Social psychological research on intergroup relations concerns the perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors humans express when they think of themselves and others as members of social groups. All humans belong to many different types of social groups, ranging from smaller groupings of people (such as one’s circles of friends) to larger social categories (such as gender and race).
When people think and act as group members, they tend to accentuate similarities between themselves and members of their own groups, and exaggerate differences between members of their own group and other groups (social categorization). People also tend to evaluate people differently depending on whether they are members of one’s own groups (ingroup members) or members of other groups (out-group members); specifically, people typically show a preference for members of their own groups, such that they evaluate them more positively and make more positive attributions for their behaviors, as compared to how they evaluate outgroup members (this tendency is called ingroup favoritism).
Many factors can affect whether people will be inclined to think of themselves and others as individuals or as members of social groups. Some of these factors involve features of the social situation, the broader social context, or both. For example, longstanding histories of tension and conflict between groups, whether based in competition over resources or contrasting beliefs, can compel people to view themselves and others in terms of group membership. Even in the absence of such conflicts, merely perceiving that certain people are more similar to each other than others can lead people to categorize themselves and other people as members of distinct groups; these perceptions can be enhanced further depending on how strongly people appear to represent the characteristics that define their groups (prototypicality), how similar members of each group appear to be to each other (homogeneity), and how many members of each group are present in the immediate social situation (numerical representation).
In addition, other factors that lead people to think of themselves and others as group members involve the characteristics and accumulated social experiences people bring to new social situations and contexts. For example, people who identify strongly with their groups, or who are often stigmatized or rejected because of their group membership, might be especially likely to perceive their interactions with others in terms of their identities as group members.
People often try to discern whether other people perceive them as individuals or as group members, so that they know what to expect in interactions with them. Generally, when people think they are being viewed as group members, they expect that outgroup members will evaluate them negatively and think of them in terms of the negative stereotypes associated with their groups. Still, sometimes social situations can be ambiguous, such that people feel unsure about how they are being seen by outgroup members and whether the outgroup members’ evaluations of them reflect who they are as individuals or as group members (attributional ambiguity).
Whether because of the anticipation of negative evaluations or uncertainty about how they will be perceived, people often feel anxious about interactions with outgroup members. In part, anxieties about cross-group interactions can motivate people to avoid them, thereby making interactions between groups less likely to occur. Still, when these interactions do occur, anxieties can have a negative impact on how members of different groups interact with each other, which curbs the potential for achieving positive relations between their groups. For example, when people feel anxious in cross-group interactions, they tend to act in less spontaneous and relaxed ways; not only may such negative behaviors make cross-group interactions unpleasant, but they may also be interpreted as signs of prejudice by members of the other group. In addition, feeling anxious can make it harder for people to attend to personalized information about outgroup members, thereby leading them to rely more heavily on stereotypes as they interact with members of other groups.
Given these tendencies, a great deal of research on intergroup relations has sought to identify strategies that can be used to improve relations between groups. Much of this work has focused on how to structure conditions of the social situation so that contact between groups will lead to positive intergroup outcomes, such as establishing equal status between groups, showing that their interactions are supported by institutional authorities, and having them work together cooperatively toward common goals. Researchers have also debated about the extent to which group differences should be emphasized when members of different groups interact with each other. Integrating distinct approaches, recent theorizing suggests that people should initially de-emphasize group differences when members of different groups interact—by focusing on either personal characteristics or group memberships they share in common—so that they can develop relationships beyond the confines of their distinct group memberships. Once these relationships are established, group distinctions should then be emphasized so that any positive effects of their relationships would be likely to translate into more positive attitudes toward all members of their groups. Developing close relationships across group boundaries can also be effective in reducing anxiety about future cross-group interactions and encouraging people to look beyond their own interests and express more concern for the welfare of members of other groups.
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