Out of group, out of mind

Thursday 5 December 2013

Others are mentally invisible to us when they are members of another group, according to a new study by researchers at the University of St Andrews and the University of Neuchatel.

The finding challenges conventional wisdom – which suggests that our brains automatically register other people and are affected by their presence – and has far reaching implications for our understanding of both mind and society.

If we don’t have others in mind, we will find it harder to understand what they are thinking and feeling. On the one hand, this may result in greater misunderstanding. On the other hand, it undermines empathy which is at the root of concern and care for others. The study therefore identifies a very basic mental process which may be at the root of large-scale problems in inter-group relations.

The study, published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE used a basic mental task in which performance is disrupted when we have another person in mind.

People were divided into two groups and then were asked to do the task either alone or with a partner. When the partner was a member of one’s own group, the usual disruption was found. But when the partner was a member of another group, there was no such disruption: in this case people did the task as if they were acting alone. This shows that, at the most basic level of mental functioning, we don’t take account of “out-group” members.

Professor Stephen Reicher, of the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, said: “What makes this work so striking is how little we had to do to put others out of mind. These were not groups with long histories of antagonism which might explain why people ignored each other. Rather, we simply had to divide people into two groups on the most trivial of grounds, and even this was enough to affect our basic mental representation of the other. This shows the power of the processes we are dealing with.”

Dr Jennifer McClung, of the University of Neuchatel, added: “This research shows how groups affect the way we see – or rather don’t see – our social world at the most fundamental level. It also shows how very fundamental mental processes affect the way we see people in other groups. If members of these groups are invisible to us, if we ignore their thoughts and their experiences, then it becomes far easier to impose suffering on them. ”

Note to Editors

Dr Stephen Reicher, of the University of St Andrews, is available on 07753608476.

Dr Jennifer McClung, of the University de Neuchâtel is available at [email protected] or on +41.32.718.3128 or +41 76 675 4078.

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Fiona MacLeod on 01334 462108 / 0771 414 0559.
Ref: (groups 05/12/13)
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