Inaccurate group meta-perceptions drive negative out-group attributions in competitive contexts

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Across seven experiments and one survey (n = 4,282), people consistently overestimated out-group negativity towards the collective behaviour of their in-group. This negativity bias in group meta-perception was present across multiple competitive (but not cooperative) intergroup contexts and appears to be yoked to group psychology more generally; we observed negativity bias for estimation of out-group, anonymized-group and even fellow in-group members’ perceptions. Importantly, in the context of US politics, greater inaccuracy was associated with increased belief that the out-group is motivated by purposeful obstructionism. However, an intervention that informed participants of the inaccuracy of their beliefs reduced negative out-group attributions, and was more effective for those whose group meta-perceptions were more inaccurate. In sum, we highlight a pernicious bias in social judgements of how we believe ‘they’ see ‘our’ behaviour, demonstrate how such inaccurate beliefs can exacerbate intergroup conflict and provide an avenue for reducing the negative effects of inaccuracy.

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Fig. 1: Raw data from Experiment 1 by condition and dependent variable.
Fig. 2: Raw data from Experiment 4 by condition and dependent variable.
Fig. 3: Distributions, Pearson correlations and scatterplots for the three GMP ratings and beliefs about out-group obstructionism in Study 5.
Fig. 4: Effect of condition on obstructionism, by accuracy, in Experiment 6.

Data availability

All data that supported the findings of this study are publicly available in CSV format on the Open Science Framework:

Code availability

All analyses reported in this study used the statistical software R (v.3.6.1). All R files are publicly available on the Open Science Framework:


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Work on this project by M.C. was supported by a National Science Foundation Award (no. BCS-1551559). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. We thank members of the Harvard Intergroup Neuroscience Lab, Sidanius Lab and attendees at the 2018 East Coast Doctoral Conference for their helpful comments, Z. Ingbretsen and N. Hunt for help with data collection and I. Zahn and S. Worthington for statistical assistance.

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J.L. and M.C. designed all experiments and wrote the manuscript. J.L. completed data collection and analysis under the supervision of M.C.

Correspondence to Jeffrey Lees or Mina Cikara.

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Lees, J., Cikara, M. Inaccurate group meta-perceptions drive negative out-group attributions in competitive contexts. Nat Hum Behav (2019) doi:10.1038/s41562-019-0766-4

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