How Categorical Thinking Creates a Biased View of the World

Madeleine Côté examines the extent to which dividing between us and them is a part of who we are. As she examines the psychological literature, she demonstrates how a better understanding of ourselves provides us with important insights into resisting prejudice.


Many social scholars would describe the us-versus-them bias as a product of learning.  I would not disagree with the role of learning in allowing in-group favoritism to have the impact it has had throughout our history. I would argue, however, that the us-versus-them bias is first of all created by the way we are made.  As I always tell my students, we are first of all a biological machine.


Our perceptual system is made to categorize and organize every aspect of our world in a mental category.  Among all the mental files, we find the category for the self more predominant than any other categories.  Research has consistently shown that humans will favor the self and favor the people with whom they have an affective link since reciprocity, cooperation, and togetherness will make one feel good.  It is also of importance to realize that these mechanisms are automatic. The point of this essay is not to make us lose hope in our capacity to relate positively with those we consider outsiders, but rather to remind us that there are certain things about our perceptions that we cannot take seriously.  A lot of the differences that we perceive as existing between our group and the other groups or between me and others are in fact inherently biased. Thus, if I feel that I am better than others in many ways (“Actually I so happen to be”) and that my group is correct and more moral than others (“Well psychologists do have a better take on human nature and are very ethical people”), I have to remind myself that I am biased.


The world that we live in is very complex and to process all the information would require much cognitive work. To facilitate this mental task, your brain is equipped with predetermined mental structures (files) called schemas that exist to automatically organize the information and reduce the effort it would take to process all of it (Baron, Byrne, & Watson 2005, 62). These structural frames permit us to rapidly process new information because it is done in the context of what we already know of the world. They act as guides to what is important, as organizers and holders of the information. For example, look at your schema of family.  To many of us, a family is a unit that consists of a mother and a father and one or more children that live together. When you encounter other families you define them quickly on the basis of your family schema.  You make a quick, unconscious decision as to whether this is a family or a “normal” family by using the rules that you have in your family schema. The down side of this rapid automatic processing is that not all information will be processed, thus affecting the accuracy of our perceptions.  Information that fits our schemas is more likely to be paid attention to than inconsistent information (Baron et al., 62) and, if inconsistent information is paid attention to (often happens if it is unexpected), it is more likely to be coded in a different schema and identified as an exception (Baron et al., 62). The noticed information is more likely to be moved into long-term memory to be used later as a reference. And, finally, once schemas are formed they are resistant to change (Baron et al., 63). 

In organizing the social information of our world, we inevitably categorize the group we belong to in opposition to the other groups.  Whenever I asked my students to describe who they are, they most often tell me about which ethnic, religious or social group they belong to.  In and of itself categorization by group is not a problem.  The problem is that when groups compete for distinctiveness and positive identity they are likely to develop a biased perception of their group and other groups. Research has shown that members of a group are more likely to perceive their group positively and perceive other groups more negatively.  Members of the out-groups are more likely to be attributed undesirable traits and behaviors and perceived as a group of similar people rather than individuals. This phenomenon is what social psychologists call the us-versus-them effect and many studies have shown the presence of this tendency (Baron et al., 169-70). Even when group formation is as arbitrary as random selection (for example, pulling names out of a hat), once we are part of a group, the us-versus-them can take effect.  We choose some of our groups such as when we decide to join a club, study in a certain profession, or decide to live in a certain city.  Other groups we are born into, such as our race, gender, and family, or are linked to our human biology, such as adolescence, middle-age, and old age.  Some groups are defined by having certain characteristics and beliefs such as the “popular” and “cool” or the intellectuals or liberals.  Regardless of the nature of the group, none are fully protected from the in-group bias.  Social psychologists have discussed the purpose of this tendency.  In part it seems to play a role in the development and maintenance of our self-esteem; everyone wants to feel that they belong to a good group. It may also play the role of promoting a feeling of distinctiveness from other groups, due largely to the fact that the personal identity is linked to the collective identity (Baron et al., 172).

Social psychology research has found that an individual’s social identity is characterized by four aspects: cognitive (my group exists and has the following characteristics), affective (I like or dislike my group), evaluative (my group is good and I feel proud of it), and perceived common fate (our success is interdependent).  It was found that the best predictor of in-group bias is the affective dimension.  When one has a strong emotional attachment to his or her group, it increases the possibility of a negative view of the other group (Jackson 2002, 17).  He also found that perception of the other group is influenced by the perceived level of conflict with that group.  The more conflict one perceives, the more negative the view of the other group.  Hornsey and Hogg studied the role of distinctiveness in prejudice (Baron et al., 170).  They found that under conditions designed to threaten a group’s distinctiveness, participants expressed more prejudice towards the other group.  However, when the unique identity of one’s group was not threatened, participants were more favourable towards the members of the other group. They also showed that the negative reaction to an identity threat was intensified by the perceived similarity between the in-group and the out-group (Baron et al., 170). Thus, it looks like when your identity is threatened, you do not want to feel any affinity with the out-group.  Another relevant dimension has to do with the security of your identity both at the individual and the collective level.  A secure identity seems to facilitate intergroup contact.  Jackson (16) found that if you feel that your personal success is tied to the success of the group and you have an insecure identity, you will perceive other groups in terms of conflict and competition.  If you have a secure identity, and your fate is perceived as separate from your group, you will have a more positive perception of out-groups. Thus, the social identity of an individual will influence, positively or negatively, the perception and often behavior that one will have towards members of out-groups.  We have to keep in mind that these perceptual biases take place automatically, without conscious processing, and can be influenced by minute details that one is not conscious of.       

