Humans reliably divide the world into us and them. On one hand, we reap numerous material and psychological benefits from being able to identify and cooperate with fellow in-group members. On the other hand, group life produces pressure to conform within groups and intractable conflict between groups. Intergroup conflict has been described as one of the greatest problems facing the world today: by some counts, over 200 million people have been killed in acts of genocide, war, and other forms of group conflict over the last century.

How do we reconcile these statistics with rapidly accumulating evidence indicating that people are fundamentally averse to harming one another?

The way we see it, intergroup dynamics are a critical boundary condition on our most cherished theories of morality and justice and associated psychological and neural processes (see Cikara & Van Bavel, 2014 for review). For example, we have documented that acting as part of a competitive group can reduce the salience of one’s moral standards (as indexed by decreased medial prefrontal cortex activity in response to descriptions of one’s own immoral behavior) and, in turn, enable out-group harm (Cikara, Jenkins, Dufour, & Saxe, 2014). Below we outline the specific areas of research that we are actively pursuing in the lab now.

intergroup Empathy, Schadenfreude, AND HARM

Our primary line of research explores the role of empathic and counter-empathic responses in intergroup interactions. Despite its early origins and adaptive functions, empathy is not a universal response: failures of empathy are particularly likely for socially distant targets, such as members of different social or cultural groups—what we term the intergroup empathy bias (Cikara, Bruneau, & Saxe, 2011). When groups are threatening, people may even experience pleasure in response to group members’ adversities (Schadenfreude) and displeasure in response to their triumphs (Chang, Krosch, & Cikara, 2016). Across a series of studies, we found that out-groups, who are seen as both competitive and high-status are mostly likely to be denied empathy when they experience misfortunes: not only are “their” goals at odds with “ours,” they also pose a legitimate threat. Furthermore, the pleasure associated with their misfortunes increases perceivers’ motivation to inflict out-group members’ suffering (for a review, see Cikara & Fiske, 2013). We documented this effect among explicitly competitive groups (e.g., Red Sox and Yankees fans; Cikara, Botvinick, & Fiske, 2011) as well as social groups that are merely stereotyped as competitive and high-status (e.g., Jews, Asians, minority professionals; Cikara & Fiske, 2012). Indeed, participants were most willing to subject stereotypically competitive, high-status targets to receive painful electric shocks (Cikara & Fiske, 2011), however, manipulating competition and status-relevant information reduced Schadenfreude responses (Cikara & Fiske, 2012). We have also documented this phenomenon among novel groups in competition (Cikara, Bruneau, Van Bavel, & Saxe, 2014). Comparing the in-group and out-group to unaffiliated targets suggests that intergroup empathy bias is better characterized as out-group antipathy than extraordinary in-group empathy, however providing participants with visual cues of reduced in-group and out-group cohesion (i.e., social network maps) significantly attenuates intergroup empathy bias.

We have recently received NSF funding for a project that builds on this intergroup empathy bias research and proposes a novel framework for the affective, cognitive, and neural processes that give rise to intergroup aggression. According to our model, the capacity for intergroup aggression may have developed, in part, by appropriating basic reinforcement-learning processes and associated neural circuitry in order to overcome harm aversion (see Cikara, 2015 for full description). This project also addresses the possibility that increased harm of out-group members predicts increased identification with the in-group. This interdisciplinary approach addresses a major gap in knowledge regarding the emergence and escalation of intergroup aggression and offers several manipulations to inhibit aggression.

intergroup Bias Interventions

We have designed several other interventions to reduce intergroup bias: one of which was focused on representing group-labeled targets as individuals, the other which was focused on buffering participants against intergroup threat. In one series of studies we found that individuating targets (by including a narrative about them prior to communicating which positive or negative event befell them) attenuated the intergroup empathy bias (Bruneau, Cikara, & Saxe, 2015). Narratives about targets’ mental states were particularly effective, and worked by disrupting the encoding of target group membership (but not other aspects of the scenarios). In another series of studies, we found that priming people with secure attachment also significantly attenuated intergroup bias (Saleem, Prot, Cikara, Anderson, & Lam, 2015). Though we have focused a great deal on interventions promoting empathy, we strive to be specific about the contexts in which it should help relative to when theory predicts it is likely to backfire or promote the status quo (Zaki & Cikara, 2015).

