Intergroup Anxiety

Intergroup Anxiety Definition

People often feel uncomfortable when interacting with others who belong to a different social group than they do. Intergroup anxiety is the term used to describe this discomfort. When interacting with members of a different social group (called an outgroup), people often anticipate a variety of negative outcomes, such as being taken advantage of or rejected. In extreme cases, they may be concerned that outgroup members will physically harm them.

Intergroup AnxietyThey may also worry that members of their own group (called the ingroup) will disapprove of interactions with outgroup members. Intergroup anxiety can arise in relations between almost any two groups, from racial and ethnic groups to different political parties.

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Origins of Intergroup Anxiety

Research on intergroup anxiety indicates that it has its origins in the past relations between the groups. If the past relations have been characterized by conflict, people will naturally be anxious about interacting with members of the outgroup. If there are substantial differences in status between the two groups, this disparity can also arouse anxiety. Members of low-status groups have reason to fear being rejected and exploited by members of high-status groups. Members of high-status groups may also feel anxious, either because they are concerned about the resentment that might be directed at them or because they feel guilty about the ways their own group has treated the other group in the past.

Another factor that has been found to increase intergroup anxiety is strong identification with one’s ingroup. People who strongly identify with their ingroup typically consider outgroups to be inferior, an attitude that is sometimes referred to as ethnocentrism. Ethno-centrism leads to anxiety concerning interaction with outgroup members because of the disdain ingroup members have for them. In addition, being ignorant of the outgroup and its norms, beliefs, and behaviors can also lead to intergroup anxiety. For example, when people interact with individuals from another culture, about which their knowledge is limited, they commonly feel anxious. Although a simple lack of personal contact with an outgroup can cause intergroup anxiety, past negative personal contact is an even more potent cause of intergroup anxiety.

Intergroup Anxiety Effects

Intergroup anxiety can lead to a number of negative consequences. The most frequently studied effects of intergroup anxiety are prejudice toward the outgroup and an unwillingness to interact with outgroup members. These effects have been found for attitudes between a wide variety of groups including Blacks and Whites, Mexicans and Americans, Europeans and immigrants to Europe, Native Canadians and Canadians of English origin, heterosexuals and gays, people with HIV/AIDS or cancer and those who do not have these diseases, and women and men, among others. Put simply, people do not like others who make them feel anxious. Moreover, the negative evaluations of outgroups created by intergroup anxiety can extend to social policies that are perceived to favor outgroups, such as affirmative action. When intergroup anxiety escalates to feeling threatened by an outgroup, people experience fear and anger, which have further detrimental effects on intergroup relations.

This type of anxiety also causes people to rely on established patterns of thought, such as stereotypes. Stereotypes consist of the predominantly negative characteristics attributed to particular out-groups. Intergroup anxiety may also cause people to perceive outgroups to be homogeneous; that is, the members of these groups are all thought to be the same. In addition, intergroup anxiety may interfere with the ability to perform complex cognitive reasoning tasks. One of the most intriguing effects of intergroup anxiety is that it can lead to exaggerated behaviors toward outgroup members. In most cases, this means people respond to outgroup members more negatively than ingroup members, but intergroup anxiety can also lead to exaggerated positive behaviors if people are concerned that acting in negative ways may lead others to perceive them as being prejudiced.

Because intergroup anxiety has such negative effects on intergroup relations, it is important to take steps to reduce it. Intergroup anxiety can be reduced when people feel empathy toward members of the out-group. Also, certain types of intergroup contact can reduce intergroup anxiety. To reduce this anxiety, the contact should be among people equal in status, it should be focused on the individuals involved rather than their group memberships, it should involve cooperation, and it should have the support of relevant authority figures.

Programs that have been created specifically to improve intergroup relations, such as those emphasizing cooperative learning and structured intergroup dialogues, can be effective as a means of reducing intergroup anxiety. In instances where there has been long-standing conflict, such as between racial, national, or cultural groups, the mass media can also play a positive role by providing information about outgroups that reduces ignorance and emphasizes the common humanity and common goals shared by the groups. And, of course, individuals who are aware that others may be subject to feeling intergroup anxiety can take steps to put outgroup members at ease during intergroup interactions.


  • Stephan, W. G., & Stephan, C. (1985). Intergroup anxiety. Journal of Social Issues, 41, 157-176.