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Minimal Group Paradigm

Main Findings

Prior to Tajfel's work, it was believed that group bias (favoritism and/or prejudice) arose from personal interests of group members or from conflict.  Tajfel demonstrated that the minimal condition needed for group favoritism is simply categorization into a group, no matter how arbitrary the criteria for categorization.


In 1971, Henri Tajfel conducted experiments to find out what the minimal conditions were for intergroup bias.  In order to conduct proper experiments, he followed several criteria:

  1. No face-to-face interaction between subjects (in- or out-group)
  2. No subjects could know to which group other subjects belonged
  3. The responses of the subjects that would demonstrate bias could not in any way be justified by the group membership inclusion criteria
  4. The responses of the subject should not benefit them in any utilitarian way
  5. A strategy of intergroup differentiation should be in competition with a more utilitarian or rational strategy that benefits the in-group in absolute terms
  6. The response should be made important and real to the subject

Two experiments were conducted.  The first of which consisted of 64 male subjects aged 14 to 15 who estimated the number of dots projected on a screen.  They were divided into four groups, under two different experimental conditions.  In the "neutral" condition, subjects were told that some overestimate and others underestimate, but this did not reflect accuracy.  In the "value" condition, the subjects were told that some people are more accurate than others.

The subjects were then randomly assigned to one of the four groups (over estimators, under estimators, accurate, inaccurate) regardless of their actual performance (which was irrelevant for this experiment).  Now each subject had the opportunity to give cash awards to different subjects based on group membership.  Did group membership matter?

In the second experiment, 48 of the same boys were divided into three groups this time.  They were shown slides of reproductions of paintings by two artists, Klee and Kandinsky, with slides identified by number and painting by a letter.  They were asked which ones they preferred, although the artist remained anonymous to them.  Again, each of the groups were randomly assigned to either the "Klee" or the "Kandinsky" group, and the subjects were presented with matrices where they could assign monetary rewards to their own group and the other group.


In the first experiment, the different conditions resulted in no significant differences in the results.  All the groups shown significant favoritism for their in-group, and there was striking evidence for discriminatory in-group behavior.  Similarly, experiment #2 resulted in significant in-group favoritism.


Tajfel's original experiments were criticized based on the fact that he used young students, who are generally competitive and susceptible to bias.  The methodology he used was also criticized by those who argued that the nature of the experiment led students to assume the idea was to favor their group.  Decades of follow up studies have altered the conditions and tested for these moderators, yet Tajfel's theory still remains strong (“BBC - BBC Radio 4 Programmes - Buzz about Mind Changers,” n.d.).

It is important to note that Tajfel's work did not demonstrate that out-group discrimination was the result of these minimal conditions; simply that in-group favoritism was.

Applied Ideas

Using this knowledge of how we form intergroup biases, we can apply techniques including minimizing differences as well as education of these biases to minimize potential bias.

More Video

Other Details

  • Year: 1971
  • Researcher(s): Henri Tajfel
  • Reference(s):
    BBC - BBC Radio 4 Programmes - Buzz about Mind Changers: Henri Tajfel’s Minimal Groups. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2013, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00yw6km/buzz
    Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1(2), 149–178. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2420010202

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