As an alternative to interventions that focus participants on group related cognitions and emotions, we have recently launched two lines of research that leverage group-irrelevant psychological processes to reduce intergroup bias. For example, we found that individuals’ propensity to believe others posses a good true self generalized to threatening out-group members (i.e., Arab immigrants) and that priming people with that judgment significantly reduced intergroup bias in attitudes, evaluations, and donation behavior (DeFreitas & Cikara, under review; DeFreitas, Cikara, Grossman, & Schlegel, 2017). In another line of research, we found that episodic simulation (i.e., the vivid simulation of the sensory properties of a scene) eliminated intergroup bias in helping behavior (Gaesser, Shimura, & Cikara, under review). This is an exciting avenue for intervention research because it has the benefit of avoiding potential backlash effects that have been documented in the perspective-taking literature. However, we've found that interventions that work to increase prosocial behavior among individuals--i.e., time pressure manipulations--leave intergroup bias in tact (Everett, Ingbretsen, Cushman, & Cikara, 2017).

In a third arm of intervention research sponsored by an NSF CAREER award, we leverage choice architecture and context-dependence to manipulate social evaluation and choice. Many of society's most significant social decisions are made over sets of individuals: for example, evaluating a collection of job candidates when making a hiring decision. Rational theories of choice dictate that decision makers' preferences between any two options should remain the same irrespective of the number or quality of other options. And yet, people's preferences for each option in a choice set shift in predictable ways as function of the available alternatives. These violations are well documented in consumer behavior contexts: for example, the decoy effect, in which introducing a third inferior product changes consumers' preferences for two original products. Our research shifts the target of inquiry from products to people, and aims to harness insights from computational models of decision-making to examine whether choice set construction can be used to attenuate discrimination in consequential social decisions. In one series of studies we found that people exhibit transitivity violations in hiring scenarios and past-three way U.S. Congressional elections. Moreover, we found that divisive normalization best captured these violations quantitatively (Chang, Gershman, & Cikara, under review). In another series of studies employing social decoys, we found that participants had systematically different preferences for the exact same candidate as a function of the other candidates in the choice set and the salience of the candidate attributes under consideration (Chang & Cikara, under review). These experiments highlight a novel approach to increasing opportunity and access to marginalized social groups. Whereas previous bias reduction strategies have prioritized changing perceivers’ stereotypes and implicit prejudices (which are resistant to long-term change, and may backfire), our approach seeks to debias the decision-making process itself.

How we figure out who is "US" VS. "THEM" 

Previous fMRI studies of social categorization have primarily examined categorization across specific group boundaries (e.g., race). The broad circuitry recruited during social categorization—associated with processes ranging from representing targets’ faces to perceivers’ mentalizing—reflects in part the fact that we do not just sort people into categories (e.g., black/white), we sort them into in-groups and out-groups (i.e., mine/not mine), which are egocentrically defined. However, which category is salient—race, gender, profession—is highly context dependent. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that the human capacity for group affiliation is a byproduct of adaptations that evolved for detecting more general coalitions. These theories suggest that humans possess a common neural code for the concepts ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group,’ regardless of the category by which group boundaries are instantiated. In one experiment, we used multivoxel pattern analysis to identify the neural substrates of generalized group concept representations. We trained a classifier to encode how people represented the most basic instantiation of a specific social group (i.e., arbitrary teams created in the lab with no history or associated stereotypes) and tested how well the neural data decoded membership along an objectively orthogonal, real-world category (i.e., political parties). The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex/middle cingulate cortex and anterior insula were associated with representing groups across multiple social categories. Moreover, classification accuracy across categories was driven predominantly by the correct categorization of in-group targets, consistent with theories indicating in-group preference is more central than out-group derogation to group perception and cognition (Cikara, Van Bavel, Ingbretsen & Lau, 2017). In a follow up experiment we used repetition suppression to examine the neural circuitry underlying the process of categorizing in-group and out-group members across multiple social categories. We found that frontoparietal control network exhibited repetition suppression in response to ‘identical in-group’ (Democrat-Democrat or Eagles-Eagles) and ‘different in-group’ (Eagles-Democrat or DemocratEagles) trials relative to ‘out-group/in-group trials’ (Republican-Democrat or Rattler-Eagles; Lau & Cikara, 2017).

Given that social categorization is such a flexible and dynamic process, one open area of inquiry is how people accumulate group structure information from their environments (especially in the absence of overt cues to peers’ group membership). In ongoing work, we adopt a computational model of latent structure learning to move beyond explicit category labels and mere similarity as the sole inputs to social group representations. Our results suggest that people integrate information about how agents in the environment relate to one another in addition to oneself to infer a posterior distribution over possible latent social groupings (Lau, Pouncy, Gershman, & Cikara, under review). 

These categorizations matter for the most basic of affective judgments. We find, for example, that in both explicit and implicit paradigms, participants judged in-group targets’ happy and fearful expressions as more positive than out-group targets’ (Lazerus, et al., 2016). We also found that people generated more extreme (and therefore less accurate) affective forecasts for targets when those target’s were labeled with their group membership (Lau, Morewedge, & Cikara, 2016). These findings, in turn, speak to how distortions in judgments of out-group emotions may feed into the escalation of intergroup conflict.