Tag Archives: group

‘Groupiness’ makes us biased, not gender, ethnicity, or political leanings

In an age where public discourse seems more polarized and extreme than ever, finding common ground is key. Easier said than done, however. A new study comes to show that our desire to fit into and belong to certain groups could lie at the root of this issue.

Image credits Flickr / tadekk.

The study found that people who identify themselves as belonging to a particular political group are more likely to be biased against people outside of the group. People identifying either as Democrats or Republicans showed this inclination in equal measure, so it’s not where our affiliation lies that matters — only that we desire to be part of the group. Whether or not it’s political in nature isn’t really important.

Alternatively, if you’re reluctant to identify yourself as part of a group, you’re less likely to be biased in general.

Mine with mine, you with yours

“It’s not the political group that matters, it’s whether an individual just generally seems to like being in a group,” said Rachel Kranton, an economist at Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences and lead author of the paper.

“Some people are ‘groupy’ — they join a political party, for example. And if you put those people in any arbitrary setting, they’ll act in a more biased way than somebody who has the same political opinions, but doesn’t join a political party.”

The team began by testing the ‘groupiness’ of 141 participants by asking them to allocate money to themselves and someone else in their group or outside of it in different contexts. For one of the tests, participants were divided into groups based on their (self-declared) political affinity. In the second setting, they were organized into groups based on what paintings or poems they enjoyed, and in the third one the groups were random.

They expected people to discriminate against other groups based on how strongly they believed in the opinions of their group; in this sense, the first scenario should have been the most divisive, as people tend to care about politics more than art preferences.

What the team found, however, was that simply being attached to a group made ‘groupy’ people more biased against outsiders (as compared to people with the same political leanings but who didn’t identify as being a Democrat or Republican). This effect persisted in all contexts.

“There is this very specific distinction between the self-declared partisans and politically similar independents,” says co-author Scott Huettel, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Duke. “They don’t differ in their political positions, but they do behave differently toward people who are outside their groups.”

“We can’t show you that all group-minded identities behave this way,” says Huettel. “But this is a compelling first step.”

Around a third of the participants didn’t show a bias when allocating money regardless of context. They were more likely to consider themselves politically independent, the authors note, and also made the decision on how to allocate money faster on average than their peers.

“We don’t know if non-groupy people are faster generally,” Kranton said. “It could be they’re making decisions faster because they’re not paying attention to whether somebody is in their group or not each time they have to make a decision.”

As to exactly what makes someone ‘groupy’, the team can’t say right now. From their data, however, they can tell it’s neither gender nor ethnicity. There’s just “some feature of a person” that makes them put more value on group divisions, the authors argue. Other research will need to uncover what this feature is, and how it arises.

The paper “Deconstructing bias in social preferences reveals groupy and not-groupy behavior,” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Matches leadership.

Competence begets leadership in small groups

New research is looking into how small groups of individuals interact to make decisions — particularly the ones regarding leadership.

Matches leadership.

Image via Pixabay.

Large groups of people tend to operate via a “wisdom of the crowd” mechanism, whereby individuals tend to aggregate information from the group. Overall, this does (generally) lead to crowds taking better decisions than the individuals themselves. For example, Sir Francis Galton remarked that when a crowd was asked to estimate the weight of an ox at a country fair, their averaged answers was closer to the ox’s butchered weight than most estimates taken individually.

Small groups don’t really follow this same principle, a new study reveals — at least not when it comes to leadership.

Ask the boss

Researchers at the New York University (NYU) Tandon School of Engineering worked with several groups of five volunteers, which they pitted through a 10-round cognitive test. Each participant was asked to estimate the number of dots displayed on a large screen and, without verbally communicating with one another, choose one of multiple answers using a custom-made clicker. The catch was that the image would only be shown for half a second at a time.

All 10 rounds were played consecutively in a single session. Because of how the test was designed, it was virtually impossible for participants to reliably count the dots — forcing them to guess, basically. However, they were given the chance to alter their answer in response to the choices of other participants.

