The Legacy of European Social Psychology

An online compendium of ideas, schools and people in the field of Social Psychology

Positive-Negative Asymmetry in Social Discrimination

Experimental research has showen that the mere categorization of individuals into arbitrary social groups can be sufficient to elicit ingroup favouritism. According to research by Amélie Mummendey, Sabine Otten and their colleagues, this effect has been qualified by the (positive vs. negative) valence of the to be distributed resources: categorization into minimal, laboratory groups was sufficient to elicit ingroup favouritism in allocations of positive stimuli such as monetary or symbolic rewards, but not in allocations of negative ones (e.g., losses or negatively evaluated tasks). The positive-negative asymmetry in social discrimination is reduced by aggravating conditions such as status differences, which subjectively legitimize the differential treatment of in- and outgroup.

This valence-specific asymmetry in intergroup behaviour is driven by at least three factors:

  1. First, there are valence specific differences in the (perceived) normative appropriateness of social discrimination in the positive and the negative domain. As Tajfel and collaborators already found in their initial work on minimal groups, fairness is the most dominant motive in intergroup allocations. Yet, group membership slightly tempers this striving for fairness such that people slightly favor their own group over other. Yet, if positive outcomes are allocated between groups, ingroup favoritism still implies that both groups receive something positive, the one a it more than the other. However, when allocating negative resources, ingroup favoritism implies active infliction of aversive stimuli to the outgroup, and more so than to the ingroup. Such treatment asks for legitimization, and mere group membership may hardly do that trick.
  2. Second, different cognitive processes might underlie the decisions about the allocation of positive and negative resources. Research in other domains has shown that dealing with negative resources may elicit more systematic and elaborate processing. Such elaborate processing in turn may render differences in the allocation of resources in favour of the ingroup less likely, certainly if mere group membership is the only available argument for unequal distributions.
  3. Finally, the necessity to allocation of negative resources might affect the social categorization. The demand to allocate negative resources might result in a feeling common fate of the in- and outgroup and thereby undermine the initial ingroup-outgroup distinction. This reduced strength of social categorization may then also undermine the ingroup favoritism in case of the allocation of negative compared to positive resources.

Key Readings:

  • Mummendey, A., & Otten, S. (1998). Positive–negative asymmetry in social discrimination. European Review of Social Psychology, 9, 107-143.
  • Mummendey, A., Otten, S., Berger, U., & Kessler, T. (2000). Positive-negative asymmetry in social discrimination: Valence of evaluation and salience of categorization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 1258-1270.