Collective Autonomy and an Intergroup Approach to Studying Intergroup Relations

By Frank Kachanoff , January 9th, 2019

Core to many social groups is the rich sociocultural identity consisting of the shared norms, values, goals, and customs that bind its constituents together. At the IRAP lab, we (Dr. Frank Kachanoff and Dr. Donald Taylor) are interested in studying the psychology of collective autonomythe extent to which people feel that their group is free and welcoming to articulate and express their own sociocultural identity in society, without being unduly restricted by other groups.

It is a reality that members of disadvantaged groups and dominant groups in society may feel that their collective autonomy has been restricted. For example, Indigenous peoples across the globe have had their freedom to express their culture, to speak their own languages, and to self-govern their people stifled by processes of forceful colonization and slavery. This is but one stark example of how relatively disadvantaged groups may lack collective autonomy. Yet, members of dominant groups can also experience collective autonomy restriction. Jared Taylor, a White American and White supremacist, has stated: “White people just want to be left alone to let their own destiny unfold in a way that is unhindered by the embrace of people unlike themselves who arrive in large numbers to change their culture and change the texture of life for them”. These sentiments have been echoed within the political platforms of mainstream political parties within the US, Canada, and Europe.  

Yet despite its real world relevance, there is very little research within the domain of intergroup relations that considers the psychological implications of collective autonomy restriction. This is surprising given that extensive research based on self-determination theory (SDT) has brought to light the psychological necessity for individuals feeling personally autonomous in defining and expressing their own personal identity (Ryan and Deci, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2017).

Our research program addresses this important question by considering the implications of collective autonomy restriction for the psychological health of group members and for intergroup relations.

A. Consequences of Collective Autonomy Restriction for Psychological Health

We find that people experience less personal autonomy and less psychological wellbeing when they feel that the collective autonomy of their racial, ethnic, and religious groups has been restricted (Kachanoff, Taylor, Caouette, Khullar, & Wohl, 2018, JPSP). These effects are robust when using cross-sectional, longitudinal, and intensive experimental laboratory simulation research methods.

B. Consequences of Collective Autonomy Restriction for Intergroup Relations

We find that threats to collective autonomy have profound consequences for intergroup relations. Amongst representative samples of Black and White Americans, as well as within simulated laboratory experiments, we show that threats to collective autonomy uniquely predict group members’ desire for power, system challenge, and support and engagement in (sometimes violent) collective action (Kachanoff, Kteily, Khullar, Park, & Taylor, in revision). We also find that collective autonomy support between groups minimizes intergroup conflict and promotes harmonious intergroup relations within challenging intergroup contexts involving intergroup apologies for past transgressions (Kachanoff , Caouette, Wohl, & Taylor, 2017, EJSP) and mass-migration crises (Kachanoff, Kteily, Cohen, & Taylor, in revision).

Taken together this research introduces restrictions to collective autonomy as novel form of intergroup threat with unique implications for psychological well-being and intergroup relations.

An Intergroup Approach: Forming Meaningful Cultures in the Laboratory

To examine the psychology of collective autonomy we have taken a unique intergroup approach to studying intergroup relations. This involves recruiting multiple participants into the laboratory at one time and then dividing them into several sub-groups. Groups of participants then form meaningful identities as a group, and negotiate complex intergroup scenarios that they imagine are taking place within a fictional world created for the purpose of the study. This engaging and interactive methodology resonates with people’s natural tendencies and interest in playing games and role-playing.  

Part of this procedure involves the coat of arms paradigm. We use this taskto facilitate groups forming a meaningful group identity in the laboratory (Kachanoff et al., 2018, JPSP). Group members determine the core traits and values they share as a group and symbolize them with different colours and symbols adorned on a shield.

Our novel and interactive group paradigms provide us with a unique platform for understanding the psychology of collective autonomy. However, we hope that other intergroup researchers may also apply them in order to study intergroup processes in a way that reflects the dynamic nature of intergroup relations in the real world.