Volume 55     Number 4    Spring 2018      Editor: Tara Behrend

Meredith Turner
/ Categories: 554

Organizational Neuroscience: Neuroscience, Outgroups, and Bad Behavior

Bill Becker, Virginia Tech; M.K. Ward, University of Western Australia; and Xiaoyuan (Susan) Zhu, University of Connecticut

As the recent “Me Too” movement dramatically demonstrates, the modern workplace remains rife with reprehensible behavior that extends from negative politics, to abusive supervision, to sexual harassment. A recent Forbes article suggests that as many as 75% of employees are affected by workplace bullying. The persistence and extent of bad behavior suggests that it cannot be attributed to a few bad actors but rather that all of us are susceptible to our inner demons and there is reason to believe that social categorization may play a role in our Jekyll and Hyde transformations.


I-O psychology and social psychology has long recognized and explored the role of social categorization and in/out-groups in the workplace. The consequences can be ugly, including forms of aggression and stereotyping (Hogg & Terry, 2000; Nelson, 2009). Despite previous investigations, we still don’t have a full understanding of how these categorizations are made in work situations.  Recent findings in neuroscience give new insights into this question. Spoiler alert: There can be drastic effects of these categorizations on brain processing. In this article, we will review these findings and suggest some ways that they might be incorporated into organizational research and practice.


Social Categorizations Are Often Nonconscious


One intriguing finding across a number of studies is that social categorization evaluations are rapidly initiated at an implicit level. A large number of these studies have focused on racial outgroups and suggest that is an implicit tendency to categorize members of different races into outgroups (Cunningham et al., 2004; Phelps et al., 2000). These studies have consistently shown differences in emotional processing for unfamiliar individuals from different racial groups. Preliminary findings suggest that implicit categorizations also extend to gender and other social differentiators (Chiao et al., 2008).


However, one study found that minority members also showed negative implicit response to pictures of unfamiliar male minority individuals (Lieberman, Hariri, Jarcho, Eisenberger, & Bookheimer, 2005). This has given rise to the perspective that although initial implicit categorization processes are influenced by race and other observable differences, subsequent processing and out-group determinations are more heavily influenced by threat perceptions relative to the self and other in-group members (Chang, Krosch, & Cikara, 2016; Checkroud, Everett, Bridge, & Hewstone, 2014). Still, it seems that social categorizations and out-group determinations occur primarily through emotional processing rather than explicit cognitive processing. The threat perspective of outgroups extends social categorization beyond discrimination to a broader range of organizational applications.


Outgroup Categorizations Are More Impactful When the Stakes Are High


In addition, the level of perceived threat also has a profound effect on the behavioral tendencies toward out-group members. Under conditions of low threat and plentiful resources, people tend to view out-group members with indifference (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2007). However, when threat is perceived to be greater and resources are scarce, people respond to out-group members with active hostility (Chang et al., 2016). This suggests that out-group effects are situationally dynamic in terms of their makeup and effects.


Outgroup Categorizations Shutdown or Reverse Social Processing in the Brain


Two related research streams help inform these effects by demonstrating the profound effect of out-group categorization on brain processing. The first relates to oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that influences social behavior. It has frequently been associated with increased trust, cooperation, and prosocial behavior (Bartz, Zaki, Bolger, & Ochsner, 2011). However, more recently these effects have been shown to hold primarily toward in-group members. In contrast, oxytocin has been shown to decrease trust and cooperation toward out-groups (De Dreu, 2012). Consistent with the threat perspective, oxytocin also increased defensive aggression toward outgroups (De Dreu et al., 2011). These findings show that social categorization can reverse the effects of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter beloved by many as the love hormone.


A related stream of research shows out-group categorization also influence the way empathy is processed in the brain. The automatic experience of empathy towards others is an important aspect of emotional intelligence. Numerous studies indicate that empathy is much stronger for ingroups than for outgroups (Chang et al., 2016). Once again, consistent with the threat perspective, when intergroup threat is high people often experience counterempathy (schadenfreude) in response to outgroups. Once again, the neuroscience evidence supplements these findings by showing that brain processing of empathy is enhanced for ingroups and essentially turned off or even reversed for threatening out-group members by dehumanizing them (Harris & Fiske, 2006; Xu, Zuo, Wang, & Han, 2009). A key take away here is that both research streams highlight the power of context and framing to flip the relationships between neural activity and behavior, effectively turning a normal individual into a psychopath toward outgroup members.


