Part of understanding how groups operate is understanding how the individual within the group looks at the group he or she belongs to. Once dividing the larger group into subgroups, one usually becomes more attached to one subgroup and sees the people in other groups as less distinct from one another. For example, at a party on a college campus with psychology majors and English majors in attendance, the psychology student sees the larger group of students as being made up of two subgroups. That person will feel more attached to the other psychology students and also find the English majors as more similar to each other relative to how varied the group of psychology students.
One way to examine this process comes from self-attention theory. Other-total ratio characterizes what it is like for a person to be part of a group. Specifically, the ratio is the number of Other people divided by the Total number of people in the group. As this number increases, the Others outnumber the people in an individual’s own group in relation to the Total number of people. Consequently, the individual focuses more attention on his or her own subgroup and then perceives that subgroup to have salient characteristics. Then, by comparison, the Other group seems to be more similar then the group that the person is in. Using the previous example, if there were 75 English majors out of 100 people at the party, there would be a ratio of .75. Such a high ratio would predict that the psychology major would pay more attention to the subgroup members than if the ratio were a lower number.
This conceptualization of groups has implications for understanding the individual experience of members of minority groups who are part of a larger group. Comprehending how that individual is identifying with certain group members over others can perhaps be applied to how those groups can be brought into greater harmony with each other, perhaps by creating groups with a lower Other-total ratio.
Relatively little empirical work has fully explored this concept, which has been overwhelmed by other theories that address the basic fact that people see other people’s groups as homogenous but their own groups as more varied. In a recent overview, the available evidence indicated that the impact of this type of perception is pretty small. It was more important that the other group truly be more variable and that existing groups were studied rather than groups created in the laboratory.
- Mullen, B. (1983). Operationalizing the effect of the group on the individual: A self-attention perspective. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 295-322.
- Mullen, B., & Hu, L. (1989). Perceptions of ingroup and outgroup variability: A meta-analytic integration. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 10(3), 233-252.