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Our Brains on Teams

The Dark Side of Loyalty to a Group
Susan Fiske

team buildingMany cultures term themselves simply “Humans,” demoting outsiders to less than human. We humanize only those on our side, who presumably cooperate with us. Our lab uses social psychology experiments and neuro-imaging to understand how people (de)humanize each other, depending on who seems to be on their team. People really care about their cooperating group, while other groups are often collateral damage to this all-too-human loyalty.

Ingroups are people who share our goals and values. Outgroups at a minimum do not share and most likely compete with our side’s goals. Either way, outgroups can’t be trusted to advance our ingroup agenda.

People on our side, individual or group cooperators, seem trustworthy, warm, and friendly—otherwise, not. This cooperation-equals-warmth notion is the first, split-second decision we make about a stranger. My Princeton colleague Alex Todorov shows that people judge faces for trustworthiness in less than a tenth of a second. And first impressions do count. Deciding someone (or some group) is warm immediately makes us feel loyal, proud, and sympathetic.

Yale professor John Bargh shows that merely handing someone a warm cup of coffee—as opposed to an iced one—makes people more generous to the next person they meet. Warmth is basic: we comfort babies and even distressed adults by holding them close to our own warm bodies. Harlow’s monkeys preferred the cloth surrogate mother who had a light-bulb inside, and it wasn’t the light the babies craved. People all over the world judge each other’s warmth as a basic dimension of social cognition, accounting for most of the variance in impressions.

Deciding people’s warmth boils down to deciding their intent, for good or ill. All of us are mindreaders, and we are remarkably attuned to considering what someone else wants to do. Social neuroscience shows that when people think about people, especially when they infer the other person’s predispositions, a system of brain areas devoted to social cognition reliably activates. Chief among them is the medial prefrontal cortex, known as the mPFC, and located along the midline of the forward part of the brain.

For instance, if people read that Mary always trips over her dog, no one else does, and she trips over pets in general, then they sensibly conclude that Mary is a clumsy dog-stumbler: their mPFC gets online uniquely for this inference. This doesn’t happen when we analyze the behavior of objects because they don’t have minds. The mPFC also doesn’t care about circumstances that cause behavior: If Mary stumbles only in the dark, as most people do, the mPFC does not come on line.

Princeton graduate student Dan Ames and I capitalized on the marvelous mPFC, showing how it indexes our obsession with the ingroup team. We paired our undergraduates with students from neighboring Rutgers, to do a joint task for a $50 prize. Their job was to make up educational games for kids, using wind-up toys. Half the time they had to work together for the prize, and half the time they worked independently (neither cooperating nor competing). The alleged Rutgers students (actually our confederates) presented themselves as likely either to excel or to stink at this job, and then they handed us a thumb drive with their latest teaching evaluations, which were decidedly mixed. The Princeton students read these evaluations in the scanner.

When the Princeton student had no personal interest in the Rutgers student, when they would work independently, their mPFC lit up only to expected information—for a poor teacher, the negative comments, and for a master teacher, the positive ones. People’s impression default is to confirm their expectations, all else being equal. The key result appeared when the students were teammates. In this case, the Princeton students’ mPFC activated selectively to the unexpected information, as if they were trying to make better sense of the other person, inconsistencies and all. We were thrilled by this result because our lab’s previous work shows people directing toward teammates more attention, more inferences, and more personal impressions.

The first takeaway point is that when people are on our side, we take the trouble to know them. This conclusion fits decades of research about how to get people from mutual outgroups—black/white, gay/straight, old/young, disabled/not, immigrant/host—to treat each other as individual human beings. When people come together across ingroup/outgroup boundaries, they get to know each other as individuals mainly when they need each other in the service of shared goals. Cooperation builds new, larger ingroups, and the mPFC gets us there. Respect follows. Friendships result.

The other takeaway point is that when people are not on our side, we do not bother to know them. For some beyond-the-pale outgroups, such as homeless people and addicts, we dehumanize them—seeing them as uncooperative, perhaps exploitative, and utterly incapable of anything useful. Our mPFC doesn’t even activate in response to them, but the insula does, suggesting disgust, as if they are nothing but garbage or vermin. Other dehumanized outgroups (investment bankers, the super-rich) seem more like robots, all competence and no warmth. We feel pleasure at their downfall, envy being a volatile agent.

Fortunately, we easily re-humanize these outgroups. We can include them in our circle of humanity by considering them more deeply. If we consider their minds, even as trivial a thought as wondering what they might eat for lunch, we activate the mPFC and see their lives in perspective. Ingroup membership is ours to bestow, allowing us to avoid the collateral damage to outgroups.


Susan T. Fiske is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology at Princeton University and author of Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us.

Photo by Vanier College.

Sunny wayne
4 years ago

I seriously didn’t know there were such complex thoughts going through our mind, maybe sub conscious mind, right? But we generally don’t like other groups against our morals and thoughts. Most of the people in our group are those people who share the same wavelength of thoughts and our ideas really work when we are together.

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