Don’t Always Trust Your In-Group

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
6 min readApr 11, 2022
Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

A quick way to make sensible decisions is to copy the people around you. We dress like our social groups when there are no rules dictating that we must, we adopt political beliefs that fit into our political tribes, and we use products and services that our friends use to avoid missing out. All of this makes sense because it prevents us from becoming outcasts. But occasionally, it starts to obscure reality.

Solomon Asch showed decades ago that people will answer an easy question incorrectly just to avoid looking different. Here’s an example that every psychology student knows: Which of the colorful lines below (A, B, or C) is the same height as the black line?

It should be fairly obvious that the correct answer is C. But when participants answered together with a group of secret research accomplices who were hired to give wrong answers, they would often go against their own intelligence to conform to the group’s incorrect answer. 5% of people always conformed to the group answer, and 75% of people gave at least one incorrect answer during the experiment (compared to only 3% in a control group with no social pressure).

This raises important questions about how far social conformity goes. How much do we copy in-groups compared to out-groups? Do we copy people even when they’re not especially reliable? When is it a mistake to follow the crowd?

Comic from

Do people rely too much on in-groups?

In a recent study, researchers at McGill University asked 360 people to play an online game in which they had to guess which of two nests a rabbit was hiding behind. The only predictable thing about the rabbit was that it liked to stay put. In each round of the game, there was a 90% chance that the rabbit would hide in the same nest as the last round and a 10% chance that it would switch to the opposite nest. Every five rounds, people got an overall score telling them how often they found the rabbit and how their performance compared to other people’s scores.

Before starting the game, the researchers randomly assigned each player to a color-coded group. The purpose was to give…

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: