Minimal Group Paradigm

Minimal Group Paradigm Definition

The minimal group paradigm is a procedure that researchers use to create new social groups in the laboratory. The goal is to categorize individuals into groups based on minimal criteria that are relatively trivial or arbitrary. For example, the classic procedure involves asking participants to rate paintings made by two artists with similar abstract styles. Participants are then told that they are members of a group that prefers one of the painters to the other. This is their new ingroup, and the people who prefer the other painter represent a new outgroup. In reality, participants are assigned randomly to one of the two groups. In addition, the members of each group remain anonymous and group members have no interaction or contact with one another. Thus, the minimal group paradigm creates a situation in which individuals are separated into novel ingroups and outgroups, and these individuals have no previous experience with these groups.

Minimal Group Paradigm Purpose

Minimal Group ParadigmThe minimal group paradigm was first used in the 1960s to examine whether social prejudice and discriminatory behavior result from the mere categorization of people into ingroups and outgroups. Previously, researchers had studied prejudice and discrimination involving preexisting groups with long histories (for example, based on race, ethnicity, or nationality). It largely was believed that these groups perceive real conflict with one another (for example, over resources) and that this conflict leads to beliefs and behavior that favor the ingroup over the outgroup. A European psychologist, Henri Tajfel, wondered whether the experience of conflict was actually necessary to produce ingroup-favoring biases. Perhaps prejudice and discrimination are more fundamental and basic to the human condition. Tajfel and his colleagues demonstrated that participants assigned to groups using the minimal group paradigm behaved in ways that favored their new ingroup and disadvantaged the outgroup. Thus, conflict between groups does not appear to be necessary to produce ingroup favoritism (although conflict is still very important to intergroup relations).

Ingroup Favoritism and Outgroup Derogation

The minimal group paradigm has since been used by researchers hundreds of times. Merely categorizing people into new groups affects a wide variety of perceptions, evaluations, and behaviors that reveal the degree to which people favor new ingroups over new outgroups. For example, group members evaluate new ingroups more positively on personality and other trait ratings (such as “likeable” and “cooperative”), and they evaluate products and decisions made by new ingroups more positively (even when they personally didn’t contribute to these products or decisions). Group members also allocate more resources (including money) to members of new ingroups. There is some controversy about the degree to which group members respond in a positive way toward the ingroup (ingroup favoritism) versus a negative way toward the outgroup (outgroup derogation). On the whole, however, it appears that ingroup favoritism is more prevalent than is outgroup derogation in the minimal group paradigm.

The tendency to express ingroup favoritism is very robust and persists even when changes are made to the minimal group paradigm. For example, researchers have changed the basis on which participants believe they are assigned into groups. In the original procedure, participants were led to believe that they shared a preference for a particular artist with their fellow ingroup members. Perhaps this perceived similarity drives ingroup favoritism. However, even when group assignment is completely random (e.g., based on a coin flip), people continue to favor the ingroup over the outgroup in many ways. Researchers also have examined how status differences between the new ingroup and outgroup affect ingroup favoritism. For example, participants have been told that either a majority or a minority of people are classified into their new ingroup. Regardless, participants continue to express ingroup favoritism. Participants also have been told that their new ingroup performed either better or worse on an intelligence test than the outgroup.

Surprisingly, participants who were told that their group performed worse than the outgroup still evaluated the ingroup more positively than the outgroup.

Theoretical Explanations of the Minimal Group Paradigm

Social psychologists have suggested several reasons why group members display ingroup favoritism in the minimal group paradigm. Tajfel and his colleagues provided an explanation focusing on social categorization and social identity. Social categorization refers to the way in which people are classified into social groups. Just as people automatically perceive nonsocial objects as belonging to different categories (for example, shoes versus mittens), they also tend to categorize people into different groups. Social categorization is useful because it provides order and meaning to the social environment. For example, it is useful to be able to distinguish police officers from pharmacists. In different situations, different bases for categorizing people become relevant. For example, categorization may be based on gender or sexual orientation when people discuss romantic relationships, whereas it may be based on nationality or religious affiliation when people discuss international terrorism. In addition to classifying others into groups, social categorization also typically results in the classification of the self into a particular group. For example, a man may think of himself primarily as being male in some situations, whereas in other situations, he may think of himself primarily as being an American. Social identity refers to the aspects of the self-image that derive from these group memberships. When a particular group membership is used as the basis for social categorization, the corresponding social identity is based on that group membership. Thus, if a man is thinking about himself as an American (perhaps because he is speaking with a Japanese business associate about differences between the two countries), then his American identity is at the forefront. Importantly, according to Tajfel, social identity can be more or less positive in different contexts, and this has implications for self-esteem. Having positive self-regard (high self-esteem) is a basic human motive. So, people often engage in mental gymnastics (so to speak) to maintain or enhance their self-esteem.

How does all of this help explain ingroup favoritism in the minimal group paradigm? According to Tajfel, the link between social identity and self-esteem creates pressure to evaluate ingroups positively in comparison with outgroups. This is called positive differentiation.

In the minimal group paradigm, the only relevant basis for social categorization is the novel ingroup and outgroup that the participants have just learned about. Thus, participants’ social identities and self-esteem are linked to these new groups. Because their self-esteem is on the line, they express favoritism toward the new ingroup (in whatever manner the research context provides) to positively distinguish the new ingroup from the new outgroup. So, participants evaluate the ingroup more positively, rate the ingroup’s products and decisions as being superior, and give more resources to the ingroup all as ways to maintain a positive social identity and protect or enhance their sense of self-esteem.

Other researchers have suggested other explanations for ingroup favoritism in the minimal group paradigm. For example, it may be that assigning participants into groups affects their expectancies about the proper way to behave in that context. That is, people may have learned that interactions between groups are typically competitive, and thus they act competitively whenever they are in an intergroup context. Alternatively, people may evaluate the ingroup more positively and give them more resources because they expect their ingroup members to do the same for them. This is known as reciprocity. Another explanation is that learning about new social groups creates uncertainty and ambiguity. Generally speaking, people are uncomfortable in situations in which they are uncertain or unfamiliar. Designating the ingroup as being superior to the outgroup may restore some degree of certainty and order to the social environment that is created by the minimal group paradigm. Finally, several researchers have suggested that when people learn about new social groups to which they belong, they automatically assume that the new ingroup will be similar to themselves. Given that most people perceive themselves positively, the default expectation is that new ingroups are also positive.

Broader Implications of the Minimal Group Paradigm

In terms of societal implications, the robust tendency to express ingroup favoritism has two sides. On one hand, the basic tendency appears to be one in which people favor the ingroup rather than derogate the out-group. This positive orientation toward the ingroup is likely beneficial when interacting with fellow ingroup members. On the other hand, ingroup favoritism sets the stage for negative intergroup relations.


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