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How does intergroup threat affect the shifting function? The moderating role of group identification.

Intergroup threat is the perception of members of one group that another group may cause them harm (Chen & Zhao, 2015). According to intergroup threat theory (Stephan, Ybarra, & Morrison, 2009), it comes in two forms: threats to a group's general welfare, power, or resources (realistic); and threats to a group's values, morals, religion, ideology, worldview, belief system, or philosophy (symbolic). Researchers have examined the effect of intergroup threat on cognitive outcomes, such as social attention and memory. For example, Chen and Zhao (2015) found that people pay more attention to the gaze direction of threatening faces, compared with that of nonthreatening faces, when they feel intergroup threat. Moreover, participants in the control condition in a study by Zhu, Zhao, Ybarra, Stephan, and Yang (2015) had a better memory for threat-related than for neutral information, whereas the memory of participants in the intergroup threat condition was enhanced for both threat-related and neutral information.

Executive function (EF) refers to a family of top-down mental processes that is needed when an individual has to concentrate and pay attention (Diamond, 2013). According to the strength model of self-control (Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007), EF is a limited, but renewable, cognitive resource, and may be influenced by intergroup threat. The inhibition function, a central component of EF, concerns an individual's ability to deliberately inhibit dominant, automatic, or prepotent responses when necessary (van der Sluis, de Jong, & van der Leij, 2004). In the last several decades, researchers have found that inhibition function outcomes are influenced by intergroup threat. For example, Black students underperform on the Stroop color-naming task when exposed to racial prejudice (Bair & Steele, 2010). These findings suggest that being the target of intergroup threat can deplete the inhibition function of members of a threatened group. Another central component of EF is the shifting function, which refers to an individual's ability to shift back and forth between multiple tasks or mental sets (Miyake et al., 2000). Results of confirmatory factor analysis have shown that the inhibition and shifting functions are moderately correlated with each other (Miyake et al., 2000). Inhibition is typically assessed with a version of the Stroop task in which participants inhibit or override a prepotent response, whereas shifting is operationalized by paradigms designed as a test of the time it takes participants to mentally switch between two or more simple sets of tasks (Monsell, 2003). Hedden and Gabrieli (2010) found that functional magnetic resonance imaging results show a large overlap between the brain networks involved in inhibition and shifting, with some brain regions possibly selectively or preferentially involved in inhibition or shifting. Because it has been found that intergroup threat has an effect on inhibition, which is correlated with shifting, intergroup threat should also have an effect on shifting. However, there is currently no direct evidence that this is so.

Group identification is defined as the importance of the group to one's self-concept, and has been shown to moderate the consequences of perceived intergroup threat (Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 2002). Group identification is not equal for all group members, and there is substantial evidence that individual differences in group identification are an important predictor of cognition, affect, and behavior in intergroup situations (Clarkson, Smith, Tormala, & Dugan, 2017; Ellemers et al., 2002; Wakefield et al., 2017). When the group is threatened, closely identified members are less likely to distance themselves from the group to protect their self-concept (Ellemers et al., 2002), and are more likely to anticipate discrimination (Sellers & Shelton, 2003) and to feel that disparaging comments about members of their group are self-referential (McCoy & Major, 2003). Moreover, closely identified members expend more resources resisting stigmatizing messages (Johns, Inzlicht, & Schmader, 2008), and are more likely to show greater depletion of executive resources in an interracial interaction (Bair & Steele, 2010).

As intergroup threat affects inhibition, this suggests that it consumes executive resources. In this study we examined whether intergroup threat also affects the shifting function. We conducted two experiments designed to test the switching costs of symbolic and realistic types of intergroup threat, and the depletion of executive resources needed for switching tasks. Accordingly, we had reasonable grounds to predict that switching might be affected by intergroup threat. We also explored whether group identification moderates the effect of intergroup threat on switching tasks. We hypothesized that this effect would be moderated by people's level of group identification, with greater depletion occurring in the intergroup threat condition in those who reported closer group identification.

Study 1

Method

Participants. Participants were 58 undergraduate students (45 women and 13 men; [M.sub.age] = 22.38 years, SD = 1.11, range = 20-24) at Southwest University in China.

Materials and procedure. Our ethical standards in conducting the research were in line with the Declaration of Helsinki and approval was granted by the Research Review Board of Southwest University. The students completed informed consent sheets prior to commencing the study, and they were assured of anonymity.

