Some thoughts on ingroups and outgroups

I was listening to John Safran and Father Bob, a podcast of their sunday night radio show. They interviewed a dodgy chap from the US (Kevin MacDonald, prof of psychology at California State University), an evolutionary psychologist who seemed to be advocating more solid racial identity for white people in the US. He talked a bit about ingroups and outgroups, and seemed to assume that people just divide up based on race. He talked particularly about how we favour those who look like us. (btw please don’t associate me with this fellow’s views, yuck)

I’m a bit of a bleeding lefty, hey, but I think we really do favour those who look like us, and I like the evolutionary psych idea that we evolved to do this. But why did we? It’s a bit shit, after all. It’d be good to understand it a bit more. Some thoughts:

– First, we are talking about people we don’t really know when talking ingroup vs outgroup discrimination. We judge people that we know based on experience with them, it seems to override other factors.

– We behave differently toward people (that we don’t know) in our perceived ingroup, vs those in outgroups.

– We define these ingroups via all kinds of unsubtle cues; skin colour, language (+accent!), clothing styles, etc. We prefer those cues that we share.

– I think its about our theory of mind.

– These groups are about establishing trust. Trust is largely about behaviour prediction, trusting someone means thinking they will do what you think they will do

– A random stranger is very hard to get inside the head of. Who knows what their values & beliefs are? So how can you predict their behaviour? So how can you trust them?

– So the default position (for random strangers) is low trust.

– The default position is necessary, but not optimal; you can only have relatively impoverished dealings with others on a low trust basis

– But you can also trust someone a bit more who you don’t know, if you are reasonably assured that they share your values/beliefs/culture. You can make workable hypotheses about their behaviour, based on your knowledge of yourself.

– You can quickly identify shared values/beliefs/culture via the unsubtle cues listed above (skin colour, language, clothing, others?).

– So I think that explains why humans seem to have a universal need for ingroup vs outgroup, even though the actual makeup of those groups, and ways of identifying them, vary so widely. Ingroups are for quickly identifying people who share your mental architecture.

– I think political conservatives have a narrow ingroup (eg: people who speak my language and look racially like me). This means an approach of generally not trusting people, only the few that match the ingroup definition. Discrimination against other people isn’t seen as all that bad (they are outgroupers after all). Also as the unsubtle cue rules only apply to people you don’t know, you can see conservative types making general negative statements about certain outgroups, while also being very personally friendly to those in that outgroup whom they actually know.

– I think political liberals try to have a very broad ingroup (and try to include everyone). That means an approach generally trusting of people, and an aversion to discriminating against people (as those discriminated against are in the ingroup and need protection). I think an all-inclusive ingroup has the unfortunate side effect of scaling poorly, meaning people can either give too much of themselves, or that they make generally positive statements about everyone, but then maybe show less generosity personally to people.

Some thoughts on ingroups and outgroups

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