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Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Ingroup-outgroup Bias in the Origins Debate: Part Two

This is a guest-post by Marlowe C. Embree, and is the fourth installment in his series on “The social psychology of the origins debate”. Marlowe teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin.

In the previous article, the basics of the social psychology of ingroups and outgroups was covered. In this follow-up, we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at some of the reasons why social groups sometimes fail to understand or empathize with one another.

Ingroup Bias and Outgroup Bias: Two Separate Phenomena
The work of contemporary social psychologists like Brewer and Stephan suggest important cautions about how we view these effects. They remind us that ingroup bias and outgroup bias are two separate phenomena, not mere flip sides of the same coin. While these two processes often operate in tandem, they do not always do so: it is possible to identify strongly with a certain group, to draw meaning from my membership in that group and to see it as a central element of my self-definition, without disparaging those in other groups and without believing that all others should be “just like me” at the risk of second-class citizenship or dehumanized status. In some cases, I can affirm who I am while simultaneously affirming the value of those who are unlike me (“everybody’s beautiful in their own way”). In their research, they examine the questions, “Under what conditions will ingroup preference lead to negative attitudes about those who are different?”

Polarization Factors
At least three factors may be responsible for the tendency to polarize the social world (like me = good, unlike me = bad) or to view outgroup members prejudicially or unfavorably. These factors are described as 1) realistic threat 2) symbolic threat and 3) ingroup anxiety. Factors two and three seem pertinent to the origins debate, while the first is likely less relevant. Realistic threat describes a social interaction where the outgroup is competing with me and my group for scarce resources. While this element may underlie many geopolitical conflicts (it is a likely cause of many wars), it seems rather tangential in importance to the origins debate (unless one views academic respectability and cultural influence as “scarce resources” of this type).

Polarization Factors Relevant to the Origins Debate
Both symbolic threat and intergroup anxiety seem pertinent to the origins discussion. First, the outgroup can be a source of symbolic threat in that the very existence of their different ways and ideas challenge the validity and legitimacy of my own. One common response to symbolic threat is an attempt to delegitimize opposing ideas (through caricature or thinly veiled sarcasm, for instance) or to drive them underground in some fashion; this seems to closely describe the actual conduct of the origins debate on both sides of the divide.

Second, intergroup anxiety stems from the fear that I will be unable to handle direct contact or interaction with outgroup members: that I will not be able to “hold my own” (intellectually, emotionally, or otherwise), that my inadequacies will be publicly revealed, and so forth. This too seems relevant to the contemporary origins debate, as neither side seems readily willing to acknowledge gaps, flaws, or problems in their ideas. (Indeed, one wonders how many social conflicts would go away if we would all just memorize the phrase, “There is much I don’t know, and I have a great deal to learn from you”?)

Finally, these researchers intriguingly find that ingroup members who are most likely to show these effects are those who feel marginalized by their own group or who may feel as if they don’t quite fit even within their own circles. Such people may be most eager to demonstrate to themselves and others that “I really am one of you”. I can’t help wondering, by extension, if evolutionary creationists (though often seeing themselves as a bridge between the extremists) might sometimes fall prey to these tendencies. It can be wearing to have to try to prove to mainstream evolutionists our scientific credentials, while also defending our theological credentials to our co-religionists!

Questions for discussion
1. What are your existing prejudices with respect to the origins debate? It’s easy to find extreme examples of prejudicial statements by extremists on both sides of this debate, and to give oneself a clean bill of health on the grounds that “I’m not like that”. But, for most of us, prejudice comes in milder forms - so-called “implicit prejudice” that lurks in the subconscious mind. It’s hard to ferret these out, of course, yet essential to try. Are you holding to your remaining prejudices in the same way that an alcoholic justifies his drinking - “I can stop any time I want to”?

2. What steps might be helpful to reduce your own prejudice quotient? For some, biting your tongue before you speak, or gluing your fingers together before you email, might be a useful beginning. For others, meaningful (non-combative) dialogue with someone with whom you disagree might be a good start. Those of you who disagree violently with me are free to pick me as a dialogue partner. Post away!

