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Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Copy the In-group: Group Membership Trumps Perceived Reliability, Warmth, and Competence in a Social-Learning Task

Montrey, M., & Shultz, T. R. (2022). 
Psychological Science, 33(1), 165–174. 


Surprisingly little is known about how social groups influence social learning. Although several studies have shown that people prefer to copy in-group members, these studies have failed to resolve whether group membership genuinely affects who is copied or whether group membership merely correlates with other known factors, such as similarity and familiarity. Using the minimal-group paradigm, we disentangled these effects in an online social-learning game. In a sample of 540 adults, we found a robust in-group-copying bias that (a) was bolstered by a preference for observing in-group members; (b) overrode perceived reliability, warmth, and competence; (c) grew stronger when social information was scarce; and (d) even caused cultural divergence between intermixed groups. These results suggest that people genuinely employ a copy-the-in-group social-learning strategy, which could help explain how inefficient behaviors spread through social learning and how humans maintain the cultural diversity needed for cumulative cultural evolution.

From the Discussion

In fact, if people are predisposed to copy in-group members, perhaps even when their perceived competence is low, this could help explain the spread of inefficient or even deleterious behaviors. For example, opposition to vaccination is often disseminated through highly clustered and enclosed online communities (Yuan & Crooks, 2018) who use in-group-focused language (Mitra et al., 2016). Likewise, fake news tends to spread among politically aligned individuals (Grinberg et al., 2019), and the most effective puppet accounts prefer to portray themselves as in-group members rather than as knowledgeable experts (Xia et al., 2019). Our research also sheds light on why social media platforms seem especially prone to spreading misinformation. By offering such fine-grained control over whom users observe, these platforms may spur the creation of homogeneous social networks, in which individuals are more inclined to copy others because they belong to the same social group.