In-Group Favoritism

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Volume 14, Number 1

“With Malice Toward None and Charity for Some” is the provocative title of a 2014 article in the American Psychologist, authored by social psychologists Anthony Greenwald, PhD and Thomas Pettigrew, PhD. The thesis of the article, supported by extensive research, is that in-group favoritism is a stronger contributor to discrimination than is hostile behavior toward members of out-groups.

Discrimination is usually thought of as unjust or prejudicial behavior toward a group or groups of people, typically on the basis of some demographic characteristic or social categorization. Negative attitudes toward an out-group are commonly assumed to underlie unfair treatment of or hostile behavior toward those who are the object of discrimination. Frequently overlooked is how in-group favoritism also plays an important role in discrimination, and according to Drs. Greenwald and Pettigrew, is more responsible for discrimination in the United States than is negative behavior toward out-groups. What this means is that much discrimination is subtle and unintentional, but nonetheless quite damaging. This pattern is especially damaging when in-group favoritism is occurring in groups that are already more advantaged than out-groups.

Group “membership” is a natural component of how people identify themselves, and there is an inherent inclination to do favors for others that one knows and likes, typically part of one’s in-groups. The notion that “who you know is more important than what you know” is reflective of this. Discrimination in housing and employment opportunities may be more a product of “doing favors for others” than is any outward hostility toward those who end up being disadvantaged. “Helpful acts” toward in-group members frequently involve the “nonoccurrence of helpful acts” toward members of out-groups, resulting in discrimination. In-group favoritism can widen gaps between groups, further decreasing the likelihood of getting to know persons who are part of outgroups.

Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, PhD (Morehouse School of Medicine) describes institutionalized racism as “differential access to goods, services, and opportunities of society by race.” She notes that there may be no specific perpetrator of the racism, and no overt hostile intent on the part of the privileged. As an example, a minority child in a poor school district may not have the opportunity to take the advanced placement courses necessary to achieve admission to a prominent university, as does a child in a more “well-to-do” school district. There may be no negative intent toward the child in the poorer district, but nonetheless that child is disadvantaged. The presence of enrichment opportunities for advantaged children versus the absence of enrichment opportunities for disadvantaged children during summer months, even if their educational experience is identical for the rest of the school year, is one important contributor to differences in educational achievement. While these educational examples may not represent in-group favoritism per se, they illustrate how differential opportunity affects outcomes.

Increasingly, social factors are recognized as important determinants of health outcomes. Persons who are the objects of social discrimination experience many consequences of the discrimination, including poorer health. Negative health effects from discrimination can occur through many pathways, including the physiological and behavioral impact of stress, disadvantages from various types of barriers (environmental, educational, economic, etc.), and limited access to healthcare, among others.

None of this is to suggest that people should avoid being helpful to others or never put in a good word for a friend. However, many persons consider themselves non-discriminatory because they don’t intentionally behave in harmful ways to persons outside their usual circles. Being aware of how “differential favoring” contributes to discrimination in a profound way may lead people to place a higher value on the importance of policies or voluntary initiatives aimed at offsetting the negative effects of in-group favoritism.


Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.

… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.




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