Human beings are known to live in groups and are basically group-bound species. This makes them develop strong affiliations with their group members, displaying characteristics such as altruism and cooperation. However, this very aspect of being group-bound makes them indulge in competitiveness and conflict with members that are perceived to be from another group. This tendency of being strongly affiliative towards members of one's own group and competitive towards members of another group makes humans indulge in polarizing behaviors.

People often develop thinking patterns and thought processes that may tend to make them polarized. One such thinking pattern that people develop is categorizing themselves and others into groups. This process of categorizing oneself and others in terms of groups is called social categorization. In doing so, individuals organize the social world into “us” versus “them.”

The people categorized into groups that an individual identifies with come under “us” or ingroup. The people categorized into that the individual does not identify with come under “them” or outgroup. The groups in which people usually categorize themselves and others are often in terms of race, religion, class, caste, gender, age, etc. Although categorization is not limited to such social groups, it may also be done in terms of occupation and interests.

The process of social categorization is highly simplistic, but it helps in organizing social information with ease and in a less complex form. More than often, it has been found that people tend to form simplistic ways of organizing and interpreting information to avoid cognitive effort. However, this tendency of not wanting to indulge in too much cognitive effort can have serious implications within the society.

Social categorization, even though simplistic, takes the form of high emotional significance. People in the category of “us” (ingroup) are viewed to be more similar and favorable compared to those categorized as “them” (outgroup). The ones categorized as “them” are often evaluated negatively. The affinity bias that people tend to develop adds to the emotional significance of such categorization. Affinity bias is the tendency to get along with people who seem to be similar and viewing them to be more positive than those who seem dissimilar.

Viewing people in the ingroup to be more similar develops ingroup bias within the individual. This ingroup bias leads people to show a lot of favoritism towards the individuals who belong to their ingroup compared to those in the outgroup. The ingroup bias, further, leads to the outgroup homogeneity effect. The outgroup homogeneity effect is the tendency to view people in the outgroup to be less diverse than their ingroup. In contrast, the ingroup is viewed to be more diverse. This leads to viewing the individuals of the outgroup in a stereotypical manner.

Ingroup liking and favoritism, due to having ingroup bias, automatically develops a dislike towards the outgroup. This means that the outgroup homogeneity effect is more in a negative sense. Because individuals do not view people from the outgroup as favorable, they find the individuals in the outgroup to be similar in a negative manner. They attribute negative characteristics to the outgroup and assume that everyone in that group has those characteristics. Consequently, the individual becomes highly prejudiced about the members in the outgroup.

The viewing of the outgroup in a highly stereotypical and prejudiced way becomes more pronounced because people often begin to shape their identity based on the group they belong to. Thus, the emotional significance of social categorization further becomes very strong because individuals tend to identify themselves with the group they belong to.

People strongly associate themselves with their social group as they derive their self-concept and self-esteem from it. It is because of this that people seek to feel positive about their group. Being associated with a group that gives them a positive feeling helps them to enhance their self-esteem. This also leads them to show more and more favoritism towards their group and its members.

Showing favoritism towards the ingroup and seeking positivity from the ingroup tends to make them look down upon the outgroup. They start perceiving the outgroup in a negative manner. It gives them a feeling of a higher status in comparison to the outgroup. This automatically makes them feel prejudiced towards the outgroup. Therefore, being prejudiced towards a social group that people do not belong to becomes a way to enhance their self-esteem and have a positive self-concept.

Further, people tend to develop specific thinking patterns that not only exacerbates their prejudice but also find ways of justifying their prejudiced behavior. Once a belief or opinion is established, people seek out information that confirms it. They even interpret any information according to their beliefs.

People tend to overweigh information that is in accordance with their beliefs and undermine or even outright reject information that is against their beliefs. Additionally, people even tend to recall more information that confirms their beliefs. This tendency of overweighing and recalling information that confirms beliefs and undermining information that differs from their existing beliefs is known as confirmation bias.

The prejudice that people develop towards the outgroup due to ingroup bias worsens because of confirmation bias. Any information that confirms the prejudice towards the outgroup is overweighed and exaggerated, whereas information that may contradict their prejudice is not given any value or consideration. This, in turn, leads individuals to strengthen their prejudice towards the outgroup.

Apart from confirmation bias, a reason why the prejudice towards the outgroup strengthens is belief perseverance. Belief perseverance is holding on to their beliefs. People have the tendency to cling to their beliefs and be very stubborn about them, even when they encounter information that contradicts it and gives evidence that their existing belief might be inaccurate. Thus, the prejudice that people develop towards the outgroup gets sustained and grows more robust because of this tendency to maintain and rigidly hold on to beliefs.

What makes matters worse is that when people begin to reason in such a way that it justifies their thoughts and beliefs. People tend to get involved in what is known as motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is constructing arguments to arrive at a preferred conclusion. People justify their actions by using biased reasoning in terms of what they want to do and what they want to believe.

Being prejudiced towards the outgroup, people often develop feelings of discrimination and hate towards them. This may further lead to acts of heightened aggression or even violence towards individuals of the outgroup. Due to motivated reasoning, people justify their thoughts and actions and feel that they are completely right.

Confirmation bias, belief perseverance, and motivated reasoning all occur due to the discomfort of being proved wrong. Whenever people get information that is against their beliefs, it leads to the experience of cognitive dissonance, which is a discomforting experience after encountering contradictions. Cognitive dissonance, apart from discomforting, also seems to be threatening.

In order to reduce this discomfort due to the experience of dissonance, people give no or very little consideration to information that contradicts their beliefs. Instead of that, they seek out information that confirms their belief, they rigidly hold on to their beliefs, and they use biased reasoning to justify their beliefs and actions. Thus, they continue being prejudiced towards the outgroup.

Therefore, human beings tend to develop thought processes and thinking patterns that are highly polarizing, in terms of dividing people into categories of us and them, or ingroup and outgroup. Such polarization tends to have dangerous consequences with respect to becoming prejudiced, hateful, and even violent. The worst part is that people become so imprisoned in such faulty thinking patterns that they feel there is nothing wrong with it.

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, podcaster, and TEDx speaker. I also conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India


Brian Arbenz said...

In the middle of the United States, I have seen people abandon the use of multiple sources of media, in favor of openly slanted media that exist confirm their pre-conceptions. Media are working for the wealthy corporations to create millions of easy-led minions.

Regarding your observation that: "Once a belief or opinion is established, people seek out information that confirms it. They even interpret any information according to their beliefs" -- electronic media these days do the interpreting for their viewers. So this problem is greatly worsened.

Saif Farooqi said...

I completely agree with you, Brian. Media has become the puppet of large corporate organizations as well as political parties that influence people as per their agenda. This is why getting people polarized and developing hate among each other has become so easy. Information on social media is continuously fed to people, which has led people not to indulge in any kind of critical evaluation, and they end up believing whatever information is presented to them.
Thank you, for reading the article, and writing your comment.