Decoding “us” and “them”: Neural representations of generalized group concepts

Mina Cikara, Jay Van Bavel, Zachary Ingbretsen, Tatiana Lau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Humans form social coalitions in every society on earth, yet we know very little about how the general concepts us and them are represented in the brain. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that the human capacity for group affiliation is a byproduct of adaptations that evolved for tracking coalitions in general. These theories suggest that humans possess a common neural code for the concepts in-group and out-group, regardless of the category by which group boundaries are instantiated. The authors used multivoxel pattern analysis to identify the neural substrates of generalized group concept representations. They trained a classifier to encode how people represented the most basic instantiation of a specific social group (i.e., arbitrary teams created in the lab with no history of interaction or associated stereotypes) and tested how well the neural data decoded membership along an objectively orthogonal, real-world category (i.e., political parties). The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex/middle cingulate cortex and anterior insula were associated with representing groups across multiple social categories. Restricting the analyses to these regions in a separate sample of participants performing an explicit categorization task, the authors replicated cross-categorization classification in anterior insula. Classification accuracy across categories was driven predominantly by the correct categorization of in-group targets, consistent with theories indicating in-group preference is more central than out-group derogation to group perception and cognition. These findings highlight the extent to which social group concepts rely on domain-general circuitry associated with encoding stimuli’s functional significance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)621-631
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2017

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