Intergroup Cognition and Emotions Theories


This last weekend I had occasion to visit with relatives, and more specifically my sister-in-law, Melody.  During our conversation I referenced my shoes as zorries.  Melody asked “what are zorries?  I said, matter of factly, “you know, zorries, flip flops, sandals.”  The conversation continued with the rest of the family discussing different phrases used by people in different regions of the states to reference similar things.  For instance, in some parts of Texas turning off a light is closing a light.  This simple anecdote evidences one seemingly innocuous way in which people may differ.  However, as this paper will reveal small differences between the ways people feel, communicate, and do things, can create vast divides in perceptions.

How do people differ and why?  Ironically, differences originate in sociality.  People are primarily social beings, forming ever larger groupings like puddles in a pond, micro to macro.  We have the smaller group rings: family, work, school, play; to the ever larger group rings: political, socioeconomic, religious, cultural, regional, age, sexuality; to the broadest ring: gender.  Each group has specific traditions, expectations, behaviors, norms that give us a sense of what it means to be a member of that group.  Membership to social groups has many benefits, including “acceptance, belonging, and social support, as well as a system of roles, rules, norms, values, and beliefs to guide behavior.  Groups also provide our lives with meaning by boosting our self-esteem, increasing our distinctiveness from others, and making us more certain of the social world and our place within it” (Stephan, Ybarra, & Morrison, 2009, p. 43).

Within social psychology further distinctions are made regarding groups including reference to an ingroup as the group that is immediately salient, i.e., consciously or unconsciously in our thoughts at a particular moment in time.  This point is especially pertinent because we are at all times members of multiple groups.  For instance, I am a wife, mother, student, employee, daughter, Democrat, female, Christian, white, blue-eyed, and I live in southern California.  Each one of these descriptors can be cause for a grouping.  The grouping I identify in a particular circumstance or context is my current ingroup.  The outgroup is anyone not within that particularly identified group.  Simplistically, if geography were made salient perhaps due to a recent dramatic change in weather occurrences nationwide, then southern Californians would be part of my ingroup and anyone not living in southern California would be part of the outgroup.

For the purposes of this paper and to explicate concepts relating to ingroup and outgroup emotional experiences and resulting behaviors, two specific theories are discussed relating to a recent event evidencing prejudice.  Specifically, primary assumptions of intergroup threat theory and intergroup emotions theory are both presented and compared utilizing the context of an integrated prom in Wilcox County, Georgia.

Integrated Prom

Wilcox County, Georgia experienced its first integrated prom this year.  According to numerous news sources, for over 40 years Wilcox County, Georgia has held racially segregated proms privately held and paid for by the parents of the students attending the local schools (“ABC News,” 2013; Gumbrecht, 2013).  The proms were held off-campus and restricted to either white or black students.  In fact, according to Gumbrecht (2013), the residents commonly refer to the proms as either “black prom” or “white prom” (p 1).  Although the schools have been racially integrated since 1971, they [schools] have never officially sponsored a prom, integrated or otherwise, despite requests from students.  This year, four friends, two black and two white, took it upon themselves to organize an integrated prom because they felt there was no need for separate proms.  These friends had spent their entire high school lives cheering together, studying together, and bonding together.  They simply wanted to celebrate finishing high school together as well.  As the students organized the prom they experienced positive verbal, written, and financial support from many, but they also received negative comments, insults, and lost friends.

When inquiries were made regarding why there had never been an integrated prom prior to 2013, the responses included a list rationalizations including, habit, tradition, parental control, disagreements regarding musical preferences, desire to “self-segregate,” the school did not want to incur the cost and liability of financially supporting an integrated prom, and even implicit encouragement by parents and preachers to hold segregated proms.  Some simply said, “a high school dance is nothing to make a fuss about” (Gumbrecht, 2013, p. 2).

The prom was a success with over 100 in attendance, including many from nonstudents wishing to witness the monumental event.  In spite of the positive success of the integrated prom, the Superintendent Steve Smith remained noncommittal regarding hosting an integrated prom in 2014, stating that the high school leadership would “consider” it (Gumbrecht, 2013, p. 2).  His caution may be an indication of his understanding that this may simply be a first baby step towards true social change for Wilcox County, Georgia.  Evidencing this significant point is the fact that despite the touted success of the integrated prom to which “nearly half of the school’s student body” attended, subsequent to that event, a privately financed segregated prom was held for only white students (“ABC News,” 2013).

Although this event occurred in southern Georgia, there have been hundreds of postings to online news websites nationwide.  As can be expected in light of the significant issues involved, the responses are intensely emotional, positive, and negative.  There are many ongoing heated debates relating to prejudice and discrimination, some of which remain civil and courteous, most of which do not.  Many postings devolve into insults and accusations, name-calling and mudslinging.  What is most clear from reading these postings is that despite the seeming social progress made in reducing prejudice nationwide, our society has a very long way to go to ensure multiculturalism and/or equality among all.

