Not all Norwegians are blond, or “why we’re so diverse, but you’re all alike”

Out-group homogeneity effect

There is a concept that social psychologists refer to as out-group homogeneity effect.

We perceive members of our own group to be relatively heterogeneous, i.e. we see variation. Everyone else, so-called “out-group members”, however, seem relatively homogeneous

In other words, we tend to think of our group as a mosaic and people from other groups as monotone.

People really do see more variation in personality among in-group members, an attitude confirmed by a number of studies.

It’s an intuitive concept. We know the people we spend more time with (our in-group members) better. Although we all have something in common, whether it’s ethnicity, colleagues, family members, we aware of their individual personalities and idiosyncrasies. Because they’re around us all the time, we have to distinguish them from one another.

We have less information about people from groups we don’t have as much contact with, Norwegians, for example. (Full disclosure – I’m a quarter Norwegian.) We’ve heard they eat a lot of fish, win lots of medals at the Winter Olympics, drill for oil. We might know that they’ve descended from Vikings but are now apparently very socially-minded Nordics.

But the view from inside Norway is, understandably, rather more nuanced than the stereotype. They are only slightly more blond and blue-eyed than people in the rest of the world. And there is a raging debate happening right now between citizens who want the country to stop oil and gas exploration (it is one of the world’s exporters of both) as it aims for net zero emissions, and those who point to the potential job losses of such a move. Of course, Norwegians do share similarities, but the population is not a monolithic bloc of Jarlsberg cheese.

A natural response

The out-group homogeneity effect makes sense from a biological perspective, too.  My research assistant, Hannah Rosenthal, points out that the farther away you are from a group, the more homogeneous it looks, simply because our eyesight has its limits. This is not just true for the nearsighted. It’s harder it is to make out the details. You see the forest, but not the trees.

Taking the long view, stereotypes and biases have probably served us quite well. They probably saved a few lives.

When our ancestors first encountered a spear-carrying stranger from another tribe, it would have been prudent to first consider them as just like all the other “others” we’d come across. That is, as a possible threat.  So, getting into a defensive crouch to size him up would be a smart first reaction. Only after examination, and exchanges, would the other tribe member solidify into an individual, perhaps one to be trusted.

Why it’s a problem

So what? You might respond.

Well, out-group homogeneity effect happens to be a source of bias. It leads to stereotyping, an oversimplified belief that people who share certain characteristics are pretty much all the same.

When we think of outgroup members as being more similar to one another, they risk being stereotyped or seen as interchangeable rather than complex and unique individuals.

This raises also raises an interesting question. Do in-group members feel less need to become more diverse because the inside perspective feels quite heterogeneous already, thank you very much?

When you think about it, it would be odd if such a bias didn’t exist.

This is not an excuse to say, “Hey, what can I do? I’m human, we’ve all got our biases.”

Rather, it is a reminder to reflect on the fact that people in other groups are probably just as diverse as the group you belong to. That applies to groups based on ethnicity, political ideology, nationality, profession, and any other group characteristic you can come up with.

Getting up close and personal, that is, spending time with people from that “other” group is a good remedy

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on October 5, 2021 on Evaluate This, a website featuring commentary by Nils Junge, an independent consultant working in the field of international development. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Junge.

Image Credit: Tampa Bay Business Journal

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