Key Studies: Minimal Group Paradigm (SIT – Tajfel et al)

Travis DixonSocial and Cultural Psychology

Background Information

Social Identity Theory (read more here) is a theory that attempts to explain inter-group behaviour, and in particular inter-group conflict, discrimination and prejudice. The theory basically explains how four key processes (social comparison, social identity, social categorization and positive distinctiveness) can influence inter-group behaviour.

The theory can be used to explain how group conflict may occur, even when there is no competition for resources (like Sherif proposed in his Realistic Conflict Theory).

A paradigm is a “typical example or pattern of something.” In psychological research it means a typical experimental design and methodology. Asch’s paradigm is the design of the experiment using the line lengths test and confederates. The minimal group paradigm involves putting people in groups based on arbitrary criteria (i.e. they’re meaningless groups – they have minimal things in common).

Methodology of the Minimal Group Paradigm 

The minimal group paradigm is the typical design used in experiments that inspired and support SIT. The basic idea is that participants (adults and children have been used in studies) are randomly divided into groups. They are then asked to award rewards, prizes or even money to other participants in specially designed booklets. The recipients are anonymous, except for a number and which group they are in (e.g. Member #28, Group X; Member #3, Group Y).

Originally, the Tajfel and Turner hypothesized that they would have to gradually increase the similarities between group members before they would observe in-group bias (e.g. positive distinctiveness). They were surprised to learn that even when groups were formed using complete arbitrary criteria, such as flipping a coin, they demonstrated in-group bias. Even when they were directly informed that the groups were meaningless, they still were biased to their in-group. This initial discovery is what lead to further development and elaboration of the SIT; they concluded that the mere existence of an out-group was enough for social comparison and in-group bias to occur.

The findings, from numerous studies, show that the in-group will act favorably towards members of their own in-group. Moreover, they will even sacrifice rewards for themselves to increase the difference in rewards given between the in-group members and the out-group members.

The experiments would often include a table like the one below…

Highlight the column of points you want to award your group and the other group. For example, if you want to give your group 12 points, you must give the other group 11.

Points you can give to your ingroup
7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
Corresponding points you must give to the outgroup
1 3 5 7 9 11 13 15 17 19 21


In these experiments, even when the participants don’t know who else is in their group, they tend to give more rewards to their own group than to the out-group, thus demonstrating in-group bias (e.g. they would give their group 12 and the other group 11, instead of 17 to themselves which would mean they’d have to give the out-group more). Moreover, many participants selected only 7 points for themselves, which would be 1 point for the other group. This is the biggest difference between the two (6) that they could have chosen.

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. How do the minimal group paradigm studies support Social Identity Theory?
  2. What are the limitations in using the minimal group paradigm results to support SIT?