Lab Group Prejudice

I recently came across an article explaining Henri Tajfel, a social psychologist, work on group mentalities. The experimenters divided people into arbitrary groups then let individuals, without any conversation with the group, decide how money would be split among the two groups. Now realize that the groups were completely meaningless, the participants knew this, no actual money was transferred, and individuals couldn’t choose to give money to themselves. Still, participants showed a bias against the members of the other group by rewarding them with less money. The conclusion reached by the researchers was that group mentality was even stronger than we might think.

So is this group mentality true in labs? As a graduate student, you spend a lot of time in the lab, interacting with the same people everyday. Together, you celebrate when something works and you bemoan when something doesn’t. You share stories of being yelled at by the professor and failing certain graduate requirements (which they always let you redo). The bond between people becomes pretty strong—and so does the group mentality.

In fact, right off the bat when meeting new students we specify our lab group—”Hi. I’m Jenna and I’m in the Locklin lab.” Often followed by questioning their group alliance—”What lab are you in?”

Sure, internally the group mentality is important. In such stressful times it is comforting to know there are people who will be there to help and encourage you. But what about externally comparing two groups. Would you expect much bias?

I am in a prime position to answer this question as a go-between for two different worlds of chemistry: experimentalists and theorists. And believe me, I have heard a lot of bullshit from both sides. Experimentalists bash the theorists for not being able to do “real” chemistry, while the theorists bash the experimentalists for being lab monkey goons that don’t understand the fundamentals. Both sides are fiercely resolute in their opinions. But which side is correct? Are theorists incapable? Are experimentalists goons?

The answer is neither, no, and absolutely not. Remember, both of these sets are made up of highly educated individuals seeking post-secondary education. Everyone here is competent. So why such animosity? What causes the inability to recognize that the other group is smart and talented? Is it the group mentality of “we’re better than you”? Do we actually need to compare the two and say one is better? I think not. Comparisons, in my opinion, only invite opposition. In a comparison, something is the best, something is the worst, and something else comes in second. No one wants to see themselves as the worst, and many people have trouble being second—especially when you dedicate your entire life (and sanity) to something.

If the group mentality can’t completely be stopped, which is pretty damn likely considering all of the psychological research which points to an insuppressible group mentality, we can at least stop the comparison. Let’s maintain all the benefits of a close-knit group, without judging ourselves against others. Then, maybe, we can all get along.


2 thoughts on “Lab Group Prejudice

  1. I love working in a group, and I think that a sane competition against other labs is ok. It will improve the bonding between people in the group. What I cannot stand are the “lonely stars” that don’t know how to work/behave in a group.
    In my old PhD lab we even had our own flag.

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