Group Membership Affects Spontaneous Mental Representation: Failure to Represent the Out-Group in a Joint Action Task
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Predicting others’ actions is crucial to successful social interaction. Previous research on joint action, based on a reaction-time paradigm called the Joint Simon Task, suggests that successful joint action stems from the simultaneous representation of the self with the other. Performance on this task provides a read-out of the degree of intrusion from a partner that participants experience from acting jointly compared to acting alone, which in turn is a measure of the degree to which participants mentally represent their co-actors during the task. To investigate the role of perceived group membership in this type of joint action and its influence on the representation of others, we first subjected participants to a minimal group paradigm while manipulating differences in social competition. We then asked participants to do the Joint Simon Task in pairs with an in-group or out-group member. Only participants who acted with an “in-group” partner on the joint task showed altered reaction times compared to when acting alone, presumably a change caused by the simultaneous and automatic representation of their in-group partner. In contrast, participants who acted with an out-group partner were unaffected in their reactions when doing the joint task, showing no evidence of representation of their out-group partner. This effect was present in both the high-competition and low-competition conditions, indicating that the differential effects of group membership on representation during joint action were driven by perceived group membership and independent of the effects of social competition. We concluded that participants failed to represent out-group members as socially relevant agents not based on any personality or situational characteristics, but in reaction only to their status as “other”. In this way group membership appears to affect cognition on a very immediate and subconscious level.
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