Copyright © 2008 - Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. - All rights reserved


AMW said...

Realistic threat describes a social interaction where the outgroup is competing with me and my group for scarce resources. While this element may underlie many geopolitical conflicts (it is a likely cause of many wars), it seems rather tangential in importance to the origins debate (unless one views academic respectability and cultural influence as “scarce resources” of this type).

Whether they are truly a threat to each other or not, both camps speak of each other as a realistic threat. To the evolutionists, creationists are trying to undermine science and return us to the Dark Ages. To the creationists, the evolutionists are trying to kill our belief in God and remove all moral restraints from human behavior.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Well, at least no one is trying to do both at the same time, to my knowledge. That's some relief.

Good point, though... I missed that, having thought of "threat" too literally.

Cliff Martin said...

I do not perceive Creationists (YEC) to be a threat to me, or the integrity of my convictions. But I am certainly viewed by them as a threat to theirs.

However, I do hold some strong biases against those who rigidly defend YEC.
1) I believe many are unwilling to examine the evidence with an open mind.
2) I believe their position is seriously undermining the legitimacy of Christianity in our culture
3) I believe that among the "scientist" leaders of the YEC movement, there is blatant dishonesty.
I suppose these are polarizing prejudices.

Allan Harvey said...

On another list, just yesterday, I posted what in part amounts to an exploration of my "bias" against those who identify with "Intelligent Design". The post is

To the extent I can self-analyze, I think my feelings mostly fall into the "realistic threat" category, where the threat is not to me personally but to something I care about, namely the health of the Body of Christ.

As implied in that posting, one hope for reducing polarization lies in ID advocates who reject the extremes of the "ID movement" and in people like me being willing to dialogue with such possible bridge-builders.

Kyle said...

I understand the point of trying to identify our own prejudices, b/c that will allow us to be better dialogue partners; and on that score, I think I'm actually aware of (most of) my prejudices in this area, and they sound much like Cliff's list. But there also seems to be something missing from the questions, and that's some accounting of the kinds of prejudice in other groups we find ourselves in conversation with. I mention this not b/c I want to hit such people over the head with their prejudices, but b/c knowing your audience's proclivities is one of the primary ways of figuring out how to communicate with them. A dialogue can't be just one way. I feel I've more than bent over backwards in examining my own prejudices and tendencies and paying attention to the other's intellectual tendencies when trying to discuss (or, in many cases, not discuss, but I get railroaded into nasty conversations anyway) with my YEC friends, family, and colleagues. As I said before, I've come to the point where I almost think that I'm a permanent member of their outgroup with no ability or option to change my status. And the fact that I now disagree with them on what they think is a supremely important issue is proof enough to them that there is a realistic, not just symbolic, threat.

Steve Martin said...

Re: Speaking for myself and ingroup anxiety, I think this is 1) a negligible factor in the “evolutionist ingroup”, but 2) probably more of an issue for the “evangelical Christian ingroup”. With respect to #1, I know ECs are often accused of “selling out to atheists” so they can have credibility. This is silly. We are well aware that our unswerving acceptance of the resurrection of Christ & assurance of eternal life in Christ completely disqualify us from being part of that particular ingroup no matter what we believe regarding the scientific evidence. On the other side (The orthodox Christian ingroup) there are probably tensions – this group is very, very important to us. Therefore some of those factors probably come into play.

Marlowe: Question. I think this ingroup-outgroup model is useful. However, I can’t help but think that it is a little simplistic. In the real world there are many, many ingroup-outgroup divisions with many of them overlapping. Therefore, I may be part of a couple of “ingroups” with a particular person in some areas (eg. Christian faith, social concerns) but in an “outgroup” in other areas (eg. worldview on interaction between science & faith, political views). I’m assuming this complicates this considerably. Is this true?

Re: AMW’s point .. yes. And EC’s are at least a symbolic threat, and maybe a realistic threat, to both groups that insist one must choose either the E or the C label, but not both. I sympathize with both Cliff and Kyle's comments here.