Intergroup Threat Theory

According to intergroup threat, “threat is experienced when members of one group perceive that another group is in a position to cause them harm” (Stephan, Ybarra, & Morrison, 2009, p. 43).  Importantly, it is not necessary that there be actual harm, the perception of harm is enough to create critical social issues and alter interrelationships between groups of individuals.  This theory is composed of two separate types of threat: symbolic and realistic, which may be perceived individually or on behalf of a group.  Realistic threats relate to concerns for physical safety or necessary resources, whereas symbolic threats relate to values, morals, culture, meaning, or beliefs.

Accordingly, examples of symbolic group threat would include “threats to a group’s religion, values, belief system, ideology, philosophy, morality, or worldview,” whereas a realistic group threats are “threats to a group’s power, resources, and general welfare” (Stephan et al., 2009, p. 43.  Perceptions of threat are likely when there is a long history of conflict, differences in group size, preferences for social order (following rules), or differences in group power.  Considering the events in Georgia from the perspective of intergroup threat theory, it is likely that the two racial groups experience perceptions of both symbolic and realistic group threat.  The racial groups each feel threatened because their beliefs, values, ideologies, and worldviews are at stake.  Integration has already occurred at the school, which may seem to the blacks to mean they have to do things the way the white persons have set them up.  It was the black school that closed in 1970, and the black students who had to blend into the previously all white school.  Perhaps, it is felt within the black community that integrating the prom would be another loss to their cultural identity.  As indicated in the reports of the event, the differences between those pro-integration and anti-integration resulted in loss of friendships, negative comments, and insults.  It is possible that individuals felt their personal identities and worldviews were threatened.

Realistic threats can also be perceived individually or as a group.  In this instance, it is possible that the segregated proms are reflective of deeper discriminatory issues between the races in southern Georgia, as well as elsewhere.  The white population may be reluctant to give up the lion share of power and resources and perceive an integrated prom as just another step in the direction toward that end.  “Research on social comparison processes indicates that more closely ranked groups behave more competitively with one another and thus pose greater threats to one another than do less closely ranked groups” (Stephan et al., 2009, p. 46).  Indeed, research indicates that when higher power groups experience intergroup threat and have the resources to cope with it, they tend to react aggressively to reaffirm their position.  Perhaps, this is why after the integrated prom had already occurred, the white parents still held another white only prom.  This behavior would help them diminish the sense of threat and justify their worldview.

It would seem that in Wilcox County, Georgia all five recurring conditions necessary to foster intergroup threat are present: “First, the ingroup is highly valued.  Second, the ingroup has low power or control vis-à-vis the outgroup (in the past or the present).  Third, relations with the outgroup have been negative.  Fourth, ingroup members mistrust or are suspicious of the outgroup.  Fifth, rules, order, and social hierarchies are valued by ingroup members” (Stephan et al., 2009, p. 50).

Emotional responses to intergroup threat are typically negative, including “fear, anxiety, anger, and resentment, contempt and disgust, vulnerability, collective guilt, …other emotions such as rage, hatred, humiliation, dread, helplessness, despair, righteous indignation, and panic” (Stephan et al., 2009, p. 51).  These emotional responses are understandable within the context of intergroup theory from multiple perspectives.  For instance, there may be many pro-integration white persons in the community feeling collective guilt over the segregated proms all these years.  On the other hand, there may be others who feel anger and resentment at being viewed as racist when they feel they have just maintained the status quo, or that their group is being portrayed negatively.  Still others may be feeling frightened and anxious as these two cultures are being pushed to further integrate.

Reducing prejudice in Wilcox County, Georgia may be easier than first appears.  Other factors, which influence intergroup threat theory, are situational factors and individual factors.  Currently, the white population likely feels ganged up on because of the media and press adding to the pressure of the students to hold an integrated prom.  However, when the heat dies down, it will be easier for them to remember that these are the same persons they interacted with regularly.  Individual factors also play a large role in prejudice.  The four individuals pushing for the integrated prom were black and white.  They pushed for the integration because they already felt a part of each other’s lives.  Further, there were others who made comments that they had interracial relationships, or friendships and did not understand why the proms were segregated.  It may well be that there is still a strong prejudiced faction; however, there are significant signs that others have already begun to see past the color of skin.  Lastly, interrelationships between ingroups and outgroups are iterative and as such are subject to constant adjustment.  What this means is that every positive experience, every enlightened viewpoint is added into the mix until, at some point, the ingroup feels more positively towards the outgroup.  Currently, a racial healing coordinator for the nonprofit Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education is working with the community to help encourage and foster positive group relations, both prior to the integrated prom and now in the aftermath.