The students were randomly assigned to either the symbolic threat condition (n = 29) or the control condition (n = 29). Participants in the symbolic intergroup threat condition read an article entitled College students are much more selfish than noncollege students. Participants in the control condition read an article about a family tour. After reading the article, participants' sense of intergroup threat was assessed by their response to the question "How strongly did you feel threatened by noncollege students after reading the article?" Response options ranged from 1 = not at all to 7 = very much. In addition, participants assessed how much they had felt each of three emotions (angry, worried, and anxious) related to a sense of threat, on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 = a little to 5 = quite a lot (Chen & Zhao, 2015). This served as a manipulation check of the degree of threat experienced.

All participants then completed the Objects Shifting Task (see Figure 1), which is designed to measure the executive resources of shifting (van der Sluis et al., 2004). Each trial contains a geometric figure (square, diamond, triangle, or circle) with a digit (1, 2, 3, or 4) placed in the center. Participants classify either the figure or the digit, depending on the color of the stimulus. When the stimulus is red, the digit is classified: If the digit is odd, participants press "F" and if the digit is even, the participants press "J." When the stimulus is blue, the surrounding figure is classified: If the figure is a quadrilateral, participants press "F" and if the figure is not a quadrilateral, participants press "J." Each participant completed one single and one mixed task. The single task comprised four digit and four figure classification trials, with all the trials presented sequentially (e.g., AAAABBBB). The mixed task involved eight practice and 32 actual trials; half of the trials were digit classification trials and half were figure classification trials. All the trials were presented randomly (e.g., ABBAAAAB).

Participants then completed a scale modified from a validated group identification scale ([alpha] = .83; Hogg, Sherman, Dierselhuis, Maitner, & Moffitt, 2007). Participants rated eight statements about their identification with college students on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from 1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree. A sample item is "I have a very positive impression of college students." Finally, participants were thanked and paid [yen]20 (approximately US $3.00).

Results and Discussion

Intergroup threat manipulation. We performed an independent samples t test and found that participants in the symbolic threat condition reported feeling greater threat (M = 4.45, SD = 1.45) than did those in the control condition (M = 2.21, SD = 1.37), t(56) = 6.04, p < .001, d = 1.59, 95% confidence interval (CI) [1.50, 2.99]. In addition, the results of an independent samples t test show that participants in the threat condition felt significantly greater threat: angry, t(56) = 4.23, p < .001, d = 1.12, 95% CI [0.45, 1.27]; worried, t(56) = 4.95, p < .001, d = 1.30, 95% CI [0.70, 1.65]; and anxious, t(56) = 4.67, p < .001, d = 1.23, 95% CI [0.55, 1.38]. These results indicate that the intergroup threat manipulation was successful. Further, the results of an independent samples t test indicate that there was no significant difference in group identification between the threat condition (M = 6.70, SD = 0.80) and the control condition (M = 6.64, SD = 1.38), t(56) = 0.20, p = .84, d = 0.05, 95% CI [-0.53, 0.65]. This means that the threat manipulation did not influence group identification.

Switching costs and the moderating effect of group identification. The difference in participants' reaction times between the single (e.g., AAAABBBB) and the mixed (e.g., ABBAAAAB) trials represents the extent of the switching costs (mixed trials minus single trials). Errors and latencies greater than 4,000 ms or less than 200 ms were excluded from the analysis (32% of all responses).

Results of a one-way analysis of variance reveal that the switching costs for those in the symbolic intergroup threat condition (M = 976.47, SD = 757.30) were significantly greater than those in the control condition (M = 562.91, SD = 354.78), F(1, 56) = 7.09, p = .01, d = 0.70. The postpower analysis (G*Power 3.1.9.2; Faul, Erdfelder, Buchner, & Lang, 2009) results indicate acceptable statistical power (1 - [beta]) = .85 in Study 1. Moderation analysis results show a significant interaction between intergroup threat and group identification, [beta] = .49, t(54) = 3.89, p < .001. Results of a simple slope analysis show that participants with closer group identification had higher switching costs in the symbolic intergroup threat condition, [beta] = .81, t (54) = 4.92, p < .001. The relationship between group identification and switching costs was nonsignificant for those in the control condition, [beta] = -.17, t(54) = -0.99, p = .33.

The Study 1 findings indicate that participants in the symbolic intergroup threat condition had higher switching costs than did those in the control condition, and this effect was moderated by participants' level of group identification. To confirm our findings, we conducted Study 2 to replicate the results of Study 1, using a realistic intergroup threat. In addition, because researchers have proposed that a comparison of single and mixed tasks confounds actual switching and mixing costs (Bair & Steele, 2010), in Study 2 we measured switching costs as the difference between repeat and switch trials.