To further understand the pervasiveness of the biased tendencies of our social cognition, it is quite interesting to look at the attempts done to overcome it. Timothy Wilson (2011, 190) in his book Redirect reviewed many programs of diversity training present today and concludes that what separates the ones that function from the ones that don’t is bringing people together under the right conditions (Baron et al, 187; Wilson, 194). Reduction of the us-versus-them effect happens when those participating perceive that they have an equal status (economic, social, or task-related) in the contact situation.  It was shown that inequalities made communication difficult and increased the negative feelings towards members of the other group(s).  The norms surrounding the contact must favor group equality (Baron et al, 187; Wilson, 194).  The groups must work towards the same goals and interdependence must exist to attain these goals.  Some conditions are still debated.  Some researchers believe that the situation must permit informal contact so that people can perceive each other as individuals.  Informal contact would help break down the stereotypes that people may have about the members of the out-group. Other researchers believe that individuals participating in the exchange must be perceived as typical members of their group.  If they are not perceived as typical, it increases the chances that they will be perceived as an exception and thus be subcategorized as not like others of “their kind” (Wilson, 195).  These findings do show that equality, cooperation, and interdependence can help alleviate negative perceptions between groups and reinforce the importance of allowing members to keep their distinct identity so as to not feel threatened in the group exchange. 

Direct group contact is not always possible and sometimes it is avoided out of fear that members of other groups may not be interested in interacting or that the contact may be awkward (Wilson, 195).  Interestingly, research has found that direct contact may not be the only means to reduce negative perception.  Simply knowing someone who is friends with someone from another group may be sufficient to alleviate the us-versus-them effect (Baron et al., 188).  Similarly, Mallett and Wilson (Wilson, 199) found that showing new university students a video (10 to 15 minutes) of two different ethnic background individuals, discussing how they met and developed what looked to them at first as an unlikely relationship, created an increase in the number of Facebook friends from other ethnic groups these students developed some time later.  Thus, something as simple as watching a short video can influence students to develop friendships with someone that comes from a different group.  Observing others having contact or knowing about their contact would suggest to someone that not everyone dislikes members of the out-group, which in turn could indicate that contact would be acceptable.  It could also reduce the level of anxiety one might feel about having contact or promote empathy towards members of the other group (Baron et al., 188).  It has also been shown that, if you have a friend that is a member of an out-group, you are more likely to be open-minded about contact with other groups.  In conclusion, the out-group bias can be reduced by having equal informal contact, living in communities that encourages contact, and seeing or knowing of others having contact.  Thus it appears that this human tendency can be counteracted by direct and indirect experiences one has with members of the other groups.

What do we need to remember from this lesson?  I believe that knowing what we know of our inherent tendency to favor our group over other groups, to often be biased in our perception of others, and to react negatively and emotionally to perceived identity threat, a modern society has the moral duty to avoid putting groups against one another. It would be unethical of any government to create barriers between groups or to make one group feel threatened and thus create friction.  From what research is showing, it is better to allow everyone to be distinct but equal. 


Madeleine Côté

Psychology, Dawson College

Works Cited

Baron, Robert, Donn Byrne, and Gillian Watson.  Exploring Social Psychology.  Toronto: Pearson, 2005. 


Jackson, Jay.  “Intergroup Attitudes as a Function of Different Dimensions of Group Identification and Perceived Intergroup Conflict.” Self and Identity 1  (2002):  11-32.


Wilson, Timothy.  Redirect.  New York: Little Brown and Company, 2011.


One Response to How Categorical Thinking Creates a Biased View of the World

  1. Maegan May 12, 2015 at 3:17 am #

    As a psychology student, I found it extremely interesting to read about how “us vs. them” is biological rather then environmental. It makes sense that our brains group our surroundings and thoughts into schemas, but it is also quite sad that this results in things like racism. However, it is very uplifting that you can get rid of this group bias as easy as showing students a video or watching other people from your group communicate with someone from an “out-group”. We should be making people more aware of these findings; and hopefully, racism will begin to decline at a faster rate.

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