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Autumn 1998 - Issue No. #32 (p.11)

An Introduction to Bias

by Patricia Galien

International Christian University, Tokyo

This activity is based on research conducted by British social psychologists Henri Tajfel (pronounced Tosh-fel) and Michael Billing. Its objectives are to:

  • introduce the concepts ingroup / outgroup

  • demonstrate that it takes very little for people to feel like a member of one group and not a member of another

  • demonstrate that when groups are formed, some in-group and out-group bias results and that this bias may be the beginnings of prejudice

  • develop students' language skills through listening and note-taking


  • Do not tell students the topic of the unit.

  • Show students copies of two abstract paintings - one by Paul Klee and one by Wassily Kandinsky. Ask them to decide which one they prefer. After they've decided, ask them to sit in 2 groups - people who prefer the Klee on one side and those who prefer the Kandinsky on the other.

  • Point out that the class is now divided into two groups, one which prefers the Klee painting (the Klee group) and one which prefers Kandinsky (the Kandinsky group).

  • Give each student the handout below and have them answer the questions on it.

You are sitting with people who have all chosen the same painting. Which did you prefer? Circle one.
                        Klee                    Kandinsky
You have 15 points. Each point represents 1000 yen. Divide these 15 points among the two groups -
  1. How many points do you want to give to the Kandinsky group? Write the number of points in the box.

  2. How many points do you want to give to the Klee group? Write the number of points in the box.

After students finish the handout, give the following lecture and ask them to take notes.

What is your nationality? When most people answer this question, they give just one answer: "I am Japanese", "I am Mongolian", "I am Canadian" or Russian, Thai and so on. For each of these answers, the person answering is informing the questioner of his or her nationlity, but at the same time is also saying which national groups he or she does not belong to. If you are Japanese, you are not also Mongolian, Canadian, Russian, or Thai. It is the same with sex. If you are a man, you are not a woman. If you are a graduate of one university, you are not a graduate of another university. The definition of who you are and where you belong implies that you are a member of one group and not of another group. In short, many of the ways in which you define yourself also imply a definition of who you are not. The research that we will look at today involves an examination of the concepts of in-group and out-group. Simply defined, the in-group includes "us" and the out-group excludes; it is "them". Not suprisingly, once this identification is established there are usually feelings of favoritism towards one's own group, the in-group, and a feeling of unfairness towards the out-group, "the other" - in other words, prejudice.

British social psychologists Henri Tajfel and Michael Billing conducted many experiments which confirmed the hypothesis that it takes very little for people to feel like a member of one group and not another. Billing and Tajfel found that even when groups were formed by flipping a coin, some in-group and out-group bias resulted. The bias can have one or both of the following results: it can cause members to have positive feelings towards their own group and/or negative feelings toward the out-group.

One study by Tajfel and Billing confirmed this. They asked teenagers to decide which of two abstract paintings they preferred - one by Paul Klee or one by Wassily Kandinsky. After the subjects decided which painting they preferred, they were told that they were members of a group and that all the members of their group had preferred the same painting they had chosen. They were then asked to divide 15 points which represented money between the two groups. In the study, the teenagers generally gave 9 or 10 points to their own group and 5 or 6 points to the other group. These results were repeated in group after group of subjects regardless of age, sex, or nationality.

After the lecture, ask students to look at their handouts and see if they distributed points the same way as the subjects in Tajfel and Billing's study. Walk around the room, look at students' handouts and comment as to whether people gave more points to their group or to the other group. I did this activity with my class and only one student gave her own group fewer points because she'd done a similar activity in high school and already knew the aim of the activity.

Patricia Galien (International Christian University, Tokyo)


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Kip A. Cates, Tottori University, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551
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