Ingroup/Outgroup Biases at Play in Police-Community Relations

Our ancestors evolved in a world where all travel was on foot. This sharply curtailed the geographical radius of their social universe, and meant that virtually all of their social encounters were with people who looked like they did. Thus, there was little opportunity or need to distinguish individuals based on race. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that the mind evolved perceptual mechanisms that encode for race per se. Yet from Staten Island to Ferguson to Prairie View, we see evidence to the contrary. Why such a mismatch between theory and experience?

The answer was broadcast across movie screens this summer, in The Stanford Prison Experiment. Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 study is infamous for its disturbing demonstration of the alacrity and vigor with which biases in person perception are activated. With little encouragement, subjects assigned to be guards rapidly began dehumanizing and abusing subjects assigned to be prisoners. Prisoners who complained about civil rights violations were accused of insubordination, which was used to justify further abuse. The guards could inflict torture with impunity because they were armed with wooden batons (although instructed not to use them) and the authority of Dr. Zimbardo. The dynamic that emerged between guards and prisoners is similar to that infecting police-community relations in many U.S. cities, with one critical difference: nearly all the study participants were white. Clearly, the enmity between guards and prisoners was not racially motivated.

Biases in person perception–a.k.a. ingroup/outgroup psychology–refers to the universal human tendency to classify people according to whether or not they are a “member of my group.” The criterion for inclusion can be a shared experience, interest, or attribute. Race is but one potential marker of group membership; each of us belongs to many social groups, some of which overlap in a Venn-diagram-like manner. For example, —> Read More