Implications for Research and Practice


Although the basic research has tended to focus on racial outgroups, the findings can be generalized to the workplace in a number of promising ways. First, it seems that organizational power and politics can give rise to perceptions of competitive or antagonistic relationships between coworkers and between leaders and subordinates. These perceptions may give rise to nonconscious categorizations of out-group status. Second, a better understanding of the dramatic effects this can have could explain the prominence of abusive supervision, sexual harassment, and workplace bullying that continues to plague organizations. It may also inform research on organizational justice and ethics by emphasizing the importance of emotions and the impact of in/outgroups on emotional processing and subsequent unethical behavior. Third, this stream of research can increase our understanding of the impact of social categorization on employee selection and promotion. Applicants and employees who are considered to be in-group members may be more likely to be selected for a job and promoted to a higher position (Davison & Burke, 2000).


From a practical perspective, these insights could inform organizational education and training to increase awareness of the impact of social categorization and provide individuals at all levels of organizations with tools for expanding their ingroups and shrinking outgroups while also avoiding the bias traps of in-group love and out-group hate. This research is particularly important for human resources professionals who work actively to minimize discrimination in the workplace. Finally, work design may be able to reduce such biases by fostering identity development and expansion from narrow to collective identities (Parker, 2014). Overall, we see that both neuroscience and work context are essential tools in our quest to reach a full understanding of the processes that create and sustain social categorizations.




Bartz, J. A., Zaki, J., Bolger, N., & Ochsner, K. N. (2011). Social effects of oxytocin in humans: Context and person matter. Trends in Cognitive Sciences15(7), 301-309.


Chang, L. W., Krosch, A. R., & Cikara, M. (2016). Effects of intergroup threat on mind, brain, and behavior. Current Opinion in Psychology11, 69-73.


Chekroud, A. M., Everett, J. A., Bridge, H., & Hewstone, M. (2014). A review of neuroimaging studies of race-related prejudice: does amygdala response reflect threat? Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 179-190.


Chiao, J. Y., Adams Jr, R. B., Tse, P. U., Lowenthal, W. T., Richeson, J. A., & Ambady, N. (2008). Knowing who's boss: fMRI and ERP investigations of social dominance perception. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations11(2), 201-214.


Cuddy, A. J., Fiske, S. T., & Glick, P. (2007). The BIAS map: behaviors from intergroup affect and stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology92(4), 631.


Cunningham, W.A., Johnson, M.K., Raye, C.L., Gatenby, J.C., Gore, J.C., & Banaji, M.R. (2004). Separable neural components in the processing of Black and White faces. Psychological Science, 15, 806–813.


Davison, H. K., & Burke, M. J. (2000). Sex discrimination in simulated employment contexts: A meta-analytic investigation. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 56(2), 225-248.


De Dreu, C. K. (2012). Oxytocin modulates cooperation within and competition between groups: an integrative review and research agenda. Hormones and Behavior61(3), 419-428.


De Dreu, C. K., Greer, L. L., Van Kleef, G. A., Shalvi, S., & Handgraaf, M. J. (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences108(4), 1262-1266.


Harris, L. T., & Fiske, S. T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science17(10), 847-853.


Hogg, M. A., & Terry, D. I. (2000). Social identity and self-categorization processes in organizational contexts. Academy of Management Review25(1), 121-140.


Lieberman, M.D., Hariri, A., Jarcho, J.M., Eisenberger, N.I., & Bookheimer, S.Y. (2005). An fMRI investigation of race-related amygdala activity in African-American and Caucasian-American individuals. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 720–722.


Nelson, T. D. (Ed.). (2009). Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. New York: Psychology Press.


Parker, S. K. (2014). Beyond motivation: Job and work design for development, health, ambidexterity, and more. Annual Review of Psychology65, 661-691.


Phelps, E. A., O'Connor, K. J., Cunningham, W. A., Funayama, E. S., Gatenby, J. C., Gore, J. C., & Banaji, M. R. (2000). Performance on indirect measures of race evaluation predicts amygdala activation. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience12(5), 729-738.


Xu, X., Zuo, X., Wang, X., & Han, S. (2009). Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses. Journal of Neuroscience29(26), 8525-8529.


Previous Article SIOP in Washington: Advocating for I-O in Federal Public Policy
Next Article Awards Spotlight: The Path to Fellow–Dr. Leslie Joyce
2342 Rate this article:
No rating