Intergroup Conflicts Can Arise Quickly:

The Minimal Group Paradigm

Research on social identity theory has found that once people are di- vided into groups—even randomly divided by the toss of a coin—they start to show remarkable favoritism to their own group members. In a classic study, Henri Tajfel (1970) researched how schoolboys would divide rewards among others. First, boys were divided into groups by guessing how many dots ashed on a screen. Once they all guessed, the researchers told each boy whether he overestimated or underes- timated the number of dots and assigned him to one of the groups on the basis of his guess. In reality, though, the boys were randomly assigned to one group or another; their guesses were not used to create the groups. One might think that the reason for creating the groups would have little impact on how the boys subsequently treat- ed one another, but surprisingly, it actually had a very clear impact on their behavior. Even though their assignment to groups was based on a seemingly trivial issue—whether they overestimated or under- estimated the number of dots on the screen—once separated into groups, the boys tended to favor other members of their own group. That is, when allocating rewards between the two groups, overes- timators favored other overestimators, and underestimators favored other underestimators, even when the boys who were making deci- sions knew nothing else about the others in their groups. Social psychologists use techniques like this one to help isolate and identify why groups have such a powerful inuence. By ran- domly assigning people to arbitrary groups, researchers can examine the effects of simply being a part of the group, independent of other qualities, characteristics, or experiences group members may have in common. This technique is called the minimal group paradigm, be- cause the groups are formed on a minimal or trivial basis. Tajfel’s idea for studying minimal groups likely resulted from his own experienc- es as a soldier during World War II. During the war, he was struck by how important group identity was. Tajfel was ghting for the French army when he was captured by the Germans. While a prisoner of war, Tajfel hid his group identity as a Jew. Because his captors never knew he was Jewish, he survived the war. When he returned home he discovered that his family and friends were killed for no other reason than their social identities—as members of the group “Jews.” Perhaps because he saw people being brutalized for their group memberships during World War II, Tajfel wanted to investigate the minimal condi- tions necessary for people to discriminate against each other. Through a series of clever experiments such as the one described above, Tajfel discovered that simply being placed in laboratory-contrived groups was enough to cause strangers, as well as children who used to be friends, to discriminate against each other. Of course, intergroup tensions are only increased when group members utilize stereotypes. Stereotypes are overgeneralizations, or beliefs that every member of a group shares similar characteristics. For example, to describe someone as a professor conjures up certain assumptions about that person. We may assume, without knowing anything at all about the person, that the person is intelligent, intro- spective, and probably not very athletic. We might also assume that person to be male. Sometimes, those expectations may be correct. However, more often than not, stereotypic overgeneralizations lead us to incorrect conclusions about people based on their group mem- berships. Stereotypes act as a lter or screen, biasing the informa- tion we notice and distorting our interpretation of another’s behavior (Darley & Gross; Dunning & Sherman; Stone, Perry, & Darley).

Intergroup Contact: A Solution?

- From Psychology of Harry Potter by Neil MullHolland