Intergroup Emotions Theory

Intergroup emotions theory (IET) is premised on social categorization and intergroup appraisals (Mackie, Maitner, & Smith, 2009).  It is the salient social identity within a particular context that determines emotional reactions and behaviors.  “Therefore events that negatively impact other members of the group (even if the self is unharmed), or circumstances that benefit the group as a whole (although not the self), or outgroup members who compete against fellow ingroup members (but not the self), are nevertheless psychologically significant” (Mackie et al., 2009, p. 287).  Intergroup emotions are distinct from individual emotions, may occur only one time or may occur regularly, and may be subject to multiple emotions simultaneous or over time.  The emotions experienced are dependent on the salient social categorization and intergroup appraisal.  The individual must include the group as part of their self-identity.  For instance, race is not particularly relevant in a room where everyone is the same race.  However, it if I were the only white woman in a room full of Latin women, race would be more salient.  According to IET, I would categorize myself as a white person and based on my appraisal of white versus Latin, my emotions and behaviors would ensue therefrom.  If this happened only once, it would be considered acute; however, should this occur frequently it would be considered chronic.  It is also likely that chronic experiences would result in different emotions/behavioral reactions over time, as my categorization and appraisals of white versus Latin change with time and experience.

Applying the perspective of intergroup emotions theory to the occurrences in Wilcox County, Georgia we would anticipate that the social categorization is racial and based on stereotypically negative characterizations of each group, white versus black.  According to IET, emotions and behaviors are predicated on the social categorization and appraisal of the ingroup versus outgroup.  Negative actions towards an ingroup by a strong outgroup typically produces feelings of fear in the ingroup.  Negative actions towards a strong ingroup produces anger.  Ingroups typically experience affiliative feelings and are positively biased towards themselves.  Further, IET predicts that outgroup-directed anger is a strong predictor of ingroup bias, support for ingroup members, outgroup confrontation and criticism, and willingness to take action against outgroup members (Mackie et al., 2009).  These predictions were partially demonstrated in the loss of friendships, experiences of verbal insults, and holding yet another segregated prom after the fact further insulting the concept of integration.

According to IET, many of the emotions expressed by individuals in the article were predicated by their social categorizations and ensuing appraisals.  The black girl who began the campaign for the integrated prom reported feeling badly because she was going to be excluded from the white prom, an anticipated emotional reaction felt by a weak ingroup member on behalf of her affiliated group.  Many of the white community members reacted strongly with anger at being erroneously portrayed by the media, also an anticipated emotional reaction felt by a strong outgroup.  These emotional expressions were also exhibited online in many of the postings of people across the nation as each identified with their own social group, i.e., pro-integration or anti-integration.

Reducing prejudice from the perspective of IET includes three possibilities.  First, altering the social categorization inherent to the prejudice.  For instance, the students, black and white, were open to an integrated prom.  According to IET, this was because they were socially categorizing themselves not as black and white, per se, but as friends, students of the same high school, and/or cheerleaders.  Thus, they altered the social category they identified with and ameliorated the emotional experience.  Second, encouraging perspective taking and/or empathy in others aids in reducing prejudice.  Research has shown that “both natural inclinations and perspective-taking instructions can foster a focus on individual protagonists rather than an equally accessible ingroup or outgroup, even in intergroup situations, resulting in changes in emotions, prejudice, and behavior (Mackie et al., 2009, p. 301).  Finally, encouraging individuality and disengagement from the group identification may help to reduce prejudice because individual emotional responses differ from the group emotional responses.  Yet again, the individuals who were pro-integrated prom were not identifying with the racial group categorization, but rather were emotionally responding to the situational context on their own individual behalf.  Therefore, their emotional responses were unique unto themselves, and necessarily less intense.


The purpose of this paper was to identify a relevant current event demonstrating stereotyping, prejudice, or discrimination and analyze that event through the lenses of intergroup emotion theory and intergroup threat theory.  Each theory was discussed relative to its compositional elements and tenets, and applied towards explicating the prejudice in Wilcox County, Georgia.  Further, each theory’s predictions relating to emotional experiences of those involved in the extant event were also discussed.  Finally, possible approaches towards prejudice reduction were outlined.


Bridging the divide: Wilcox county high school students hold first integrated prom.  (2013). Retrieved from

Gumbrecht, J. (2013).  Segregated prom tradition yields to unity.  Retrieved from

Mackie, D. M., Maitner, A. T., & Smith, E. R. (2009).  Intergroup emotions theory.  In T. D. Nelson (Ed.), Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination (pp. 285-308).  New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Stephan, W. G., Ybarra, O., & Morrison, K. R. (2009).  Intergroup threat theory.  In T. D. Nelson (Ed.), Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination (pp. 43-59).  New York, NY: Psychology Press.


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