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.
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."