Study 2

Method

Participants. Participants were 57 undergraduate students (44 women and 13 men; [M.sub.age] = 20.96 years, SD = 1.14) at Southwest University in China, none of whom had taken part in Study 1. These students were randomly assigned to the realistic intergroup threat condition (n = 29) or the control condition (n = 28).

Materials and procedure. As for Study 1, the students completed informed consent sheets prior to commencing the study and were assured of anonymity. Ethical requirements were met as for Study 1. Our experimental threat condition was based on the fact that in China, although all universities are high-level research and world-class institutions, there are 985 universities that are perceived to be better overall than 211 other universities. The participants in the realistic intergroup threat condition read an article titled Graduates from 985 universities have more opportunities than those from 211 universities. Participants in the control condition read an article about April Fool's Day. We used the same manipulation check in Study 2 as in Study 1, after which all participants completed the same Objects Shifting Task that we used in Study 1. As already noted, in Study 2 we measured switching costs as the difference between repeat and switch trials. Participants in Study 2 completed eight practice trials and 32 actual trials. Half of the trials were digit classification trials and the other half were figure classification trials; all the trials were presented sequentially (e.g., ABBAABBA). Participants then completed the group identification scale ([alpha] = .83) that we used in Study 1. Finally, participants were thanked and were paid [yen]20 (approximately US $3.00).

Results and Discussion

Intergroup threat manipulation. We performed an independent samples t test and found that the threat scores of those in the realistic intergroup threat condition (M = 4.52, SD = 1.50) were higher than those of the participants in the control condition (M = 2.54, SD = 1.48), t(55) = 5.017, p < .001, d = 1.33, 95% CI [1.19, 2.77]. In addition, the results of an independent samples t test show significantly higher threat-related scores for participants in the realistic intergroup threat condition: angry, t(55) = 2.56, p = .01, d = 0.69, 95% CI [0.15, 1.21]; worried, t(55) = 3.74, p < .001, d = 0.99, 95% CI [0.49, 1.61]; and anxious, t(55) = 3.32, p = .002, d = 0.88, 95% CI [0.35, 1.42]. Moreover, the results of an independent samples t test indicate that there was no significant difference in group identification between the threat condition (M = 6.30, SD = 0.98) and the control condition (M = 6.17, SD = 1.15), t(55) = 0.45, p = .65, d = 0.12, 95% CI [-0.44, 0.69].

Switching costs and the moderating effect of group identification. The difference between participants' reaction times in the repeated and switching trials (i.e., switching trials minus repeated trials) represented the switching costs. If a trial was a different type from the preceding trial (e.g., AB), this was a switching trial, but if the second trial was the same type as the first (e.g., AA), this was a repeated trial. Errors and latencies greater than 4,000 ms or less than 200 ms were excluded from the analysis (37% of all responses).

Results of a one-way analysis of variance show that the switching costs in the realistic intergroup threat condition (M = 110.06, SD = 141.68) were significantly greater than they were in the control condition (M = 14.71, SD = 163.51), F(1, 55) = 5.548, p = .022, d = 0.62. The postpower analysis (G*Power 3.1.9.2) results indicate that the statistical power (1 - [beta]) was .84 in Study 2. Moderation analysis results reveal a significant interaction between intergroup threat and group identification, [beta] = .52, t(53) = 3.27, p = .002. A simple slope analysis was performed and the results show that participants with closer group identification had a higher switching cost in the intergroup threat condition, [beta] = .69, t(53) = 4.08, p < .001. The relationship between group identification and switching costs was nonsignificant in the control condition, [beta] = -.10, t(53) = -0.59, p = .557. Thus, the Study 2 findings replicate those of Study 1.

General Discussion

In this study we investigated the effect of intergroup threat on the shifting function of EF. Compared with participants in a control condition, participants under two types of intergroup threat experienced greater threat, suggesting that intergroup threat may deplete switching ability. Moreover, this effect appears to be significantly influenced by people's level of group identification: our results showed that closer (vs. less close) group identification was directly related to higher switching costs in the intergroup threat conditions. Because both inhibition and shifting are components of EF, our results are consistent with the finding of Bair and Steele (2010) that intergroup threat leads to higher inhibition costs. Our results showed that intergroup threat led to higher switching costs; thus, our finding that intergroup threat depleted EF for shifting is consistent with those reported by Bair and Steele.

