Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Siding with the tribe

Springboarding off yesterday's post, about our unfortunate tendency to believe false claims if we hear them repeated often enough, today we have another kind of discouraging bit of psychological research; our behavior is strongly influenced by group membership -- even if we know from the start that the group we're in is arbitrary, randomly chosen, and entirely meaningless.

Psychologists Marcel Montrey and Thomas Shultz of McGill University set up a fascinating experiment in which volunteers were assigned at random to one of two groups, then instructed to play a simple computer game called "Where's the Rabbit?" in which a simulated rabbit is choosing between two different nest sites.  The participant gets five points if (s)he correctly guesses where the rabbit is going.  In each subsequent round, the rabbit has a 90% chance of picking the same nest again, and a 10% chance of switching to the other.

The twist comes when in mid-game, the participants are offered the option of seeing the guesses of three members from either group (or a mix of the two).  They can also pay two points to use a "rabbit-finding machine" which is set up to be unreliable -- it has a two-thirds chance of getting it right, and a one-third chance of getting it wrong (and the participants know this).  Given that this is (1) expensive, points-wise, and (2) already a lower likelihood of success than simply working on your own and basing your guess on what the rabbit did in the previous round, you'd think no one would choose this option, right?

Wrong.  It turns out that when you looked at how people chose, they were way more likely to do the same thing as the people who belonged to their own group.  Next in likelihood is the wonky, inaccurate rabbit-finding machine.  Dead last was copying what was done by members of the other group.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Sara 506, Group people icon, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Remember what I started with -- these groups were entirely arbitrary.  Group affiliation was assigned at the beginning of the experiment by the researchers, and had nothing to do with the participants' intelligence, or even with their previous success at the game.  But the volunteers were still more likely to side with the members of their own tribe.  In fact, when choosing whose decisions to observe, the test subjects decided by a two-to-one margin to consult in-group members and not even consider the decisions made by the out-group.

How much more powerful would this effect be if the group membership wasn't arbitrary, but involved an identity that we're deeply invested in?

"Researchers have known for some time that people prefer to copy members of their own social group (e.g., political affiliation, race, religion, etc.), but have often assumed that this is because group members are more familiar with or similar to each other," said study co-author Marcel Montrey, in an interview in PsyPost.  "However, our research suggests that people are more likely to copy members of their own group even when they have nothing in common.  Simply belonging to the same random group seems to be enough.  Surprisingly, we found that even people who rated their own group as less competent still preferred to copy its members."

It's easy to see how this tendency can be exploited by advertisers and politicians.  "Human social learning is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, where many factors other than group membership play a role," Montrey said.  "For example, we know that people also prefer to copy successful, popular, or prestigious individuals, which is why companies advertise through endorsements.  How do people’s various learning biases interact, and which ones are most important?  Because these questions have only recently begun to be explored, the real-world relevance of our findings is still up in the air."

This also undoubtedly plays a role in the echo-chamber effect, about which I've written here more than once -- and which is routinely amplified by social media platforms.  "By offering such fine-grained control over whom users observe," Montrey said, "these platforms may spur the creation of homogeneous social networks, in which individuals are more inclined to copy others because they belong to the same social group."

We like to think of ourselves as modern and knowledgeable and savvy, but the truth is that we still retain a core of tribalism that it's awfully hard to overcome.  Consider how often you hear people say things like, "I'll only vote for a person if they belong to the _____ Party."  I've sometimes asked, in some bewilderment, "Even if the person in question is known to be dishonest and corrupt, and their opponent isn't?"  Appallingly, the response is often, "Yes.  I just don't trust people of the other party."

And of course, a great many of the politicians themselves encourage this kind of thinking.  If you can get a voter to eliminate out of hand half of the candidates for no other reason than party affiliation, it raises the likelihood you'll be the one who gets elected.  So the benefits are obvious.

Unfortunately, once you look at the Montrey and Shultz study, the downsides of this sort of thinking should also be frighteningly obvious.


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