Graeme Newell

Out-Group Homogeneity Bias

I was traveling in Istanbul and jumped into a cab for a short trip across town. The driver gave me a toothy smile, then asked where I was from. When I told him I lived in the US, his expression suddenly turned quite fearful. For some reason, he then let loose a diatribe, vehemently telling me he abhorred violence and did not allow guns in his cab. Telling him I detested guns had no effect on him.

I have found this stereotype of the gun-obsessed, super-violent American to be a worldwide perception. It seems that no matter where I travel on this big planet, I am amazed at the number of people who believe I’m secretly carrying a gun. It’s usually done with a giggle, but I’ve had a disquieting number of complete strangers ask me not to shoot them.

This is out-group homogeneity bias. It’s our brain’s tendency to see our own group as delightfully varied, but to mercilessly stereotype other groups:

All Frenchmen are lazy.
All Germans are humorless.
All Americans are violent.

Why is our brain so quick to stereotype? It’s because stereotyping and categorizing helped assure our survival back in evolutionary times. The truth is that 99% of the time, stereotyping works wonderfully:
All fire is hot.
All animals are a potential food source.
All strangers should be approached with caution.

Organizing the world into general categories helped our caveman brain to use fewer calories. This was a powerful evolutionary advantage that helped assure our ancestors could get the maximum thinking while using up the least possible calories. That was often the difference between starvation and survival.

So next time you find yourself stereotyping an out group, gently correct yourself. Remember, your caveman brain has been doing it this way for countless millennia.