Friend or Foe: Ingroup versus Outgroup

We tend to trust, influence, support, and are more flexible with people in our in-groups. We empathize more with, have more compassion for, and want good things to happen to people in our in-groups. In fact, since we see them as “like us”, we want for them, the same things we want for ourselves. However, we tend to patronize, harm, pity, or ignore people in our outgroups. In short, we don’t care about them so we do not take care of people in our group.

Have you ever thought about why we are instantly attracted to some people, and yet are apprehensive of others?  Logically we may be thinking that that is not fair nor does it make sense to make such snap judgments of people, especially if this is a first-time encounter or in our past.  However, if we understand that everything our brain does is to keep us safe and comfortable, then it makes a lot more sense.

trust_me_1600_clr_7204.pngTo simplify a very complex brain calculating formula, let’s just focus on two subconscious considerations at work in every moment, warmth, and competence (Cuddy and Fiske). The brain first decides emotionally if we are feeling warmth (friendliness, kindness, respect, or trust) in the encounter.

What the brain is trying to discern is, “Is this person, place, or situation safe; do they intend to harm me?”

If we feel any fear, then the offending stimuli (person, place, situation) is automatically flagged (so to speak) and the person or incident is put in the outgroup to be watched more carefully.  When we don’t trust people, they are automatically in our outgroup where information about them can be scrutinized more highly.  This outgroup processing is even performed in a different part of the brain.  However, if we’re feeling safe, warm, and fuzzy, we get one thumb up for the warmth question, but, the person is still in a holding pattern.

bully_picking_fight_800_clr_11656.pngWe need two thumbs up to get into the in-group. Even more importantly, the brain wants to know if the person is capable of harming us.

So, the brain asks the second question, “Is this person competent or capable of harming me?

We like to be around people who are credible and reliable. For, while we may feel a person might not like us, we still may not be sufficiently worried if they have no power to harm us. This harm can be perceived as physical harm, emotional harm, or even social harm (competition, unfairness, or microaggressions).  If we get a ‘no’ on the second question, the person is placed in the outgroup. The brain has done a lot of calculating based on our past beliefs, experiences, thoughts, and actions to come to its conclusion. Sometimes we are right, but many times we are wrong and base our expectations solely on erroneous stereotypes.  But when we are right, magic happens. We make connections that enhance our emotional and social well-being. We become part of a tribe. We relax and feel safe. Life is good


If we get two thumbs up on warmth and competence, then our brains are in the reward state and tend to approach the stimuli and welcome them into our ingroup.

We tend to make mistakes sometimes because our brain uses all of our learned. imagined, or experienced information to make predictions about the future. Even when coded properly, people change.  If the stimuli are familiar and we’ve had a positive interaction in the past, we mark the incoming stimuli as safe and tend to approach it. If we’ve had a bad experience in the past, it makes sense to be cautious, so our brain sends a warning message to the amygdala to be careful. Depending on the magnitude of the fear or threat, we may automatically trigger a freeze, fight, or flight state. In these instances, we are more apprehensive and very unlikely to approach.

In summary, the brain is powerful, but it needs our conscious help. The more time you spend to get to know people better one on one, the less likely you will be blinded by stereotypes and misinformation.  You will enjoy a greater sense of belonging and unity and expand your horizons. More and more people will be in your in-group and you will have a lot less fear and stress.

Barbara Talley
Educator, Facilitator, Keynote Speaker
Appreciative Inquiry Interventions
Strengths-based Leadership
Generative Leadership
Heartmath Certified Instructor
Brain-based Conversations Coach


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