What Is Outgroup Bias? | Definition & Examples

Outgroup bias is the tendency to dislike members of groups that we don’t identify with. We not only have negative feelings and ideas about people who are not part of our group, but we also tend to exhibit hostility towards them. This happens even if we know nothing about them as individuals.

Example: Outgroup bias
As part of a student exchange program, a group of foreign students arrive at your university. Because they are a little hesitant to speak English, you notice that most of your fellow students are not making an effort to get to know them better. At the cafeteria, you overhear some of your classmates talking about the visiting students, agreeing that “people from that country are all unfriendly.”

Because of outgroup bias, we treat people differently depending on their group membership. As a result, we tend to unfairly reject members of outgroups, which can lead to prejudice and discrimination.

What is outgroup bias?

Outgroup bias is a form of cognitive bias that causes us to hold negative attitudes towards outgroups or groups we view as fundamentally different from us. Outgroup bias is the opposite of ingroup bias or ingroup favoritism. When we show preference for the social groups we belong to (our ingroups), it is usually at the expense of those we categorize as different (or belonging to an outgroup).

Outgroup bias causes us to look down on members of outgroups and exclude them in various ways, such as by refusing to share resources with them. Outgroup bias often takes the form of outright hostility. For example, fans of rival sports teams tend to describe their opponents in terms of their unfavorable qualities. This can also escalate into physical violence.

This division of the world into ingroups and outgroups can be based on a variety of group identities, such as sexual orientation, political ideology, or religious belief. Due to this, outgroup bias is associated with several social phenomena such as sexism, racism, xenophobia, and nationalism.

Outgroup bias can not only be observed in real life but also in experimental settings in which individuals are separated into arbitrary groups. Even something as meaningless as assigning groups by tossing a coin or choosing between two famous paintings can cause us to form ingroups and outgroups.

What causes outgroup bias?

Outgroup bias is caused by the innate tendency to view the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups. There are several concepts that can shed light on this phenomenon:

  • Social categorization. Our tendency to categorize individuals into outgroups and ingroups is a natural process. In many cases, it helps us navigate the world around us more efficiently. Assigning people to categories provides us with information about the characteristics of the people who belong to those categories. For example, when we are lost in an unfamiliar city, we might ask a taxi driver or a police officer for directions because we assume they know the city well.
  • The need for a social identity. People generally have a psychological need to belong to distinct social groups that make them feel good about themselves. This is related to our need for high self-esteem. Because we feel the need to view ourselves positively, we tend to view our own groups in a positive light and, by comparison, other groups in a negative light.
  • Our survival instincts. Because our ancestors lived in small social groups that competed with other groups for survival, each group had to secure access to limited resources like land, food, or water. Supporting your ingroup (and fighting against outgroups) bettered your individual chances of staying alive. For this reason, people evolved to view members of other groups as different and potentially dangerous. Differentiating between “us” and “them” became ingrained in the human brain, as this maximized the chances of survival.

Why is outgroup bias a problem?

Although there is no harm in identifying with an ingroup, and it’s natural to spot differences between groups, the problem starts when we unfairly reject people from outgroups or view them as inferior. Outgroup bias has several implications:

  • Double standards. Because of outgroup bias, we judge people’s behavior differently depending on whether we think they belong to our ingroup or an outgroup. For example, football fans may criticize the players of the other team for excessive force or brutality but tolerate the same behavior when it comes to their own players.
  • Stereotypes. The downside of social categorization is that we tend to exaggerate the differences between groups and perceive members of outgroups as more similar to each other than they actually are. This relates to outgroup homogeneity bias, or the tendency to view members of outgroups as more similar to each other than members of our ingroup.
  • Limited contact. We often have limited contact with members of outgroups. Once we default to stereotypical thinking (i.e., “they are all the same”), it is easy to apply our stereotypes to the members of the outgroup as a whole, not considering whether the trait we attribute to them is actually true of individuals. This causes us to treat people differently and can lead to discrimination.
  • Scapegoating. The need to feel good about ourselves also extends to our ingroups. For this reason, we feel the need to protect them. When people feel their ingroup is being threatened or is experiencing hardships such as an economic downturn, they often blame members of outgroups for their situation. Immigrants, for instance, may become scapegoats for a country’s economic problems.

Outgroup bias example

Health threats can provoke outgroup bias (such as xenophobia) against people perceived as foreigners.

Example: Outgroup bias and COVID
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, narratives that placed the blame for COVID-19 on China or Asian people in general became pervasive in the United States. As a result, anti-Asian sentiment began to be expressed openly in public discourse. Asian people became an outgroup, targeted for exclusion.

In one study, researchers wanted to find out how perceptions of COVID-19 intensity related to anti-Asian prejudice among white Americans. More specifically, they examined:

  • Whether actual intensity (official number of cases or deaths reported) or perceived intensity (participants’ estimates of the same) of the COVID-19 outbreak related to people’s avoidance of intergroup contact.
  • Whether outgroup bias was targeted toward Asian people specifically or toward racial outgroups more broadly (e.g., toward both Asian people and Black people).
  • Whether contact with racial outgroups could lower outgroup bias, regardless of COVID intensity.

The researchers found that:

  • Perceived COVID-19 intensity was associated with a greater desire for social distance both from Asian people and from Black people.
  • There was no relation between COVID-19 intensity (either actual or perceived) and negative feelings (called affect) toward these outgroups.
  • Greater intergroup contact was associated with less desire for social distance and less negative feelings. This pattern was consistent in relation to both Asian people and Black people. Greater contact was also associated with less support for exclusionary, anti-China travel policies, even when actual COVID-19 intensity was high.

These results suggested that the intensity of a health threat can exacerbate racial outgroup bias and reduce people’s willingness for intergroup interaction.

At the same time, intergroup contact may sometimes mitigate outgroup bias. This shows that the benefits of intergroup relationships can persist during periods of crisis.

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 are the implications of outgroup bias?

Outgroup bias causes us to view members of social groups we don’t identify with as more similar than they actually are. When we start viewing people in terms of their group membership and not as individuals, it’s easy to stereotype them. This in turn can lead us to treat them unfairly, show less empathy, and generally discriminate against members of outgroups.

What is scapegoating?

Scapegoating is the tendency to blame an outgroup or a social group we don’t identify with for the problems of our ingroup or the group we feel we belong to.

This phenomenon is more likely to appear when a group is faced with prolonged negative experiences or is blocked from attaining a goal.

For example, in the wake of a political assassination, members of an ethnic minority might be targeted if the perpetrator belonged to this outgroup. In other words, scapegoating is a manifestation of outgroup bias (the tendency to dislike outgroups).

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. (2024, May 09). What Is Outgroup Bias? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/research-bias/outgroup-bias/

Sources

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

Mandalaywala, T. M., Gonzalez, G., & Tropp, L. R. (2023). Early perceptions of COVID-19 intensity and anti-Asian prejudice among White Americans. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 26(1), 48–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/13684302211049721

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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.