships initiates a number of biases that influence intergroup relations in systematic ways. Social identity theory and, more recently, self-categorization theory address the fundamental processes associated with social categorization.

When people are categorized into groups, even if the groups have no obvious functional relationship or enduring meaning, actual differences between members of the same category tend to be perceptually minimized, whereas differences between groups tend to be exaggerated. Moreover, people critically distinguish between individuals who are members of their group (the in-group) and those who are members of other groups (the out-groups). In general, when the intergroup boundary between the in-group and out-group is salient, people remember positive information better about in-group than about out-group members, discount negative actions by in-group members more than for out-group members, and ascribe positive attributes more strongly to the character of in-group than of out-group members. In addition, people behave in more favorable, intimate, and helpful ways toward in-group members. Feeling more positively about one’s own group relative to others can enhance one’s self-esteem. Thus, the mere awareness of the existence of different group memberships, when the groups are not interdependent and group membership is arbitrarily determined, typically produces bias.

These intergroup biases are particularly evident when people’s social identity (their identity based on group membership) is more salient than their personal identity (their identity as a unique individual). For example, people are less trusting and behave in a greedier fashion when collective identities are salient than when personal identities are salient.

Individual Differences and Intergroup Relations

In addition to differences in the strength of group identity, individual differences in personality and values can influence the nature of intergroup relations. The personality variable of authoritarianism has historically received substantial attention with respect to intergroup attitudes and relations. Research in the 1950s concluded that the authoritarian personality, which is rooted in unhealthy family dynamics, is associated with unusual respect for authority and hierarchy, as well as strong distinctions between the in-group and out-group. Recent research has found that people high on right-wing authoritarianism have negative attitudes toward members of a number of other groups, particularly when the groups are perceived to violate society’s morals and standards.

Social dominance theory, an alternative perspective, assumes that people who are strongly identified with high-status groups and who see intergroup relations in terms of group competition will be especially prejudiced and discriminatory toward out-groups. People high in social dominance orientation, an individual difference measure, believe that group hierarchies are inevitable and desirable, see the world as involving competition between groups, pursue activities and professions that tend to enhance intergroup hierarchy, and exhibit bias toward a range of other groups.

Functional Interdependence and Intergroup Relations

Whereas social categorization and individual difference approaches to understanding intergroup relations focus on how the motivations and orientations of people, independent of the actual relationship between groups, can produce negative intergroup relations, other psychological and sociological perspectives emphasize that the nature of intergroup relations is shaped substantially by the functional relationship between the groups. Specifically, cooperation between groups, particularly when it has successful consequences, fosters positive intergroup relations; competition between groups, whether for material resources or intangible qualities such as status, promotes prejudice and discrimination.

Theories based on functional relations often point to competition and consequent perceived threat as a fundamental cause of intergroup prejudice and conflict. Realistic group conflict theory, for example, posits that perceived group competition for resources produces efforts to reduce the access of other groups to the resources. Individual differences, such as the tendency to see intergroup relations as zero-sum (i.e., when one group gains, the other automatically loses), which is associated with people high in social dominance orientation, can amplify the effects of competitive group functional relations, producing particularly adverse effects on intergroup relations.

The functional relationship perspective also emphasizes how changing the nature of intergroup interdependence can substantially alter intergroup relations. In the classic Robber’s Cave study, for example, two groups of boys at a summer camp first developed their separate group identities through a series of collective activities, unaware of the presence of the other group. When the two groups of boys were brought together under competitive circumstances, negative intergroup relations developed. The boys not only called each other names but also engaged in hostilities. Simply bringing the groups together did not improve intergroup relations; in fact, it intensified conflict. However, more harmonious intergroup relations were created when the groups worked together to attain superordinate goals (objectives that both groups desired but that could be achieved only jointly through cooperation) and their combined efforts were successful.

Group status is another aspect of the functional relationship between groups that influences inter-group relations. In general, members of high-status groups view intergroup relations as more favorable than do members of low-status groups. In part as a consequence, members of low-status groups, particularly when they see the status difference as illegitimate and unstable, are more motivated to alter the relationship between the groups than are members of high-status groups. High-status groups, in contrast, tend to endorse and promote system-justifying ideologies, which are sets of beliefs (e.g., stereotypes about the different characteristics of women and men) that legitimatize, and thus reinforce, the role and status differences between the groups.

The impact of functional relations on intergroup orientations occurs, in part, by influencing social categorization processes. For example, whereas competition between the groups of boys at the summer camp intensified the distinction between the in-group and out-group, between us and them, cooperation to achieve the super ordinate goal led them to see each other as members of a common in-group. Thus, social categorization, individual difference, and functional relationship approaches can be seen as complementary perspectives rather than as alternative, competing positions. Understanding these processes also contributes to developing effective interventions for improving intergroup relations, such as the contact hypothesis.

Intergroup Contact and Intergroup Relations

For more than 50 years, the contact hypothesis has represented psychologists’ most popular and effective strategy for promoting harmonious intergroup relations. This hypothesis proposes that simple contact between groups is not sufficient to improve intergroup relations. For contact between groups to reduce bias successfully, the contact must involve equal status between the groups, cooperative (rather than competitive) intergroup interaction, opportunities for personal acquaintance between the members, especially with those whose personal characteristics do not support stereotypic expectations, and supportive norms by authorities within and outside the contact situation. These conditions of intergroup contact are prominent elements of specific strategies for improving inter-group relations, such as cooperative learning and jigsaw classroom interventions, in which students are interdependent on one another in problem-solving exercises.

Several different processes, related to both the functional relationships between groups and social categorization, contribute to the positive effect of appropriately structured intergroup contact on inter-group relations. For example, cooperation can induce greater intergroup acceptance because of dissonance reduction serving to justify this type of interaction with the other group. Also, when intergroup contact is favorable and productive, the rewarding properties of achieving success may become associated with members of other groups, thereby increasing attraction and reducing intergroup anxiety.

Intergroup contact can also influence how people conceive of the groups and how the members are socially categorized. Close and personalized interaction between members of different groups can induce people to think of others more in terms of their personal identity than as members of another group, thereby weakening the in-group-out-group distinction. Cooperative, equal-status interaction between groups can induce people to reconceive of themselves primarily as one common group, which can redirect the forces of in-group favoritism to improve attitudes toward others previously seen only in terms of their out-group membership. Moreover, developing a common group identity does not require people to abandon their separate group identities entirely. Retaining original group identities, but in a context that emphasizes cooperation (e.g., art students and science students working together on a task that requires both types of skills) or within a complementary common identity (accountants and marketers within the same company), can reduce threat to original group identity while creating more positive intergroup relations.


Intergroup relations are determined critically by how people socially categorize others, by perceptions shaped by personal needs and values, and by the actual functional nature of the relationship between groups. These processes typically operate in concert. In part because the mere categorization of people into groups is sufficient to initiate intergroup bias, research in this area has typically focused on how to reduce intergroup bias and conflict. Nevertheless, the principles of social categorization, social identity, contact, superordinate goals, and functional interdependence may be applied initially in intergroup contexts to promote positive and constructive intergroup relations. Under these conditions, the unique contributions of the different groups can be recognized and appreciated, and the efforts of the members of the different groups can be coordinated to achieve mutually desirable goals.


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