Explaining Affinity Bias: Preferring People Like Us

Explaining Affinity Bias: Preferring People Like Us

by Felicity Menzies

Ingroup bias is our tendency to favour our own social group (ingroup) more than groups of which we are not a member (outgroups).

Similarity attraction

Attraction is influenced by whether we perceive a person as an ingroup or outgroup member. Studies show that, in general, people extend greater trust, positive regard, cooperation, and empathy to ingroup members compared with outgroup members. Our preference for people like us has important social ramifications.

Social distance

People seek out others who are like themselves. We cluster in groups with people like us to enjoy the affection and positive attention of fellow ingroup members. Their similarity and attraction to us reaffirm our identity and boost our self-esteem.

But a preference for the company of people similar to ourselves creates psychological and physical distance between social groups. A look around most university campuses or workplaces will reaffirm this: from the day they step on campus or into the office, new students or employees seek out and form friendships with people from their own ethnic group. This tendency is largely automatic and unconscious.


Studies show that we attribute the successes of ingroup members to positive character traits rather than to external causes. In contrast, we attribute failures of ingroup members to situational causes rather than to character traits. Your boyfriend lost his job because of the economic downturn, not because he was incompetent.

For outgroup members, on the other hand, causal attributions are less favourable. When outsiders experience success, we are more likely to attribute it to luck or to situational causes rather than to any positive character traits. The interstate sales team achieved higher sales figures for the month compared with our team because economic conditions were more favourable in their region, not because they are more effective salespeople than our team. Similarly, we are more likely to attribute the failures of outgroup members to innate character flaws rather than to external causes.

Biased attributions can perpetuate negative stereotypes. When an outgroup member behaves in accordance with a negative stereotype, we attribute that behaviour to the stereotypical characteristic they share with their group members, but we attribute positive behaviour to external causes. This preserves the integrity of negative stereotypes.

The tendency for biased attributions is more pronounced in individuals who are prejudiced, and where there is a history of intergroup conflict or strong negative stereotypes.  There is evidence that members of minority groups are less biased when making attributions.

There are also cross-cultural differences in attribution bias. Collectivist cultures are less likely than Individualist cultures to label negative outgroup behaviour as a character flaw. This is possibly because Collectivist cultures place less emphasis on individual attributes compared with Individualist cultures, when defining a person’s identity.

Prejudice & Discrimination

Ingroup bias is linked to a tendency to withhold praise or rewards from outgroup members. Preference for the ingroup also manifests as swifter condemnation of any outgroup behaviours that breach social codes, and conversely, as greater tolerance of ingroup deviance.

Hostility and conflict

Intergroup threat occurs when one group’s well-being is challenged by another group’s actions, beliefs, or characteristics. This may involve competition over scarce resources, or symbolic threats to a group’s worldview or cultural values. Under these conditions, ingroup bias might manifest as negative emotions towards outgroup members (for example, hostility, anger, resentment). Strong emotions could then prompt aggressive and violent behaviours towards the outgroup.

In the workplace, we are often faced with the unconscious bias of well-intentioned individuals, rather than with the behaviours of blatantly prejudiced extremists. Yet even mild forms of ingroup bias threaten integration and harmonious intergroup relations at work.


When intergroup bias occurs across cultures or ethnic groups, it can lead to ethnocentrism—the belief in the superiority of one’s own group. Ethnocentrism is often accompanied by negative feelings, such as fear, hatred, or disgust. In its extreme form, ethnocentrism can lead to terrorism, ethnic cleansing, or genocide.

Explaining ingroup bias

What is so striking about ingroup bias is that it can occur when there is no real difference between two groups, no competitive struggle over scarce resources, nor any threat to the ingroup’s survival.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, in a series of famous experiments, Henri Tajfel demonstrated that even an arbitrary allocation of people (for example, by the toss of a coin) to different groups caused ‘us and them’ distinctions and triggered ingroup bias. Because ingroup bias can occur in the absence of competition or threat, Tajfel theorises that it results from a universal human motivation to maintain a high regard for the self. Group membership is an important source of one’s self-esteem; we can boost our self-esteem by associating with high-status groups, by distancing ourselves from low-status groups, and by boosting the relative status of our ingroup compared with outgroups.

Tajfel’s theory is supported by a large number of studies. Research shows that when self-esteem is threatened, the tendency for prejudice increases. Also, when individuals who have suffered a loss of self-esteem (for example, after receiving a poor grade on an exam) are later given an opportunity to express prejudice towards an outgroup member, their self-esteem rebounds.

Ingroup bias has been mapped to mental processes. Brain-imaging studies show that when subjects are shown faces of out group members, this activates the amygdala, the brain’s fear centre.

Ingroup bias across cultures

While ingroup bias has been demonstrated across cultures, studies report greater ingroup bias in Collectivist cultures than in Individualist societies. Members of Collectivist cultures are more likely to define themselves in terms of their group memberships, whereas members of Individualist cultures are more likely to define themselves in terms of their unique individual attributes. Because the self-esteem of Collectivist group members is more closely tied to group membership, they are more motivated than Individualists to enhance the status of their ingroup relative to that of outgroups.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.