Ingroup bias: lessons in persuasion from Dr Evil

By Will Hardie

“We’re not so different, you and I…” It’s a classic Hollywood cliché: the arch-villain tries to connect his own character to the hero, who lashes back defiantly: “I’ll never be like you!”.

Why does the villain bother? Beyond the vanity of evil, there’s something devious in the mix. He is appealing to a dynamic that pervades modern marketing communications – not to mention politics: the persuasive power of “ingroup-outgroup bias”.

In short: persuade people that you’re one of them, and they’ll give you influence over them.

Since the early 20th century, sociologists have described and measured the tendency of human beings to favour “people like us” – perceived members of our “ingroup” – and to discriminate against “outgroups”. Xenophobia is an obvious example of the power of negative bias against outgroups, and we see its menacing power when demagogues set out to demonise people who are different from us.

Ingroup-outgroup bias is used and abused daily in mass communications by those with an agenda to seek our approval by positioning themselves as “one of us”. Witness the political candidate courting blue-collar votes by walking the factory floor in a hard hat and overalls; or the billionaire CEO charming a local community in jeans and T-shirt at the town-hall meeting. Who do they think they are fooling with this obvious artifice?

The answer, it turns out, is all of us. The science is clear: humans exhibit ingroup bias even on the subtlest of dimensions: not just race and religion but also gender, facial appearance, sports team, college major, eye colour, clothing, accent, left-handedness… the list goes on. When psychologists pushed it to the extreme, they found that people assigned to “Group A” by the flip of a coin will still discriminate against “Group B” in tasks allowing them to reward or punish others. An explicitly arbitrary label is all it takes to trigger the seductive power of “one of us”.

This is exactly what our super-villain, our try-hard politician and our smarmy CEO are all trying to tell us: “Look! We’re both in Group A!”.

What does this mean for professional communication? This is not a hymn to the dark side of PR. It’s a warning, an antidote and a prescription for the safe dosage.

First up, a lesson for all of us as citizens, consumers and decision makers: be wary of anyone who says or tries to seem like “one of you”. Look for the agenda.

Second, call them out. If people whose opinion matters to you or your organisation are falling under the spell of someone else’s “I’m one-of-you” strategy, set them straight. Shine a light on the artifice. Ingroup bias depends on categorisation, some conscious, some unconscious, but always informed by experience and new information and susceptible to change.

Third, don’t be that super-villain. Don’t be tempted to fake or exaggerate a connection with people. Such attempts are often transparent, precisely because they are more familiar with the “one-of-you” dimension than you. Be authentic and genuine: people have a low threshold for spin and a whiff of Machiavellian strategy will backfire you into the outgroup.

Fourth, follow the universal principle of “show, don’t tell”. Often we have a valid reason to draw attention to some shared interest or something we have in common with others. But bluntly asserting it comes across as self-serving, even if it’s true. Don’t tell the Green lobby that you’re a committed environmentalist. Quietly ride a bike to work. Soon enough they’ll notice.

Because just like in the movies, the Hero is the Hero because he never claims to be.

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This article draws on content from the ISOC courses Presentation Training and Public Speaking (2 days) and Advanced Public Speaking and Presentation Skills (2 days) and on the knowledge base for Media Training.

About the author

Will Hardie is an experimental psychologist and Reuters journalist turned communication advisor and coach to top-level executives and government ministers. Will is a co-founder at ISOC and leads its global media training practice.