Once all group members chose an answer, the screen displayed all current answers along with each member’s past performance (in selecting the correct number of dots). Participants then had a 10-second window in which to change their responses based on those of the others in the group.

“Individuals used social information more and more over time, and the more accurate the information, the more influence it had over participants’ choices,” said Porfiri. “Therefore, the relationship between participants’ performance and their social influence was reinforced over time, resulting in the emergence of group leaders.”

Individuals didn’t follow the simple majority rule, the team reports, as would be expected in a ‘crowd’. Instead, they were more fluid in who they followed, overall rallying behind the group members that had shown competence by performing best over time. Based on this observation, the team says that the group formed a dynamic network of interaction in which participants were nodes and the links were the consequences of social influence. For example, the investigators generated a link from one participant to another if the first had changed his or her answer to that of the second. The speed at which the network grew increased over the course of each of the rounds.

Participants were quite heavily influenced by social information when changing their answers. On average, they changed answers to ones that nobody else had selected only about 5% of the time — meaning that roughly 95% of changes mirrored those of other group members. Participants were more likely to be copied by others if their performances were good, even if their answers differed from those of the group majority.

Nakayama, the lead author, explained that the behavior of small groups is strikingly different from that of much larger gatherings of people.

“Where a large crowd would adopt a simple majority rule, with an increase in the accuracy of performance over repeated interactions, individuals rely more on social than personal information and as a consequence, good performers would emerge as group leaders, exerting a stronger influence on others over time,” says Shinnosuke Nakayama, postdoctoral researcher at NYU Tandon and lead author of the paper.

Such networks function much like neural networks in the brain, the team explains, where physically-distant neurons form connections to perform a specific function. Social ties in small groups evolve over time based on actions, they conclude.

The paper “Social information and spontaneous emergence of leaders in human groups” has been published in the Journal of The Royal Society Interface.

How cockroaches make democratic group decisions

For cockroaches, it seems, collaboration comes naturally: when 50 cockroaches are presented with 3 shelters which can only host 40 (each), they’ll split into two groups, leaving the third shelter empty. Basically, they find a way to split themselves equally, in a democratic fashion.

In cockroach groups, there are no members higher than others – everybody is equal, apparently. Thus, group decision making is simplified, leading to patterns which can be understood and studied. What makes it even more interesting is that cockroaches don’t make sounds, so they must therefore communicate without vocalizing.

“Cockroaches use chemical and tactile communication with each other,” says Dr José Halloy, who co-authored the research in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “They can also use vision,” says Halloy, a scientist in the Department of Social Ecology at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium. “When they encounter each other they recognise if they belong to the same colony thanks to their antennae that are ‘nooses’, that is, sophisticated olfactory organs that are very sensitive,” he says.

Halloy wanted to see how the cockroaches would behave when faced with a decision. He placed the insects in a dish that contained three shelters. Initially, the shelters could only host 40 insects each, so the 50 bugs decided to split equally – 25 into one, 25 into the other, leaving the third one empty. However, when the shelters were larger than 50, they all moved into just one shelter, showing that they make rational, democratic group decisions.

“Cockroaches are gregarious insects [that] benefit from living in groups. It increases their reproductive opportunities, [promotes] sharing of resources like shelter or food, prevents desiccation by aggregating more in dry environments, etc,” he says.”So what we show is that these behavioural models allow them to optimise group size.”

The way they behave is so basic and rational, that it can be quite predictable to model. Researchers hope to draw insights for other insects as well – and not only insects.

“It looks both at the mechanisms underlying decision-making by animals and how those mechanisms produce a distribution of animals amongst resource sites that optimizes their individual fitness,” says Dr David Sumpter, a University of Oxford zoologist.”Much previous research has concentrated on either mechanisms or optimality at the expense of the other.”

The study documenting this behavior was published in PNAS in 2006.