For 2020, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight the amazing women in my life and their areas of expertise. Each month, I will feature one of these women through my new “The Empowered” series where they will share their brilliance in their field. To kick things off, I am excited to introduce you to my birthday twin, Dr. Amy Sentementes. Amy and I met at the Unscripted Hotel’s Media Preview in 2018 and we determined that we are kindred spirits and each other’s biggest cheerleaders. It’s a rare day that she and I don’t check in with each other whether it’s about food, current events, weather, or empowering messages to remind us that while imposter syndrome is a real thing, we will rise above it.
So, today, Amy is sharing her theory on Social Identity Brownies. She has shared this theory on her Instagram in the past, and it is incredibly fascinating and thought-provoking. As a history major, I am excited to share one of my personal interests with you through Amy’s work. Be sure to check out Amy’s bio at the end of this post so you can follow along with her work!
Social Identity Brownies with Dr. Amy Sentementes
While my extroverted personality and preference for teaching over research may set me apart from the prototypical academic, I possess the same passion for my field of study as my peers, and I, too, struggle to transfer my zeal to my students on occasion. I am aware they may not find the course material as fascinating as I do, so I try to incorporate an array of activities into my courses, especially when discussing academic articles rife with jargon and various statistical analyses. After teaching for five years, I can confirm that college students always appreciate treats, so I developed an activity to teach them about Social Identity Theory, a social psychological paradigm that explains intergroup relations, using brownies.
You may be wondering how I possibly could find an excuse to engage in one of my favorite activities—baking desserts—for teaching purposes, but bear with me. In short, Social Identity Theory purports that catastrophic events like the Holocaust and other similar tragedies did not occur as a result of deeply rooted prejudices and conflicts among social groups. Instead, most people who did not belong to groups victimized during the tragedy did not have an incentive to intervene. Ingroup bias, instead of prejudice toward the outgroup, allowed people to serve as bystanders and continue on with their daily lives. These folks cared more about benefitting their own groups than extending assistance to Jews and other victimized outgroups.
Henri Tajfel, the social psychologist who pioneered this new approach, demonstrated this tendency to display ingroup bias through repeated experiments that later became known as the Minimal Group Experiments. Tajfel randomly sorted a group of children into teams, and he observed their behavior when they interacted with their peers on the opposing team. The children in the experiment allocated their resources to their teammates and sought to win on behalf of their groups. These experiments allowed Tajfel to observe that people will always try to benefit their groups regardless of how meaningful the teams or categories are.
I argue that we can apply the Minimal Group Paradigm to brownies as well. Think about what your favorite style of brownie is. Do you prefer a gooey middle, a single crispy edge, or a crunchy corner? Now, pretend I told you that your answer makes you either a “Middle Person,” “Edge Person,” or “Corner Person.” If I were to group you with fellow middle, corner, or edge people, you would then proceed to develop an identity as this brownie type and try to benefit your group at the expense of other groups. Despite how meaningless this category is, you would still behave in this manner.
“Ingroup love” does not always result in “outgroup hate,” but it always produces ingroup bias. Additionally, when you do not belong to the outgroup, you are more likely to rely on group stereotypes when making assessments about the group as a whole. This tendency explains why we hear comments like, “All ______ people look/act/feel the same.” We may even begin to believe these stereotypes because we do not belong to the outgroup. I prefer middle brownies, and if I were to say all corner brownie people have no feelings, then my fellow group members and potentially the “Edge People” may agree because they do not belong to the “Corner category.”
I conduct this activity with my students, and they do indeed display ingroup bias after self-categorizing as a preferred brownie type. This activity serves as a delicious reminder that human tendencies often produce undesirable consequences, so learning about our natural instinct to benefit those like us may help us check our behavior in future interactions with people who do not belong to our political party, our racial group, etc.
About Dr. Amy Sentementes
Dr. Amy Sentementes is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Pennsylvania State University in University Park, PA. She received a PhD. in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She specializes in political psychology and American politics. Her research and teaching interests broadly involve group identity, issue framing, information processing, and food politics. Check out her website and follow her on Instagram to follow along with her food adventures!