Contradictheory: How 'ingroup favouritism' preys on bass players and politicians


  • Living
  • Wednesday, 08 Nov 2017

BN supporters fly their party flag while crossing PKR lines on voting day at Permatang Pauh. Photo: fotoBERNAMA (2015)

Someone said, “Talented guys play guitar and drums. Crappy guitar players wind up on bass.” As a guy who’s learning to play bass guitar, this stung. So I fired up a video of Paul McCartney playing Silly Love Songs – live. He is not a crappy guitar player.

It doesn’t matter that regardless, I’m still a crappy guitar player – bass or otherwise. The point is, the bassist for the greatest rock band ever is pretty talented, so that someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

If you really think about it, that doesn’t make sense anyway. But it’s a demonstration of something called “ingroup favouritism”, and everybody’s guilty of it at some point.

The formal study of how folks respond to being part of an ingroup – they identify as belonging “in” a group – began decades ago. In a seminal experiment by Henri Tajfel, students were made to take a test, then assigned to two groups. What they weren’t told was , they were in fact assigned at random.

They were informed they would decide how much money people in the experiment would get. They had to choose from a list, each student giving one amount to one person at random and another amount to a different person also at random.

What the results showed was, when two random people were from the same group, they would try to be fair and give both the same amount. But if one was from their group and the second from the other group, they would give the subject in their group more money.

Thus the idea of “ingroup favouritism” was born. This is a root of explanation of why Americans voted for Donald Trump, why “anti-vaxxers” are so hard to turn, and why my friend (a Liverpool fan) can never bring himself to openly criticise Luis Suarez’s dietary preference for human shoulders and ears.

The bias is remarkable in its breadth and scope. People rate their ingroups as having more constructive characteristics, and remember more positive than negative details about ingroups. They are also more critical of outgroups, and believe their ingroups are less prejudiced. So not only is your group better than them, it's also fairer!

I think every politician deep down realises they need a good “wedge issue” to get voters to their ingroup. Over the last five years, there's been several examples. They may have not have started as political issues, but they have gradually grown to fit that purpose.

The ones that come to mind the most are religion and corruption – those fighting crookedness against those allowing fraud and deceit to happen. These are important issues that should be discussed and debated. But how much of it is parroting the party line versus original thought?

Those who remember my 2012 column (prior to GE13 in 2013) know that I advocate voting for the person, not the party. My argument is that a good MP will work for everyone whatever their affiliation. You need to know when to toe the party line and when to make an exception.

A politician who is wholehearted loyal to a party may be more likely to serve the bias of their party. This is not to say that they truly believe in it, but they do so unaware of their deep-rooted prejudice. I say, look for candidates who are less susceptible to this phenomenon.

One indicator is that their sense of self-esteem is strongly tied to their group’s. There's something called the Collective Self-Esteem Scale that uses statements like “I'm a worthy member of the groups I belong to” and “Others respect the groups I belong to” to measure how conflated the sense of the group is with self-identity.

Those that score highly on this scale are more likely to display ingroup favouritism.

Another indicator is one’s preference for Authoritarianism– a preference for simple, traditional values at the expense of complex, novel ones. This feeds easily into the thinking “my group good, other groups bad”. Finally, a preference to connect with others different from you and understand them obviously means they are less likely to exhibit ingroup favouritism.

So, consider politicos whose sense of self comes not from the party they represent but their own ideas. Those who understand nuance and have shown they are willing to reach across the aisle to find solutions.

The downside is that candidates like these are probably divisive within their own group. Besides, one study showed that people are more attracted to individuals who demonstrate strong ingroup favouritism over egalitarian sentiments.

The truth is, voters like politician who identify strongly with their party values. However, the right person you want is someone who can and will speak their own mind, and lead their group in the right direction rather than lag and follow in its wake.

Ironically, the bass player is the one guy in a band who needs to always toe the line. He must lock-in with the drummer and not overshadow the lead guitarist or singer. But a good bassist also knows they can use their individuality to be the core of their band and make everyone else look good.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself.


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