Allan: That was a great post .. maybe the best reply to Timaeus in the whole thread.

For others, there is a very interesting dialogue (that is refreshingly lacking in vitriol) going on at the ASA listserv. An ID advocate is engaging (mostly EC / TE) ASA list members in a dialogue. Being a somewhat archaic format, the archived listserv can be difficult to follow but it might be worth your time to review:

main post #1, main post #2, and main post #3 and the associated indented comments.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Simplistic? Yes, but look at what they are trying to do: to isolate a single variable (group membership) and look at its impact. In the real world, this variable is confounded by, or interacts with, a host of other variables.

For instance, there is the perceived importance or salience of the group membership. To take an example, I am a Wisconsin resident. I like my state, but I don't view those who live in other states as an "outgroup". I don't consider myself in competition with, say, Minnesota for scarce resources (except perhaps when the Packers are playing the Vikings). The residency is important to me in that I like it here, but it's not going to trigger ingroup-outgroup conflicts.

Similarly, while I like being an academic, I'm not at war with non-academics. While I like watching reruns of MacGyver, I'm not opposed to non-MacGyverites.

So the question becomes, under what specific circumstances will group membership trigger these other effects?

And, as you note, the fact of overlapping group memberships is a major confound. If I am (say) hiring an assistant and I have to choose between a Wisconsinite who hates MacGyver and a Minnesotan who loves MacGyver, what choice will I make? If I work with both of these individuals, will this constellation of group identifications make me a natural "bridge" between the other two people?

Not necessarily, if the memberships are not salient or if they are not important to all three of us.

Finally, there is no inherent conflict between being a Wisconsinite and liking MacGyver, but some people may feel that there is a conflict of sorts between being a Christian theist and being an evolutionist. Even if I don't think so, others whose opinions I value may think so. So there are many layers of complexity here.

Frankly, all ideas can be improved by making them more complex... but wait, this suggests an intergroup conflict between complexifiers and simplifiers...

James said...

As Amartya Sen pointed out, one of the hallmarks of modernity is the way in which loyalties now tend to be divided. One's sense of identity is based on membership in a number of groups whose boundaries overlap in complicated ways. That contrasts with the continuing situation of traditional believers whose ingroups are concentric. In the U.S., for example, Fundamentalists tend not only to accept the same theological credo but to be hostile to modern science, to be intensely nationalistic, and politically conservative. They also tend to practice endogamy, either marrying in their own group or insisting spouses convert. The difference between such groups and other Americans is not simply a difference between one group and another, but a difference between one kind of group membership and another. Aside from village atheist types who make a career of their disbelief, nonbelievers and casual Christians simply don't have a unitary identity at all. Or, to put it differently, Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) identity is the marked category. The rest of us are in a residual set wondering why anybody gets so all-fired worked up about biology.

To an outsider, the argument here seems to be more about whether decency requires unitary loyalty to a single ingroup or whether a more relaxed and nuanced sense of identity is OK.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...


While I am hesitant to question the conclusions of someone with the intellectual stature of Amartya Kumar Sen (and I don't claim to be an expert on his writings), I do wonder how much empirical confirmation there is for the idea that a unitary source of identity (versus a collection of lesser uncoordinated identity sources) is something that applies only to religious persons. A half century ago, Eric Hoffer certainly believed that there were many nonreligious or even antireligious persons who also had a unitary source of identity! Further, it seems absurd to me to argue that either approach to the identity question is inherently "better". Both entail some risks. The unitary approach can lead to intolerance, dogmatism, closed-mindedness, and the like (though it's not clear that this always or even usually happens; I think something more than just a unitary source of identity is required for that, namely, a certain personality configuration that predates any specific identity commitments). But, then, the multiplicity strategy can lead to cross-situational inconsistency (which often strikes observers as hypocrisy), shallowness, and role confusion. Take your pick! Also see Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld, for a take on this same polarity. Barber argues - and I tend to agree - that "unitary" types and "multiplicity" types, though superficially at odds, need each other. They are locked into a symbiotic, dialectical relationship with each other. Don't we see the same thing with anti-evolutionary religionists and anti-religious evolutionists? Each needs an enemy to serve as its raison d'etre.

