By Alex Fradera
Are we more likely to remember the good or the bad done by people on our team? In general, we favour our own group over outsiders, classically demonstrated by Henri Tajfel’s “minimal group” experiments, in which sorting people into groups by something as arbitrary as a coin toss resulted in higher positive ratings of traits of in-group members, and more negativity towards out-group members. You might expect, then, that we’re disposed to remember our colleagues’ good behavior. But new research in Cognition shows us that the opposite is true.
Stefanie Hechler and her colleagues from the University of Jena began by asking 132 students to complete a perception task that pretended to sort them into two groups – “figure-perceivers” or “ground-perceivers” – an arbitrary distinction that meant little in the real world but gave them a team colour to identify with. Participants then viewed 36 photos each showing a person’s face against a background of either their team colour or the rival colour, revealing which individuals were in-group members. Each photo came with a character description, one third being neutral, one third showing how cooperative they were, and a third showing uncooperativeness, such as: “KP is a gas station attendant. He fleeces inattentive drivers of their change.”
During this task, participants thought their job was simply to rate the likability of each individual. However, shortly after viewing the photos, participants were given a surprise memory test where they had to distinguish previously seen faces from new ones, and judge whether they thought the face was associated with good, bad or neutral behaviour – guessing when necessary.
Faces of cooperative and uncooperative individuals alike were better remembered than neutral ones, and their behaviour was less likely to be confused than for neutral individuals, who clearly made less of an impression. In the out-group, correctly identifying the behaviour of nice and nasty individuals stood at similarly high rates. But within the in-group, the individuals who stuck most in mind were the miscreants, those whose behaviour was uncooperative and harmful to others. When it comes to your team, what really sticks in the mind is infamy.
Reflecting on this finding we can see it make sense: unless we’ve been very unlucky in the past, we expect that the people around us will cooperate and go along with social norms, and any behaviour that violates our expectations is generally better remembered. And to ignore this has a great cost: in-group members tend to be the people we mix with, rely upon, and let our guard down around. An untrustworthy in-group member is like a broken stair in your building: you need to keep that fact in mind, or you’re going to sprain your ankle – or worse. Meanwhile, it’s not so important to have the specifics of who in the out-group is bad because you’re not planning to be vulnerable to them anyway.
But this story has a further twist. Using data modeling that allowed them to distinguish when participants were guessing as opposed to making confident identifications, the researchers found that when participants were guessing about at an out-group member’s character, they were as likely to see them as uncooperative as cooperative. However, guesses about in-group members showed a positivity bias: for instance, participants were more likely to guess that a neutral in-group member was cooperative than uncooperative. Paradoxically, we have a general sense our team is more cooperative, even though we recall proportionately more instances of specific bad behaviour by group members.
Eating your cake and still having it is an impressive feat, but on the strength of this evidence, our minds can pull it off. Recording high-resolution images of risky in-group members, but still viewing the group as a whole in a flattering soft-focus, we keep ourselves feeling safe and feeling good.
Committing an uncooperative act in a work or social group is high risk precisely because once detected, it flips us from one category to the other, from presumed innocent to certainly guilty. Of course, as an in-group member, we can always hope that our particular sin is forgotten, and we can quietly migrate back to a state where our colleagues assume the best of us.