Cognition in inter-group relations : the effect of group membership on theory of mind and its precursors
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Social categorization based on group membership has a significant and broad influence on behaviour (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987). People perceived as being of the same group, ‘in-group’ members, are accorded all kinds of special treatment, such as the tendency to reward them over out-group members (Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, & Flament, 1971). At the other extreme is denigration based solely on a person’s status as ‘out-group’ member, sometimes even to the point of perceiving that person as less human than fellow in-group members, a phenomenon termed dehumanisation (Leyens et al., 2001). Historic examples of dehumanisation are abundant, such as the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany. What is less well understood, however, are the cognitive processes involved in these inter-group phenomena. How can a normal human being, with fully functioning cognitive faculties, come to not only view another person as sub-human but also to act on such irrational beliefs? One cognitive ability that, according to theory, plays a pivotal role in every human social interaction is the ability to attribute mental states to others, which enables humans to construct a theory of the minds they interact with. Having a ‘theory of mind’ allows an individual to interpret and predict behaviour in terms of underlying mental states (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). It is widely acknowledged that theory of mind is of fundamental importance to human social interactions (Baron-Cohen, Tager-Flusberg, & Cohen, 2000). For example, the ability to understand others’ intentions and goals allows humans to participate in collaborative action with shared ends, a hallmark capacity required for human social structures such as governments and economic systems (Tomasello, Carpenter, Call, Behne, & Moll, 2005). Given the importance of theory of mind to daily human life, a critical question thus is when and how theory of mind is actually used, especially in inter-group contexts such as those previously mentioned. While the developing, abnormal, and non-human theory of mind have been thoroughly investigated, much less is known about how normal adults deploy their theory of mind in actual social situations, including in situations of inter-group conflict. The present thesis has the primary aim of understanding how group membership affects the quotidian functioning of theory of mind and the social cognitive abilities that form its foundation, representation of intentionality and more basic processes of social learning. To this end, I will examine the effects of group membership on normal adults’ theory of mind usage (study 1). I will then go on to look at the deeper effects of group membership on social cognition, particularly its effect on some of the building blocks of theory of mind, representation of intentionality and basic social learning. To this end, I will first look at how intentionality is represented as a function of a person’s group membership with and without social competition (studies 2 & 3), and on how perceptions of group membership and social power impact basic social learning processes (studies 4 & 5). This process will elucidate the degree to which social cognition processes, from theory of mind down to its basic cognitive roots, are affected by perceptions of group membership. A secondary goal is to generate more informed hypotheses about the nature of the cognitive mechanisms underlying group- based social phenomena, such as dehumanisation.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
Embargo Date: Print and electronic copy restricted until 6th March 2017, pending formal approval
Embargo Reason: Thesis restricted in accordance with University regulations
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