To our knowledge, we are the first to explore the effect of intergroup threat on the shifting function. Our finding, which supports the notion that intergroup threat can indeed lead to negative cognitive outcomes, is consistent with previous results. For instance, Stephan et al. (2009) found that women perform poorly on the Stroop task when exposed to gender prejudice. However, why would intergroup threat lead to underperformance in shifting? One possible explanation is that negative emotions, specifically anxiety, trigger this underperformance. According to attentional control theory (Derakshan, Smyth, & Eysenck, 2009), negative emotions, such as anxiety, can impair the efficiency of the shifting function in two ways: First, emotions increase cognitive load. It is proposed in capacity theories that negative emotions increase the load on cognitive resources because of the increased activation of widespread associative networks of emotion-related thoughts (Johns et al., 2008). This rumination about emotion-relevant but task-irrelevant thoughts may result in a decrease in the capacity to devote attention to cognitive tasks. Second, negative mood narrows the available scope of attention. As shifting tests in experimental studies require the participant to shift his or her attention between different rules, this suggests that negative emotions may impair performance (Seibert & Ellis, 1991). Our results support this interpretation. Participants in the intergroup threat conditions reported more negative emotions than did those in the control conditions, and shifting costs were greater in the intergroup threat conditions. These finding align with previous results, thereby providing converging evidence that stereotype threat, which is a typical form of intergroup threat, depletes executive resources via emotion-focused regulation (Johns et al., 2008).

In our view it is important that the effect of intergroup threat on the shifting function was moderated by the extent to which group identity was a central aspect of participants' identity. Specifically, closer group identification reliably predicted higher levels of shifting costs in the intergroup threat, but not control, conditions. According to social identity theory (Tajfel, 1986), when faced with intergroup threat, closely identified group members are likely to experience the event as being more unjust and arousing, and to exert more self-control strategies to resist the threat (McCoy & Major, 2003). This is because closely identified group members (vs. less identified members) regard their group as being more important to their self-definition (Riek, Mania, & Gaertner, 2006); thus, it is more likely that they would both perceive and react to intergroup threat (Stephan et al., 2002), as did the participants in our study.

There are some limitations in this study. First, although we performed a power analysis to show that the sample size was adequate, the participant groups in both studies were small, especially when split into two subgroups. Thus, future researchers should explore the effect of intergroup threat on shifting with a larger sample size. Second, our participants were all healthy young adults, so the applicability of our conclusions is limited and should be tested in further research with other groups, such as older adults.

Our results imply a theoretical relationship between intergroup threat and self-concept. Luhtanen and Crocker (1992) proposed that self-concept is based on membership in social groups or other collective categories. As individuals strive to maintain, protect, and enhance a positive self-image (Tesser & Paulhus, 1983), future researchers should explore the possibility that the more closely individuals' self-concept is linked to group identity, the more a perception of intergroup threat will have negative consequences for their cognition, emotions, and behavior. Further, a growing number of researchers of social comparison under threat have found that, under threat conditions, individuals may make a downward comparison with someone they perceive as being worse off than themselves to achieve self-enhancement (Stephan et al., 2009). Future researchers should, thus, explore the possibility that individuals closely identified (vs. less identified) with a group are more likely to develop coping strategies to maintain a positive image of themselves or their group when exposed to intergroup threat. Monsell (2003) indicated that shifting involves two distinct processes: inhibition of the previously relevant task set and initiation of a new one. Thus, future researchers should examine whether intergroup threat influences these shifting function processes and, most important, investigate other kinds of intergroup threat to assess the generalizability of our findings.

Acknowledgements

Yujie Chen and Shanshan Quan contributed equally to this research.

This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31371055), the Major Tender Project for the National Social Science Foundation of China (17ZDA327), the Major Project for Key Research Institutes of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Ministry of Education of China (16JJD190007), the Postgraduate Research Innovation Project of Chongqing (CYB18110), and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities of China (SWU1809360).

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Yujie Chen (1), Shanshan Quan (1), Bing Chen (1), Yufang Zhao (1)

(1) Faculty of Psychology, Southwest University, and Key Laboratory of Cognition and Personality, Ministry of Education, People's Republic of China

How to cite: Chen, Y., Quan, S., Chen, B., & Zhao, Y. (2019). How does intergroup threat affect the shifting function? The moderating role of group identification. Social Behavior and Personality: An international journal, 47(8), e8130

CORRESPONDENCE Yufang Zhao, School of Psychology, Southwest University, No. 2, TianSheng Road, Beibei, Chongqing 400715, People's Republic of China. Email: zhaobee@swu.edu.cn

https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.8130
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Author:Chen, Yujie; Quan, Shanshan; Chen, Bing; Zhao, Yufang
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
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Date:Aug 1, 2019
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