Our Cognitive Bias Toward Novel, Negative Information May Make New Social Groups Seem Less Likeable

People’s biases against the members of other groups are known to arise, at least in part, from self-serving motivational processes that allow us to justify competing for power and resources. Research in Psychological Science suggests that these biases may also have a cognitive basis owing to how we prioritize negative information when encountering new social groups. 

This effect can lead people to overlook the positive attributes they may share with a new social group and focus on distinct negative attributes that differentiate them from the groups they have encountered before, said Johanna Woitzel, a doctoral candidate at the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) Department of Psychology and first author of the study. 

“As out-groups and minorities are often more novel and less familiar to people than in-groups and majorities, the effects we found can serve as a cognitive explanation of why these groups often suffer disadvantages: Because they are more novel and, thus, people focus on their distinct and negative attributes, regardless of many shared positive attributes,” Woitzel said. 

Woitzel and RUB professor Hans Alves examined the phenomenon through a series of five studies in which 2,615 participants evaluated a series of fictional alien species or imagined friend groups. In the first of these studies, 601 participants were introduced to six aliens from each of three different species, meeting a total of eighteen aliens. Participants met all six aliens from each species before moving on to the next; in each group, half of the aliens from each species were described as having a negative attribute (ex. mean or dishonest) and half as having a positive attribute (ex. kind or trustworthy). 

In the negative-distinct condition, species shared the same positive attributes, while their negative attributes differed. Meanwhile, in the positive-distinct condition, species shared negative traits and had unique positive attributes. 

The researchers found that participants rated alien species with distinct negative attributes as less likeable the later they were introduced to them. They also remembered individuals from groups that were introduced later as having more negative attributes than those from earlier groups. Conversely, alien species with distinct positive attributes were rated as more likeable the later they appeared in the lineup. Participants also remembered individuals from later groups as having more positive attributes. 

“People’s impressions of groups they encountered later in a series were more strongly impacted by these groups’ distinct attributes than their impressions of groups they encountered earlier in a series,” Woitzel said. “If, in these paradigms, distinct attributes were negative—as we assume to be true for the real world—more novel groups were disadvantaged.” 

Woitzel and Alves replicated their findings on likeability in a second study of 303 participants. Again, they found that participants recalled more distinct negative or positive attributes the later a species was introduced. 

Next, the researchers explored how these cognitive biases may translate into stereotypes. In this study, 506 participants were asked to select one trait that they thought best described each alien species after being introduced to all 18 individuals. Similar to their previous studies, Woitzel and Alves found that participants were more likely to pick a negative attribute to describe a species the later they were introduced in the negative-distinct condition. And they were more likely to pick a positive attribute for a species the later they were introduced in the positive-distinct condition. 

In their final pair of studies, Woitzel and Alves compared how participants responded to information about a group’s majority or minority status. In the first of these studies, 605 participants were introduced to six aliens from one group and 12 aliens from another group, with half of each group displaying positive attributes and the other half negative attributes. 

As in the previous studies, participants reported perceiving a species as less likeable when they were introduced second in the negative-distinct condition and as more likeable when they were introduced second in the positive-distinct condition. This effect was not influenced by the species being a numerical majority or minority. The researchers also replicated this effect in a second study in which 600 participants rated the likeability of male and female friend groups, which represented gender in-groups and out-groups depending on the participant’s own identity. 

“The order in which people encounter and learn about social groups and their attributes plays an important role in the formation of their attitudes toward them,” Woitzel said. 

In future research, Woitzel said she would like to explore how secondhand knowledge about other social groups may influence people’s perceptions of groups they have never met before, as well as how motivational and cognitive processes interact to shape our social attitudes. 

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Woitzel, J., & Alves, H. (2024). The formation of negative attitudes toward novel groups. Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976241239932  

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