The InGroup Research Proposal

It is well known that people on opposing sides of conflicts often have  divergent ways of construing their social worlds. Where an insurgent sees a martyr, a Western soldier may see a terrorist. Where an environmentalist sees devastation, a mineworker may see economic opportunity. Groups serve the function of bringing like-minded individuals together but also set the stage for bias against outsiders, ranging from subtle derision to deadly violence. In a pluralistic society with innumerable groups and conflicts, it is valuable to identify factors that can foster intergroup understanding or at least minimize the destructive effects of bias.

Against this backdrop, we propose a study that will examine the  influence of different communication settings on a particular form of bias, infrahumanization (Leyens et al., 2000). Specifically, we wish to examine whether computer-mediated communication between members of opposing groups leads to greater evidence of infrahumanization than face-to-face communication. This investigation can provide theoretical insight into our understanding of this subtle-but-serious form of intergroup bias. It will also help to determine the usefulness of CMC as a tool for fruitful intergroup interaction.

Infrahumanization and Communication

Infrahumanization refers to the tendency of group members to reserve the full essence of humanity for members of their ingroup but not the outgroup (Leyens et al., 2007). This is most often studied by using the attribution of emotions to ingroup and outgroup members. Leyens has argued that emotions can be categorized into two types: primary emotions that both human and animals can feel (such as anger, surprise, fear, and disgust) and secondary emotions, which are thought to be experienced only by humans. These include such complex emotions as admiration, fondness, disillusion, contempt, and conceit (Demoulin et al., 2004). A key finding of infrahumanization research is that people tend to attribute secondary emotions more readily to ingroup members than to outgroup members (Leyens et al., 2000). The valence (positivity or negativity) of the emotions, regardless of primary or secondary, had no bearing (Leyens et al., 2000).

Interestingly, Leyens found that the infrahumanization effect was significantly diminished when outgroup members were established as individuals, for example by giving them names (Leyens et al 2001). This suggests that infrahumanization is more likely to occur in a low-context environment where group-level attributes take precedence over nuanced, personal interaction.  Additionally, the degree of infrahumanization relied on the relevance of the outgroup to the ingroup (Cortes et al., 2005).  If members of the outgroup were not perceived as somehow relevant to the fate of the ingroup, the degree of infrahumanization was reduced (Cortes et al., 2005).

While thought to take place on a subconscious level (Gaunt, Leyens & Demoulin, 2002), studies have linked infrahumanization with behavioral effects.  Denying the humanity of outgroup members can have negative effects on social interactions, such as nonintervention in cases of emergency (Leyens et al 2001). Vaes et al. (2003) demonstrated that when secondary emotions were evoked , people tended to approach ingroup members and avoid outgroup members.  The result was discrimination of outgroup members on the basis of expression (or lack thereof) of secondary emotions. In other words, the bias operating below our conscious awareness may still affect our conscious actions toward others.

Because communication is the point of intersection between all groups – and because of what is known about the factors that mediate infrahumanization – it seems especially valuable to study this phenomenon in a communication context.  Specifically, if individualization of outgroup members diminishes infrahumanization, then communications media that are rich in contextual information should provoke less bias in intergroup interactions than context-poor media. To date, such a link has not been studied by infrahumanization researchers despite its appeal as a means of fostering intergroup harmony or, at the least, avoiding unnecessary dischord.

Face-to-face communication and computer mediated communication are different. Whittaker (2003) explains the differences as a function of the “affordances” of various technologies.  For instance,  instant messaging may constrain an individual’s ability to communicate feedback compared to face-to-face communication, even though they share the qualities of being synchronous and bidirectional. Modes that different technologies support are considered one type of affordance (3).  Instant messaging provides only a linguistic mode while face to face communication includes an additional visual mode as well.  Interactivity, another affordance, measures the technology’s feedback speed (4).

Whittaker suggests without some type of feedback a “shared understanding and establishing common ground” is virtually impossible (35).  Unlike most theories of face-to-face interaction that do not attempt to explain the impact of visible behaviors on communication, Whittaker confirmed that factors such as “gaze and gesture” are integral to communicating interpersonal information (36).  As a result, technologies that do not transmit visual information concerning facial expressions “lead to interactions that are more impersonal and likely to end in deadlock” (35).  The underlying assumption is as the number of visual cues increase, so does the quality of the conversation on a personal and deeper level. This perspective dovetails nicely with the notion in infrahumanization research that the amount of interpersonal context may affect the level of bias generated during intergroup interactions. From this theoretical background, we derive the following hypothesis:

H1: Infrahumanization will be more pronounced when group members communicate via computer-mediated technology than when they communicate in a face-to-face setting.


