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.

Local student wins publication prize!

A year ago a news release from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, featured an article penned by one of our own graduate students, Amanda Ravary. The news blurb starts out:

“Picture the last time you walked through your local grocery store check-out line or scrolled through your social media newsfeed. One thing that you likely encountered is the pop cultural phenomenon of celebrity fat-shaming—that is, mocking or critical comments about weight. These critical messages about weight—especially a woman’s weight—are difficult to avoid…Can these fleeting, casual comments influence people’s private attitudes about body weight?”

You can read the rest of that news release here:

Now, a year later, Amanda will be presented this coming Friday (February 12, 2021) with the prestigious SPSP Student Publication prize!

Well done Amanda!

According to SPSP, Recipients of this prize receive a $400 honorarium and an accompanying plaque, which is presented at the annual Awards Ceremony held at the SPSP Annual Convention, as well as a complimentary one-year SPSP membership. You can read more about the Student Publication Prize for Amanda’s paper here

Insecurity Comes and Goes

By Mark Baldwin , September 3rd, 2019

Research from the Baldwin lab at McGill University (in collaboration with Stephane Dandeneau, now at UQAM) has contributed to a new approach to assisting people in training a positive identity and emotional attitude. The starting point is the observation that most social experiences have an element of ambiguity, which allows for selectivity and bias: When interacting with other people, for example, one’s emotions can be strongly influenced by the particular elements of the interaction that the brain anticipates, focuses on, interprets, and stores for recall later. It has been known for decades that people who have a somewhat positive orientation when thinking about their experiences tend to have higher general wellbeing, and fewer problems with low self-esteem or anxiety, than people with a negative bias. Building on this background, our research over the past decade has shown that it is possible for people to train their brain to have a positive rather than negative social orientation, and that this training can improve wellbeing – sometimes dramatically. In the scientific psychology literature, the past ten years has seen an exponential growth in research into the possibility of training cognitive responses to emotional stimuli (this research is often referred to as Cognitive Bias Modification).

Our research approach has been to explore the benefits of emotional brain training for people in general, rather than among specific clinical populations. We have found that people in general can practice a positive emotional attitude and this can help boost self-confidence and performance, and reduce stress. We have studied two games the most: In the attention-training game the person locates and clicks on a single smiling face in an array of scowling, rejecting faces – to train an attentional response away from social threats. In the acceptance-conditioning game, the person is repeatedly exposed to a pairing between information about the self (e.g., the person’s own name) and smiling, accepting faces – to train a link such that thoughts about self eventually come to trigger warm feelings and expectations of being accepted. These two training games have shown cognitive effects (i.e., in the way people automatically deal with social information, as measured with sophisticated techniques that assess reaction times to recognize acceptance and rejection information) as well as emotional effects (e.g., in their response to socially stressful situations or stimuli, such as a difficult test or their self-reported feelings in anticipation of a social interaction).

For example:

  • In several studies we first showed that playing our attention-training game – even for just 5 minutes – does temporarily erase the split-second tendency many of us have to focus our attention toward negative social feedback (e.g., rejection from others). This change in automatic information processing is accompanied by increases in self-esteem (compared to a control group that played a different game without the feature of focusing on smiling faces) (Dandeneau & Baldwin, 2004; Dandeneau et al., 2007, Study 2a and b).
  • We have done several studies to examine whether attention-training can influence students’ self-confidence and help them deal with stress. For example, university students felt less stressed about their final exam, and less anxious during the exam, if they had played one of our training games during breaks while studying for the previous week (Dandeneau et al., 2007, Study 3a). In another study, adult remedial education students who played the game felt higher self-esteem and less concern about rejection after they worked on a difficult intellectual task (Dandeneau and Baldwin, 2009).
  • In one study of workplace stress among 23 telemarketers, those who were randomly assigned to play the attention-training game for 5 minutes each morning before their shift felt less stress during their workday (as measured with standardized stress questionnaires). They had higher self-esteem, were more confident with customers, and even made significantly more sales, compared to a control group. By the end of the week they had 17% lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels in their body. (Dandeneau et al., 2007, Study 3b).
  • Emotional training can change the way people deal with social stress: In two studies we found that playing the acceptance-conditioning game led adolescents to later feel less aggressive in response to insult and rejection (Baccus et al., 2004; Baldwin et al., 2010).

We are gratified that other researchers have also validated our approach; some among clinical populations:

  • Schnabel & Asendorpf (2015) found that the game reduced people’s implicit (i.e, automatic and unconscious) expectancies of rejection. 224 (160 women) participants with a mean age of 34.47 played the game (or else a control game) for 8 consecutive days. At the end, those who had played the game showed less of a tendency to automatically associate “public situations” with thoughts of “rejection”.
  • Waters et al (2013) had anxious children play the game (or a neutral game involving locating a bird among flowers, in a control group) four times a week for three weeks. At the end of this time their attention was more likely to focus automatically on smiles rather than frowns, and they were less likely (than in the control group) to be assessed as still being clinically anxious.
  • DeVoogd et al (2014) showed that among a group of adolescents, those playing the attention-training game showed positive changes in their automatic attention and also reduced social phobia scores on a standard questionnaire.

My collaborators and I are extremely excited about the potential for this kind of cognitive training, to help people maintain a positive focus and feel more self-accepting and less anxious.

Mark Baldwin is a professor in the Psychology department at McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec.

If you wish to read the publication, see Baldwin, M. W., & Sinclair, L. (1996). Self-Esteem and “If…Then” Contingencies of Interpersonal Acceptance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 1130-1141,