Enjoying Your Work
Richard Brislin

Monday, March 14, 2005

Views of other groups
are often oversimplified

This is a tempting offer," Janice Ozawa told a colleague at work. Janice, who had spent most of her life in Honolulu, was recently offered a job in the home office of the financial institution where she worked.

The home office was in New York City, a place Janice had visited twice on vacations. She faced a classic dilemma that many people in Hawaii experience. The salary for the New York job was higher, but she was concerned that she would miss her family in Hawaii. Further, she loved Hawaii's climate and lifestyle.

Sharing her concerns with her colleague, she voiced another concern.

"All the people in New York seem so rushed and are always in a hurry to do something. I've never been shoved around so much as when I was walking on busy streets in New York!"

Her colleague responded, "Try not to oversimplify. Not everyone in New York is as you describe."

Janice is guilty of what is known as the outgroup homogeneity effect. Outgroups refer to people whom we do not know very well and with whom we do not have day-to-day contact.

When thinking about outgroups, there is a tendency to conclude that members are pretty much the same. This is especially true if we know just a few things about outgroup members, as in Janice's limited contact with New Yorkers during her vacations. So if she had experiences with fast-moving and rude outgroup members, she may conclude that everyone in New York behaves the same way.

This perceptual error stands in interesting contrast to the way we think about people whom we know well. In the ingroup heterogeneity effect, we recognize differences among people.

Ingroups refers to individuals who are close to us, who share their emotional ups and downs, and who we look forward to seeing. We recognize the differences, or the heterogeneity, among these people. Some are always in a rush and some are laid back. Some always arrive at the advertised starting time for weekend company picnics, and some show up a few hours late. Some like to travel to Las Vegas to gamble and some prefer travel to music festivals. We recognize these differences because we are very familiar with ingroup members.

A good way to become more aware of the outgroup homogeneity effect is to put ourselves in the shoes of outsiders.

Consider people from New York thinking about residents of Hawaii. They are likely to imagine that everyone in Hawaii loves surfing, spends weekends at the beach, belongs to a hula group, and plays the ukulele. Residents of Hawaii know that this is a terrible oversimplification. But if we realize this, we can entertain the view that our views of people in other parts of the world are likely to downplay the vast differences among individuals.

The outgroup homogeneity effect can lead to odd complications. People on the mainland not only feel that Hawaii residents are similar, but that we all constantly talk to each other!

Like many residents, I receive letters and e-mails from mainlanders who want jobs. They send their resumes, thinking that Hawaii residents know dozens of executives who are on the hiring committees for high-paying jobs in banking, real estate, and the tourism industry. If they thought about their own communities that they know well, the job seekers would realize that not everyone has close relations with executives in all types of businesses.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Given the amount of time people spend at work, job satisfaction should ideally be high and it should contribute to general life happiness. Enjoyment can increase as people learn more about workplace psychology, communication, and group influences.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the College Relations Office: cro@cba.hawaii.edu

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