Thursday, March 14, 2024

In and Out: Group Bias


“A prejudice, unlike a simple misconception, is actively resistant to all evidence that would unseat it." -- Gordon W. Allport, Psychologist

 Us v. Them

In a social psychology experiment, subjects formed two groups.  Not based on gender, politics, age, race, education, wealth, or anything so salient to identity.  The two groups were divided solely on one criterion: whether their birthdays fell on even or odd days of the calendar.  Not even on astrological sign, or year, or season--just either/or numbers, 1 through 31.

Laboratory experiments have shown how easy it can be to create group identity as well as group divisions that line up loyalties to one group and hostility toward another.  This identification reinforces the differences between us and them.  Favoritism for our group, bias against theirs.  Neuroeconomists George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller, in their review of such experiments, said:   

Even in this division, where the groups are totally pallid and meaningless, subjects who were born on the even days of the month showed a preference toward fellow evens and bias against odds, and odd subjects showed preference toward fellow odds and bias against their rival evens.  Even Dr. Seuss has also gotten into the act.  His Butter Battle Book depicts the Great War that ensues between those who prefer their bread butter side up and those who prefer it butter side down (pp. 158-59, Animal Spirits, 2009).

Blue v. Brown

A well-publicized example of in- and out-group bias is Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes 1968 exercise in an Iowa public school, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.   This activist wanted her class to understand what discrimination really feels like--at first hand.  Accordingly, Elliott divided her all-white third-grade classroom into blue-eyed versus brown-eyed students, rotating favored status between them.  On the first day, the blue eyes were told they were smarter, nicer, and better than brown eyes. They were given special privileges.  Results were instant:  the stigmatized group was marginalized by the favored group, shunned, talked about prejudicially, shamed, and otherwise humiliated—while their tormentors’ own grades improved. 

The two groups stopped playing together.  For their part, brown-eyed kids isolated themselves during recess to avoid the blue-eyed scourge, acting intimidated and despondent, while their grades suffered.  The following day, the brown eyes were favored in the same way, with like results, just reversed.  As the odd / even birthdates experiment showed, any trait, including eye color, birthdates, and bread-buttering, can be employed to direct bad behavior towards others. 

However, as a critique, Elliott’s use of eye color has a strong correlation with ethnicity (not exclusively, just correlated).  The choice of eye color is not a neutral factor.  This choice of difference linked her classroom groups to in- and out-groups outside, as they operated in the wider sphere of race stigma--except when the brown eyes were shifted to the top rank over blue.  Said Elliott about her experiment, “You are not born racist. You are born into a racist society. And like anything else, if you can learn it, you can unlearn it. But some people choose not to unlearn it, because they're afraid they'll lose power if they share with other people. We are afraid of sharing power. That's what it's all about.

Language and species

Related to the classroom treatment are studies that show female teachers favor girls over boys, to the detriment of boys’ academic achievement.  Language mastery—a strong pro-bias for teachers in general—comes earlier to girls than to boys.  Dyslexic students are especially disfavored.  Middle-class students, already more successful than lower- or lower-middle, are also favored, as language is correlated positively with class.  Thus a cultural advantage, that of speech, is routinely enhanced through nurturing by teachers—favoring those already versed and skilled as speakers, listeners, readers, and writers by their home environments.  Efforts to transmit this class-based literacy face an uphill struggle.

The story is told in Hollywood about the bias of the Planet of the Apes (“a planet where apes evolved from men”) cast members for their own kind, as the denizens of the post-apocalyptic ape planet in costume gravitated on their own preference to sit down to lunch.  Each type sought out the bench seated with their own ape species – chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, or humans.

Anti-stigma traits are favored as a sign of ultimate fitness—for example, marriageability. Traits valued are especially:  beauty, fitness and health, vitality (at any age), bilateral symmetry, social graces, competence (a good earner, organized thinker), caring behavior, non-criminal, and lack of negative mental states (neurodiversity). (Plato declared “Beauty is a natural superiority.”)

Salient features of human divisions are age, gender, and race – but primarily age and gender, since definitions of race shift within and between cultures (German and Italian, for example, were considered races within earlier American culture).  The winners and losers effect reflects the ongoing outcomes of class divisions.  Even the evolutionary hierarchies in wild baboons are perpetuated across generations of winners, who most often dominate, and losers, who are most often dominated.   Height estimation goes with dominance and prestige, with observers in the lab estimating higher status for taller men.  More muscular men are seen as more dominant as well, whatever their actual social status (Mark van Vagt, Dutch evolutionary psychologist).

Cultural fitness

The aspirational drive to attain a higher social status—an expression of fitness-- appears to be universal across all human populations and cultures (Peter Erdi, Ranking, 2020).  This is, naturally, an impulse consistently shifted by competition between individuals and their groups, especially when stigma is agreed and applied by the mainstream in which they must operate.   

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 studied the effects of power and powerlessness in a simulated prison cellblock set to run over two weeks.  Twenty-four Stanford students were randomly assigned roles either as wardens and guards or as prisoners.  However, the extent of the abuse meted out by the “guards” on the “inmates” called for the experiment to be terminated early, after only six days.  The prisoners began to show extreme signs of stress and de-individualization.  A humanitarian graduate student pointed out to Zimbardo (who was playing a warden himself) the actual psychic damage being done to real human beings.  The Stanford study remains a landmark example of abuse based on a role-playing exercise.  The parallels to Elliott’s exercise with eye color are all too apparent.