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The Ins and Outs of In-Groups and Out-Groups

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We humans organize ourselves in myriad kinds of social groups, from scout troops and sports teams to networks of friends, colleagues, or classmates. But how do these social groups work? How do we decide whom to trust and whom to follow? And how do we deal with people that don’t seem to fit the norms of our social groups?

New research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, explores these issues by examining various facets of social perception and behavior.

The Herding Hormone: Oxytocin Stimulates In-Group Conformity

Mirre Stallen, Carsten K. W. De Dreu, Shaul Shalvi, Ale Smidts, and Alan G. Sanfey

People tend to conform to the behaviors of those they associate with, but not much is known about the mechanisms driving this. Psychological scientist Mirre Stallen of the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour at Radboud University and her colleagues investigated whether hormonal mechanisms might play a role. Specifically, they wondered whether the neuropeptide oxytocin – known to facilitate prosocial behavior – might be at work. Male participants were given a dose of the oxytocin or a placebo. They were then told that they would be divided into two groups to complete a task that involved rating the attractiveness of unfamiliar symbols. Before making their decisions, the participants could see the ratings of the other people inside and outside of their group. When the in-group and out-group members’ ratings differed, participants given oxytocin conformed more closely to the in-group’s scores. This conformity effect was not seen in the placebo group. Together, these findings suggest that oxytocin can influence subjective preferences and may stimulate individuals to conform to the behavior and beliefs of others in their group. Stallen and colleagues note that the finding that oxytocin stimulates conformity toward in-group members, but not out-group members, will help researchers to develop a more refined theory of the effects of oxytocin on social judgment and behavior.

Corresponding author: Mirre Stallen – Donders Institute for Brain Cognition and Behaviour at Radboud University, the Netherlands – M.Stallen@donders.ru.nl
Published online September 18, 2012 in Psychological Science

Treating Prejudice: An Exposure-Therapy Approach to Reducing Negative Reactions Toward Stigmatized Groups

Michèle D. Birtel and Richard J. Crisp

Exposure therapy has been used to treat many types of phobias, but can it also be used to reduce prejudice against stigmatized groups? In three different experiments, psychological scientists Michèle Birtel and Richard Crisp examined whether a form of exposure therapy – activating negative thoughts and feelings before introducing positive countervailing thoughts – might be effective at reducing intergroup anxiety toward stigmatized groups (e.g., adults with schizophrenia, gay men, British Muslims). In each experiment, the researchers assigned participants to one of two groups: One group was asked to imagine two instances of positive contact with a person of the stigmatized group, while the other group was asked to imagine an instance of negative contact and an instance of positive contact with a person of the stigmatized group. Participants’ intergroup anxiety and future contact intentions toward individuals in the stigmatized groups were then assessed. Taking the findings of the three experiments together, participants who first imagined a negative encounter and then a positive encounter reported lower intergroup anxiety and higher future-contact intentions than did participants who only imagined positive encounters. Birtel and Crisp conclude that “a small dose of negativity administered just prior to a positively focused intervention can be surprisingly effective in reducing prejudice toward stigmatized groups.”

Corresponding author: Michèle Birtel – University of Oxford, UK – michele.birtel@psy.ox.ac.uk
Published online September 27, 2012 in Psychological Science

The Stranger Effect: The Rejection of Affective Deviants

Lauren Szczurek, Benoît Monin, and James J. Gross

How do react to people who display unexpected emotional responses? Researcher Lauren Szczurek and colleagues at Stanford University asked participants to view a slideshow of positive, neutral, or negative images and a video of a viewer’s responses to the images. In some cases, the viewer’s responses matched up with the content of the video (e.g., positive emotional expressions in response to positive images), and in others, they were deviant. Interestingly, participants reported more negative judgments toward deviants who showed incongruent responses (e.g., positive emotional expressions to negative images) than toward deviants who showed flat expressions (e.g., no discernible emotional response). Participants reported preferring greater social distance from deviant viewers because they felt they shared fewer moral values with the deviant viewers. According to the researchers, these findings illustrate how subtle departures from what we consider to be “normative” affect can have significant and severe social consequences.

Corresponding author: Lauren Szczurek – Stanford University - laurensz@stanford.edu
Published in the October 2012 issue of Psychological Science