If religion were eliminated from the earth tomorrow, what would Richard Dawkins do with his spare time? Certainly, he would (as Henry Hyde once said) fade back into the obscurity from which he came. (He's a world-class scientist, but that doesn't mean the same as cultural capital. Who knows the names of the world's foremost experts on, say, superstring theory?)

James said...

In pointing to a difference between one kind of membership in an ingroup and another, I was trying to be analytical, not polemical. You don't have to be religious at all to belong to a nested set of identities: members of ideologically or racially based political units are as good or better an example than people in religious denominations. Think Turks or pre-1989 Russians or even Third Republic Frenchmen. Similarly, there are many religious people whose identities are not defined exclusively or even predominately by their faiths. Many Americans, for example, think of religious belief as a private matter that should not be brought into politics, and the law recognizes this principle by giving tax breaks to churches so long as they don't promote political parties overtly.

What Sen is talking about can be exemplified by my own situation. My loyalties are divided in complicated ways between American citizenship, support for a political party, loyalty to my city, commitment to universal human rights, family obligations, membership in my profession, a sense of belonging to a social class, racial feelings, solidarity with a set of friends, preferences for certain styles of art and music, participation in several ritual traditions, and an overt acceptance of some of the philosophical ideas of European civilization. In principle, all of these bases of identity could align or at least not conflict. Alas, that is not the case; and I take it that such complications are quite normal these days. Whether that's a good thing or not is another question, especially for (some) Christians for whom "purity of heart is to will one thing." I can perfectly well appreciate why someone might object to the dispersion of identity that seems to go along with modernity. Isn't this thread about whether one can be a Christian (by your definition) and also recognize an alternate source of authority, i.e. empirical science, even when that authority promotes the truth of propositions you don't like?

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Excellent reply! Much food for thought here. I'll be pondering this during tonight's presidential debate.

I would presume that, for nearly all of us, our (inevitable) immersion in the world of modernity (and postmodernity) does increase our "multiple identities". Yet, hasn't America (at least) also become increasingly polarized or tribalized in recent decades (Red vs. Blue America, culture warriors, etc.)? I think this is what Barber was pointing to when he argued that there is a dialectic relationship going on. We are simultaneously more complex, yet increasingly seeking simplicity (or at least a stable center, a "still point in a turning world"). Or, perhaps, we want simplicity without sacrificing the benefits of complexity. There's the rub.

You quote Kierkegaard, but I suspect that for him, to "will one thing" was an existential act, not an epistemological one. Indeed, he believed (or at least claimed to believe) that "truth is subjectivity". He anticipated postmodernism by several generations, really.

Obviously, no one would post to or lurk about this site who wasn't (in some sense) interested in the question of how religious and scientific (or religion-affirming and science-affirming) identities might be simultaneously possible. A person who rejects one of these domains outright will find little of interest here? (I end with a question mark because I'm not sure.)

The paradox of my own case is that I score very high on measures of cognitive complexity, tolerance for ambiguity, and what not. Yet I have a religious worldview that tends to the all-encompassing (a metanarrative). Is a puzzlement.

My friends often tell me, "Well, Marlowe, you're an evangelical all right, but you're a strange one." I take that as a double compliment, naturally.

Mike Gene said...

I encourage folks to take five minutes and listen to Michael Reiss explain his views about how a teacher might deal with a student who expresses his/her creationism in science class:


Reiss’s arguments are incredibly rational, well-informed, nuanced, and wise. So how did his fellow scientists respond to such reason?

“Reiss, an ordained Church of England minister, has since alleged he was misquoted. Nevertheless, several Royal Society fellows say his religious views make him an inappropriate choice for the post.

