Out-Group Discrimination Fuels Anger, Risk-Taking and Vigilance

Discrimination originates in prejudice. It most often takes the form of social rejection, with racial- and gender-based discrimination being two of the most common types. A curious phenomenon about the effects of discrimination is reported in the journal Psychological Science by the team of Wendy Mendes — a senior psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

It is suggested that we divide the world into them (out-group) and us (in-group), by placing people into social groups. The Wendes study suggests that individuals are more sensitive to discrimination by out-group members than in-group members. In-group discrimination leads to feelings of threat and shame, whereas discrimination by out-group members is perceived as a challenge situation, leading instead to anger. In-group discrimination is also linked to cortisol increase, short term memory impairments, and increased vascular resistance which, if experienced over the long-term, can lead to disorders with severe cognitive impairments. However, the study reports that out-group discrimination has more immediate results: expressions of anger, increased vigilance for danger, and more risk-taking behaviors. So, out-group discrimination is more likely to lead to dangerous behavior patterns compared to in-group discrimination.

Discrimination seems to be a very powerful social weapon. The effects described above do not necessarily need a face-to-face situation. In the study by Mendes and colleagues, participants at the receiving end of social rejection showed distinct emotional and physiological profiles when merely informed that their on-line negative interaction was with either an in-group or an out-group member. Social rejection from an out-group partner — even in an on-line interaction — is enough to trigger anger and risk-taking behaviors.

The research described above focused only on racial discrimination. The participants were simply told that the person spewing negativity through chat was either a person of the same race or from a different race as the participant. Despite the anonymity and one-off interaction, the effect of social rejection was strong enough to elicit both affective and physiological responses.

The effects could possibly be much stronger if the interactions are prolonged or with known ‘friends’. It is also highly possible that the strong and negative reaction to discrimination is not limited to racial discrimination alone. People form out-groups and in-groups based on the current social situation they are in. Affective and physiological responses similar to that observed in the study discussed above could be triggered in reaction to any form of out-group discrimination.

Hate blogs, discriminatory social networking groups and posts may therefore have a tremendous impact on our social lives. Consider how many times we run across discriminatory posts while on a random scrawl through our news feeds. This study might be reason enough to stop you sharing apparently harmless, but potentially discriminatory messages on your Facebook wall.


Jamieson JP, Koslov K, Nock MK, & Mendes WB (2013). Experiencing discrimination increases risk taking. Psychological science, 24 (2), 131-9 PMID: 23257767

Image via Mary_L / Shutterstock.

Rubeena Shamsudheen, MS, MA, PhD (c)

Rubeena Shamsudheen, MS, MA, is currently enrolled in a PhD program at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. She holds a Masters in Applied Psychology from University of Kerala, India and a Masters in Neuroscience from National Brain Research Centre, Delhi, India.
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