“Outgroup Homogeneity” and Foreign Policy Misunderstandings

Social psychologists have documented an intriguing phenomenon dubbed “outgroup homogeneity”. It is the tendency to assume that groups to which you do not belong are less diverse than they are (in contrast, we overestimate diversity within groups of which we are a part). I have described before how this cognitive error produced complete misunderstandings of the relationship between China and Viet Nam during the 1960s (because after all, every Asian Communist is the same) and is producing similarly off-track predictions that Iran and Iraq will now be unshakeable allies (because after all, every Shi’a Muslim is the same).

Stephen Taylor has a terrific essay today documenting how this same phenomenon is in evidence in Mitt Romney’s equation of Iran with, wait for it…Turkey. Yes, Turks are not Persians and the two empires fought for centuries and Turkey is in NATO and Turkey is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim and Iran is overwhelmingly Shi’a Muslim and Iran has drawn up plans to attack Turkey but hey that’s not the point. In Romneyworld, they are both Islamic-ish places in an Islamic-ish part of the world, so they must be virtual twins and can be treated as such in U.S. foreign policy.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on ““Outgroup Homogeneity” and Foreign Policy Misunderstandings”

  1. Some reporter should ask the smartest Republican candidate if either of those countries is a member of NATO.

    1. Jon Huntsman would get it right, but nobody would listen.
      Mitt Romney would probably get it right if you fed him truth serum.
      Ron Paul would reply that we should pull out of NATO.
      Newt Gingrich would reply that we should invite the Klingons into NATO.
      Herman Cain would invite the reporter (if female) to examine his member.
      Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann – – anything they would say would be weirder than any joke.

  2. When one is prone to refer to Africa as a country, one may be experiencing “outgroup homogeneity” on stage, in public, before the cable news audience, nation-wide!

    Does that sound presidential, or what!

  3. Someone needs to call M. Night Shyamalan to make a documentary of this year’s Republican nomination process. He could use as the catch phrase, “I see stupid people.” Or Disney could an animated sequel to Snow and the Seven Dwarves: Seven Dwarves Searching for Snow White.

  4. No, Taylor and you have got this one wrong. You’re focusing on the wrong thing. Romney (and others) need to show absolute total obedience to Israel in order to appease the fundamentalist wing. The attitude is one that Bush stated in the past: “you’re either with us, or against us”. With Turkey still pissed off about their citizens being shot by Israelis during the flotilla incident, that counts “against Israel” by their moral calculus.

    1. Similarly, Pakistan takes umbrage at having its soldiers killed by US drones; that makes them anti-American. Just ask any GOP contender. They want to make other countries respect us even if they don’t like us. Respecting other countries is not part of the bargain, and suggesting that it is makes any seriouis Republican candidate dead meat.

      1. Ed,
        I think that Tangurena’s point is a stronger one. It’s much worse in Republican-land for a foreign country to be perceived as anti-Israel than it is for the foreign country to be seen as anti-American. To a Republican, all foreign countries (except Israel and maybe the white English-speaking ones) are anti-American. The truly depraved foreign countries are those that are anti-Israel.

  5. Pretty much all of Tom Clancy’s writing career subsequent to the fall of the Soviet Union is based on outgroup homogeneity. He was confronted by the problem that the US faced no plausible military opposition. So he would throw together random countries that in the real world have a long history of competition, or even outright hostility toward one another. They would decide to join together against the US because, umm…, they hate whitey? Clancy was just barely smart enough to realize that even combined they present no military challenge to the US, so he would go through elaborate gymnastics to remove large chunks of the US military from the picture, e.g. when those sneeky Asians sneekily do a sneek attack on the US Pacific fleet. Then he would simply fake it, like by then pretending that the US Navy doesn’t also have an Atlantic fleet.

    The fall of the Soviet bloc was not kind to Clancy. His early novels are rip-roaring cold war techno adventures. The later novel spiral into terminal silliness.

Comments are closed.