'I warned the president of the Royal Society that his [Reiss] was a dangerous appointment a year ago. I did not realise just how dangerous it would turn out to be,' said Kroto, a Royal Society fellow, and winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Roberts, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on gene-splicing, was equally angry. 'I think it is outrageous that this man is suggesting that creationism should be discussed in a science classroom. It is an incredible idea and I am drafting a letter to other Nobel laureates - which would be sent to the Royal Society - to ask that Reiss be made to stand down.'

Zoologist Richard Dawkins, a Royal Society fellow, said: 'A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation - it's a Monty Python sketch.'”

All of these malacious attacks led to the predictable result:

“He was criticised by other scientists - though misquoted as saying creationism should be "taught" in science classes.

The society said some of his comments had been "open to misinterpretation".

This had damaged its reputation.

'Not scientific'

"As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the society, he will step down immediately as director of education - a part-time post he held on secondment," it said in a statement.”


And the irrational knee-jerk reaction has a ripple effect:

“All references to "God" would be removed from the founding charter of the Royal Society under an idea mooted by some of its senior figures, Times Higher Education understands.

The society has three charters, drafted between 1662 and 1669, that set out its aims and that are used today. The 1662 charter refers to fellows' "uprightness of character and piety". The 1669 document requires the society's president and deputies to take an oath "upon the holy Gospels of God" to faithfully execute matters of office.

The suggestion to remove the God references comes amid an ongoing dispute among fellows of the society, the UK's national academy for science, over its stance on religion, and conflicts between religious beliefs and science.”


One would think that when you are dealing with a group that is renowned as the Royal Society, we would find a group that is relatively immune to such irrational behavior. Forcing out Reiss because the pop media’s mischaracterization of his words is perceived to damage the reputation of this club hardly qualifies as rational behavior. So what explains these outbursts of emotion that forced even Dawkins to admit it looked like a witch hunt? Are these the fruits of symbolic threat and ingroup anxiety?

It would seem to me that social scientists would be fascinated by such irrational behavior given that it comes from a group that is supposedly defined by its rational behavior and its high esteem for evidence.

Steve Martin said...

Thanks Mike. I’d seen some discussion of this controversy but had not listened to the interview that instigated it. This is what some members of the Royal Society got all worked up about?? Yikes!

Anyways, as Marlowe mentioned above, the extreme groups “Each needs an enemy to serve as its raison d'etre.” .. this event is showing that in spades as can be seen by the reaction on both sides of the debate.

James & Marlowe: Very interesting thread. Thanks.

Re: “A person who rejects one of these domains outright will find little of interest here?”

Well, they might find it interesting to listen to a conversation between participants that see things quite differently than they do. In fact, I suspect there is a healthy minority of site visitors (mostly silent) that fit that description. That is a good thing from my perspective (that they are interested in listening – they are of course free to participate if they choose).

Carpenter said...

I'm curious Professor Embree. Do you believe in the God of the Bible? Do you consider yourself an Evangelical?

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...


Yes, of course. Given the nature of this site, my understanding is that only those who define themselves as evangelicals and who accept (or at least who are open to) evolutionary theory are invited to be essayists. I very definitely define myself as an evangelical inerrantist.

Carpenter said...

Professor Embree:

Thanks for your reply. As Steve has made plain that he does not subscribe to the 2 Chicago Statements, or at least rejects a portion of them, and assuming you agree with him, how would you describe the "inerrancy" in which you believe?

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

I'll be brief since I think this discussion would be better off-line. But a short reply seems appropriate.

I am not a professional theologian, just a rank-and-file Christian believer whom God has called into the academic life. Before reading your question, I didn't know what the Chicago statements said, though I'd heard of them.

My personal view is that the Bible is true in the whole and in the part, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. I believe that the Bible is inerrant in all matters of which it speaks. However, infallibility does not accrue to merely human understandings of what the text means, says, or implies, no matter how sanctioned by history and tradition.

Thus, I do not regard my belief in inerrancy to mandate only one possible point of view on scientific questions. I believe that open-mindedness about such disputed matters is advisable, trusting that God will, as He promised, lead us into all the truth.

I think that belief in inerrancy and belief in evolution are not necessarily or inherently incompatible.

If you would like to carry this further, please email me privately.