Us and Them: Memory Advantages in Perceptually Ambiguous Groups

By Rule, Nicholas O.; Ambady, Nalini et al. | Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, August 2007 | Go to article overview

Us and Them: Memory Advantages in Perceptually Ambiguous Groups


Rule, Nicholas O., Ambady, Nalini, Adams, Reginald B., Jr., Macrae, C. Neil, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review


Ingroup advantages and outgroup deficits in perception and memory are well-established in research on race, gender, and other ostensibly identifiable social categories. The present study extended this research to a social category that is not as perceptually apparent: male sexual orientation. Consistent with hypotheses, an interaction of participant sexual orientation and image sexual orientation revealed an ingroup enhancement and outgroup deficit for memory of faces that participants perceived-both accurately and inaccurately-as belonging to either their ingroup or outgroup in a subsequent task. Additionally, parallel effects were found for the accurate identification of sexual orientation-a finding consistent with previous literature. The present data highlight the importance of social categorization for subsequent memory and suggest that the underlying cognitive machinery responsible for the recognition of groups may be co-opted for other relevant social applications.

We are usually very good at deciding whether someone is of the same race, gender, or age as ourselves. Not all social categories are easy to discern, however. Do the perceptual and cognitive processes underlying social categorization work for ambiguous others just as well as they do for perceptually obvious ingroup and outgroup members? Although this question has, to date, gone largely unaddressed in the social cognition literature, we believe the answer is yes.

It is well known that people show increased memory and attention for those with whom they share a social identity (see Sporer, 2001). Moreover, people also tend to view such ingroup members as more diverse and individuated than those in any given outgroup, regarding the latter as relatively indistinct and homogeneous (Allen & Wilder, 1975; Wilder & Allen, 1974, 1978). Undoubtedly the most highly studied ingroup/outgroup divisions are those that pertain to race. Myriad studies have examined the behavioral manifestations and cognitive effects of the own-race bias and other-race effect with regard to attention and memory (see Meissner & Brigham, 2001, for review and meta-analysis). A particularly well-known example comes from the person-perception literature in social cognition, which examines own-race memory enhancement using a signal-detection paradigm (e.g., Lindsay, Jack, & Christian, 1991). On the whole, these studies have consistently shown that memory and recall for own-race persons is enhanced in both accuracy and reaction time than for other-race persons (see also Bothwell, Brigham, & Malpass, 1989; Sporer, 2001). Is it possible, however, that these effects might apply to groups that are not so perceptually obvious?

The preferred attention and cognitive resources allocated toward one's ingroup are by no means unique to racial groups, despite the plethora of research that has been conducted in that area. Although substantially less studied, similar ingroup effects have also been found for the discrimination of gender (Cross, Cross, & Daly, 1971; Wright & Sladden, 2003). For example, participants who viewed Black and White faces of both genders showed not only the expected own-race bias but a significant own-gender bias in detection accuracy, as well (Slone, Brigham, & Meissner, 2000). Similarly, participants also show ingroup advantages in speed of classifying faces on gender and race (Smith & Zarate, 1990). In addition, ingroup effects based on age have also been demonstrated for youthful (university students), middle-aged, and elderly participants (Rodin, 1987; Wright & Stroud, 2002).

Although classifying individuals by group identity is believed to occur almost immediately upon encountering a person (Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000; Macrae, Milne, & Bodenhausen, 1994), the empirical data that support this finding seem true only of perceptually apparent groups. Of those identities reviewed above for having shown ingroup facilitation and outgroup deficits (race, sex, and age), all possess distinct physical features that distinguish the groups (Brown & Perrett, 1993; Ellis, Deregowski, & Shepherd, 1975; Roberts & Bruce, 1989). …

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