Home > Attention, Memory > I don’t see a difference. Oh, wait. Now I do!

I don’t see a difference. Oh, wait. Now I do!

It’s Saturday morning. I wake up, have breakfast, listen to some music, and pack my bag for what I am about to do. Like many highschool and college athletes, I am preparing for perhaps the biggest day of the week – Game day! As I arrive at the field, I immediately start eyeballing today’s opponent. What type of team are they? Are they strong? Weak? Fast? Slow? My team I already know well, and I am confident that our different strengths will help us to win this game. As a team player on my college’s rugby team myself, I often find myself viewing the teams that we play against differently and less varied than my own team. My own team, of course, is made up of a diverse group of players with different personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. Other teams, however, I tend to have a more simple opinion of when we take the field. One cognitive phenomenon may be able to partially explain why this occurs.

Over the past 40 years, the idea of being on the outside of a group looking in, just like me looking at opposing rugby teams, has been of interest to cognitive and social psychologists. More specifically, the “outgroup homogeneity effect” is a psychological phenomenon in which people tend to see their own group as more diverse in opinions and other traits than another group.

Rugby Team Huddles (credit: Van Dissen, A)

This effect was first demonstrated in a 1982 study by Bernadette Park and Myron Rothbart. To set up, a group of men and women were recruited to participate in a study about what each gender may believe. Participants first read a self-describing statement like “I have to have my day planned out ahead of time” or “I am afraid of snakes, rodents and spiders”. After reading the statement, they were asked what percent of men or women would agree with the statement. What the researchers found is that in general, the male participants thought women would agree with each other about the statements and that men would be more varied in their opinions. Similarly, female participants believed that men would be more monolithic in their opinions that a group of women would have more diverse views. What these results show us is not anything about men or women’s opinions in particular, but rather that both genders tend to view their own group as more varied in opinions and other groups as more monolithic.

After initial studies showed the outgroup homogeneity effect, follow up studies solidified the idea into the knowledge of cognitive and social psychology (Judd and Park 1988). On a cognitive level, the outgroup homogeneity effect can be explained by the intersection between our semantic memory systems and our pattern recognition processes. According to the exemplar model of semantic memory, our perceptions of groups, or categories, are based on previously experienced known members of the given category. When using automatic processes, we quickly compare new potential category members to old ones to see how they fit in. Therefore, having less exemplars of an outgroup will result in less variability of the group, while having more exemplars of an ingroup will result in diverse views about that ingroup. 

Perhaps these initial findings about the outgroup homogeneity effect explain how I view my opponents in practice. But what happens once we start playing? Once we know who to watch out for? Or how might our views change when we play a team a second time?

One study by Ackerman et al (2006) showed us some of the ways that this effect can be diminished or even reversed. Specifically, the study demonstrated an outgroup homogeneity effect with regards to different American racial groups, but also showed that this effect reverses when white Americans view angry black faces. A similar study showed that when reading threatening phrases to their own group, white participants tended to perceive the outgroup, or other races, opinion’s as more diverse than they normally would (Thompson et al 1997). What these studies clearly indicate to us is that in certain circumstances, specifically those in which we are under threat, we do notice the differences in other groups and perhaps even ignore our own group.

Cognitively, the weakening of an outgroup homogeneity effect can be explained by a switch from automatic to controlled processes. Specifically, when we feel that we are under threat we are more likely to see the differences in a group as we are now paying closer attention to outgroup members. Under normal conditions, we dedicate less cognitive effort to seeing individuals and use our automatic processes to make assumptions.

What this might mean is that during practice I see a team as a monolith, but after facing a team a few times I notice who is good and who is good and who is bad, who poses a threat to my team, and who is more of a weak player. Additionally, I will play close attention to the players that really pose a threat to us since these are largely the players that we are trying to stop.

At the end of the day, most groups are realistically made up of a diverse set of members with different strengths and weaknesses, personalities, and traits. Despite that, we have a tendency to view groups that we are not a part of as being more similar than our own groups under normal circumstances. With this understanding in mind, we can start to better understand ourselves and work past this tendency that leads to false understandings. The next time I arrive at the field I won’t simply pay attention to the team as a whole, but rather I will look out for specific players. What threat do they pose? Who poses a threat at all? Understanding not only our own group but other groups as well will only help us to navigate the world better.


Works Cited

Park, B., & Rothbart, M. (1982). Perception of out-group homogeneity and levels of social categorization: Memory for the subordinate attributes of in-group and out-group members. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 1051-1068.

Thompson, S. C., Kohles, J. C., Otsuki, T. A., & Kent, D. R. (1997). Perceptions of attitudinal similarity in ethnic groups in the US: Ingroup and outgroup homogeneity effects. European  Journal of social psychology 27(2). 209–220.

Joshua M. Ackerman, Jenessa R. Shapiro, Steven L. Neuberg, Douglas T. Kenrick, D. Vaughn Becker, Vladas Griskevicius, Jon K. Maner, Mark Schaller. (2006). They All Look the Same to Me (Unless They’re Angry). Psychological Science. 17(10), 836-840.

Judd, C. M., & Park, B. (1988). Out-group homogeneity: Judgments of variability at the individual and group levels. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(5), 778–788. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.54.5.778

Van Dissen, A. (January 2, 2019). Hutt Old Boys Marist (HOBM) RFC Premier team huddle and re-focus [Photo]. British Journal of Sports Medicine. https://blogs.bmj.com/bjsm/2019/01/02/stop-breathe-in-breathe-out-mindfulness-hitting-the-new-zealand-rugby-scene/

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