Ingrouping is the psychological process of creating a strong social identity around a particular group we belong to and feeling morally superior to those who don’t share our identity. Common examples of ingroup identities include “Democrat,” “Republican,” “abolitionist,” and “pragmatist.”
Of course, not everyone who attaches such labels to themselves is ingrouping; ingrouping occurs when we relate to those labels, or identities, in a way that causes us to feel morally superior to others.
For example, during the height of the pandemic, there was an ongoing argument—oftentimes heated—between those who were opposed to vaccines and those who supported vaccines. It became impossible for people in different camps to carry on a discussion. Many people felt that their position made them morally (and intellectually) superior to others and were extremely reactive when the other perspective was brought up.
A lot of infighting is caused by advocates who have created an ingroup around their particular beliefs or their approach to advocating.
Why we ingroup
People ingroup for a variety of reasons. One key reason is that it helps them feel safe. For example, as advocates, we may create a strong social identity (“anti-racist,” “feminist,” “vegan,” etc.) in order to feel more securely anchored in our beliefs, since the dominant culture constantly pressures us to conform to the norm. Consider how, even though veganism is becoming increasingly popular in many countries, most people still eat animals and many media representations of vegans are negative. So vegans might cling tightly to their social identity, feeling safer in the knowledge that they belong to a group and are not alone in their beliefs.
We may also create an ingroup as a way to feel superior to others. Perhaps, for example, we have low self-esteem, and by comparing ourselves to people we think of as less moral, courageous, or enlightened, we prop ourselves up. (You may be thinking that as an advocate for a just cause, you are superior to those who don’t share your values. It’s important to appreciate that whenever we strongly identify with a particular group, regardless of the values of that group, we tend to perceive those who don’t share our identity as inferior, which makes us more likely to act nonrelationally toward them.)
Sometimes, people create an ingroup within their ingroup (a strong social identity within their own group) simply because they have strong beliefs that go against the norm within it. For example, an advocate who holds more radical views may create an ingroup within their own movement.
When we identify with a particular ingroup, we’re more likely to seek out and believe information that confirms our existing perspective, a phenomenon referred to as confirmation bias. So we tend to seek out information that confirms our belief that we’re superior (and right) and that those who disagree with us are inferior (and wrong).
Ingrouping causes us to be less concerned with truth or accuracy than with confirming what we want to be true. And the more extreme our views are on a particular spectrum, the more likely we are to be affected by confirmation bias.
For example, people who strongly identify as conservative and tend to be farther to the right of the political spectrum are likely to feel morally superior to those they consider progressive. They tend to seek out information that confirms this perspective and to be less concerned with the accuracy of the information than they are with its confirming content. The same holds true for those who strongly identify as progressive and tend to be farther to the left of the spectrum.
Ingrouping can also cause us to look for scapegoats, people to blame for our frustration and other distressing emotions. These scapegoats can be those outside our movement, who are contributing to the injustice we’re trying to end, or other advocates within our movement.
Of course, some people are blameworthy. However, ingrouping causes us to seek people to hold responsible for our distress even when they aren’t blameworthy, or to exaggerate the level of blame they deserve.
For example, a vegan who feels guilty for not doing enough to end carnism may attack another vegan who they feel is a “bad advocate.” Or an environmentalist might perceive an individual who’s driving a gas-guzzling car as contributing far more to the problem of climate change than they actually are.