What Is Ingroup Bias? | Definition & Examples

Ingroup bias is the tendency to favor one’s own group over other groups. Ingroup bias affects our perception of (and behavior towards) others, giving preferential treatment to the members of our own group while excluding other groups.

Example: Ingroup bias 
You are stuck in traffic, trying to change lanes and exit the highway. A car approaches and tries to cut you off. You are annoyed until you notice the other car has a bumper sticker of your favorite sports team. You give them a friendly nod and let them pass.

As a result, we tend to look down on people we don’t consider members of our group, even when we know nothing about them. Due to this, ingroup bias can lead to prejudice and discrimination.

What is ingroup bias?

Ingroup bias (also called ingroup favoritism) is a type of cognitive bias that causes us to categorize people depending on whether we share a common group identification with them. According to ingroup bias, people either belong to our ingroup (i.e., the same group as us) or an outgroup (i.e., a different group).

Group identification can stem from any characteristic that creates a sense of collective identity among people. This can range from sports team affiliation to nationality. This group identification can be temporary, such as an improv comedy troupe at college, or more permanent, such as religious beliefs. Therefore, one can experience ingroup bias in any situation where an individual’s group identity is prominent, like a workplace, school, or sports stadium.

Regardless of the nature of the group, we tend to like our ingroup members and dislike outgroup members.This feeling is accentuated when individuals feel that the value of their ingroup is being threatened.

Ingroup bias causes us to favor our own ingroup members, treat them differently, and be more willing to share resources with them. For example, we are happy to recommend someone from our ingroup for a job. Relatedly, we think of outgroup members as inferior, and we don’t wish to share resources with them (called outgroup bias).

We can observe this tendency at a larger scale among nations that are not willing to cooperate and share limited resources, such as water. When experienced in larger groups like countries or ethnicities, ingroup bias is referred to as ethnocentrism.

What causes ingroup bias?

Ingroup bias is caused by several factors. A number of theories can help explain why ingroup bias occurs:

  • Realistic conflict theory suggests that ingroup bias arises due to competition between two or more groups for limited resources, such as jobs, money, or land. Whenever resources are at stake, people will favor their own group out of self-interest. The theory is called “realistic” because ingroup bias is based on an actual need for physical resources, as opposed to psychological needs.
  • Social identity theory proposes that people favor their own group for psychological reasons, even when there is no competition for resources. In other words, ingroup bias arises naturally and instinctively due to our need to identify with a distinct social group. As soon as we categorize ourselves as belonging to an ingroup, and notice other people belonging to an outgroup, we tend to act and think in favor of our ingroup.
  • Expectations of reciprocity. Ingroup bias has been observed in studies in which researchers sorted participants in an arbitrary way, such as tossing a coin or choosing between two famous paintings. This rendered the makeup of the groups unimportant. However, ingroup bias still occurred. One possible interpretation is that group membership can bring out strong ingroup bias, however random the group division is. Here, people cooperate with their ingroup members simply because they expect them to return the favor.
Note
Although ingroup bias is a fundamental aspect of how we perceive the world, there are some cases in which it doesn’t occur:

  • When our ingroup is a low-status group. For example, when a sports team has not won a single game all season, the players are less likely to display ingroup bias.
  • When a member of our ingroup behaves in a way that threatens the positive image of the ingroup. For example, an employee who is not considered a good team player is viewed negatively by others on the team. This is known as the black sheep effect. 

What is the impact of ingroup bias?

Ingroup bias cuts across social groups, settings, and cultures. It can be observed in children as young as three years old. Ingroup bias impacts our behaviors and attitudes in various ways. For example, it can cause us to:

  • Take credit for the successes of other ingroup members
  • Remember more positive than negative information about ingroups
  • Be less critical of the performance of ingroup members than outgroup members
  • Believe that our own ingroup is less prejudiced

Most importantly, positive behaviors from the ingroup and negative behaviors from the outgroup are attributed to stable group characteristics. On the other hand, negative behaviors from the ingroup and positive behaviors from the outgroup are seen as an exception.These are more likely to be attributed to temporary situational factors or the behaviors of specific individuals.

Perceiving ingroups and outgroups in this way is problematic. In its simplest form, ingroup bias can result in an “us vs. them” mentality. This can cause us to associate only with people who are similar to us and distance ourselves from those who are different. However, taking it to its extreme, ingroup bias can have serious consequences resulting in discrimination, xenophobia, and racism.

Ingroup bias examples

Ingroup bias suggests that group membership of both the witness and the perpetrator of a crime can have a significant impact on witness testimony.

Example: Ingroup bias and criminal behavior
In one study conducted in Sweden, researchers examined how the ingroup/outgroup status of a perpetrator of a violent crime might influence an eyewitness’s evaluation of the crime. Immigrant and Swedish students saw a film showing a simulated robbery, with an immigrant or a Swede as the perpetrator.

The results were quite interesting: both groups evaluated an ethnically dissimilar perpetrator as more culpable than an ethnically similar perpetrator. In other words, “witnesses” found the crime more blameworthy when the perpetrator belonged to an outgroup.

This finding shows that ingroup bias does not only influence whom we choose to socialize with, but it can also have more serious consequences. The potential effect of ingroup/outgroup membership should be considered when witness testimonies are evaluated in court proceedings.

Other types of research bias

Frequently asked questions

What is the difference between ingroup and outgroup bias?

Ingroup bias and outgroup bias are two sides of the same phenomenon.

  • Ingroup bias is the tendency to favor and support individuals who belong to groups we identify with.
  • Outgroup bias is the tendency to dislike or belittle members of groups that we don’t identify with.

In other words, ingroup bias denotes positive feelings towards one’s ingroup, while outgroup bias denotes negative feelings towards outgroups.

What is the black sheep effect?

According to the black sheep effect, someone who is socially undesirable is liked less if they belong to our group (an ingroup member) than if they belonged to a different group to which we do not belong (an outgroup member).

The black sheep effect is a form of ingroup bias or ingroup favoritism: by derogating unlikable ingroup members, people protect (and thus promote) the positive image and identity of the ingroup as a whole.

Why is ingroup bias a problem?

Ingroup bias is a problem because it causes us to treat people differently depending on whether we are members of the same group.

This can cause us to think negatively about or discriminate against people we hardly know (i.e., the outgroup) and support members of our ingroup on the basis of a shared identity, rather than merit. For example, ingroup bias might lead someone to recommend an acquaintance for a job simply because they went to the same prestigious college.

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, March 06). What Is Ingroup Bias? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved May 14, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/research-bias/ingroup-bias/

Sources

Jhangiani, R., & Tarry, H. (2022). Principles of social psychology (1st international H5P edition). BCcampus. https://opentextbc.ca/socialpsychology

Lindholm, T., & Christianson, S. A. (1998). Intergroup biases and eyewitness testimony. The Journal of social psychology, 138(6), 710–723. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224549809603256

Is this article helpful?
Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specializes in writing about research methods and research bias.