The proposed study will examine the direct interactions of dyads, using mixed pairs composed of members of opposing groups.  Because of the established positive correlation between ingroup-outgroup relevance and strength of identification on infrahumanization, we propose to maximize those factors in our design so as to diminish the possiblity of mitigating infrahumanization through a confounding factor.

First, we will identify two topics of current relevance within our available sample pool, students at a large northeastern university. Participants will be asked to indicate their personal level of interest in those topics and also to indicate the strength and valence of their opinions. This measurement will be the basis of identifying individuals who are high-identifying members of opposing groups. At the time of the experiment, participants will be told they are part of a study on negotiation and that they will have a specified period of time to reach a creative solution concerning their area of disagreement. Each participant will be informed of the other participant’s group membership prior to the beginning of the conversation.

Conversations will take place either face-to-face or using an instant messaging program. Face-to-face conversations will be digitally recorded, and IM conversations will be logged as text.  While the participants in the instant messaging condition will not be permitted to see one another, they will be permitted the use of “emoticons” as a means of expressing emotion. No other nontextual information will be available to participants in the IM condition, but they will otherwise be free to express any information they feel is helpful and relevant. Individuals in the face-to-face condition will be permitted to speak freely, to touch, and to exchange any information they feel is relevant to their task.

When their time has expired, participants will be asked to turn in their solution (if they have one) and will then be given a paper-and-pencil evaluation form. It will ask them to list all of the emotions they felt and expressed during the conversation and all of the emotions their partner felt and expressed. A second measure will contain a matrix of animal-related words, neutral words, and uniquely human words. Participants will be asked to circle all of the words they felt applied to the communication style of their partner. Together, these two measures will evaluate the level of infrahumanization present in the interaction. Finally, participants will be asked to assess, on a seven-point scale, how typical they felt their partner was of their group. This measure will evaluate how individualized the outgroup member became during the course of the interaction, with the expectation that individualization would reduce typicality. While this study does not propose doing so, analysis of the voice and text data and of the solutions generated by the dyads may also prove fruitful.


Infrahumanization has far-reaching implications in the way we interact as a society.  Whether or not we are moving more towards a society that embraces different viewpoints or one that is increasingly polarized depends largely on the biases we display when communicating. With the ubiquity of computer-mediated communication and the increasing globalization of this communication, the way we form biases about “us” and “them” will significantly impact how we perceive, discriminate, and ultimately treat members of opposing groups.


Cortes, B., Demoulin, S., Rodriguez, R., Rodriguez, A., Leyens, J-P. (2005). Infrahumanization or Familiarity? Attribution of Uniquely Human Emotions to the Self, the Ingroup, and the Outgroup. Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 13(2), 243-252.

Demoulin, S., Leyens, J.-P., Paladino, M., Rodriguez-Torres, R., Rodriguez-Perez, A., & Dovidio, J., (2004). Dimensions of ‘uniquely’ and ‘non-uniquely’ human emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 18(1), 71-96

Gaunt, R., Leyens, J.-P., &Demoulin, S. (2002). Intergroup relations and the attribution of emotions: Control over memory for secondary emotions associated with ingroup or outgroup. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology38, 508-514.

Leyens, J-P., Demoulin, S., Vaes, J., Gaunt, R., Paladino, M. (2007). Infra-humanization: The wall of group differences. Social Issues and Policy Review, 1, 139-172.

Leyens, J-P., Rodriguez-Perez, A., Rodriguez-Torres, R., Gaunt, R., Paladino, M-P., Vaes, J., Demoulin, S. (2001). Psychological essentialism and the differential attribution

of uniquely human emotions to ingroups and outgroups. European Journal of Psychology, 31, 395-411.

Vaes, J., Castelli, L., Paladino, M., Leyens, J-P., Giovanazzi, A. (2003). On the Behavioral Consequences of Infrahumanization: The Implicit Role

of Uniquely Human Emotions in Intergroup Relations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(6), 1016-1034.

Whittaker, S. (2003). Theories and methods in mediated communication. In A. C. Graesser, M. A. Gernsbacher, & S. R. Goldman (Eds.), Handbook of discourse processes (pp. 243-286). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.