One cannot help noticing that migration is increasing. Over the past century, the trend has been towards greater mobility for more people around the world. Many people now live in a place different from where they were born, with different social norms and customs.

A new study by researchers at the University of Maryland highlights a surprising byproduct: increased mobility can help people treat themselves as individuals rather than members of a defined social group. The work suggests that mobility counteracts the tendency of populations to become more ethnocentric – or inclined to favor members of their own ethnic, tribal or national group while being hostile to other groups – over time. The study appears online in the journal Nature Science Reports on December 8, 2015.

“Our study marks the first time that an evolutionary game theory computational model has been used to examine whether the well-studied psychological phenomenon of ethnocentrism develops differently with increased mobility,” said Soham De, lead author of study and graduate student in Computer Science at UMD. “The underlying message is very promising: ethnocentric behavior is not inevitable, so perhaps human societies can take additional steps to reduce conflict.”

Historically, most group conflicts have been between people who define themselves primarily by the groups to which they belong. Previous research in psychology has established that such categorization is natural, with humans classifying others into “in-groups” and “out-groups”. A common result is that individuals favor those in their own group while being hostile to outsiders. Indeed, many cultural psychology studies have suggested that this tendency towards ethnocentrism is inevitable in the development of human societies.

This study supports the idea that ethnocentric behavior is not inevitable, but is affected by structural conditions within a society, including overall levels of mobility.

The team started with a well-established computer model of human behavior based on the principles of game theory, a concept that economists, political scientists and psychologists use to study patterns of human decision-making. Such collaborations between computer scientists and social scientists have become more common, as the former can use computer models to test the theories advanced by the latter.

“Evolutionary game-theoretic models can help explain how the characteristics of a society can change over time as individuals change their actions and strategies in order to adapt to their current conditions.” said study co-author Dana Nau, a UMD professor of computer science with a cross-appointment at the UMD Institute for Systems Research. “Although these models are much simpler than actual human societies, they can help unravel causal relationships and provide support for social science theories.”

By introducing mobility into their model, the researchers significantly reduced the emergence of ethnocentric behaviors. Their findings indicated that when societies are more mobile, their actions are more likely to depend on viewing people as individuals rather than as part of a perceived group. Moreover, the results show that there is less hostility towards other groups in highly mobile places compared to people with low mobility.

Cultural psychology research suggests that in mobile societies, people adapt strategically to their circumstances by changing relationships often, having a wide network of casual acquaintances, and being open to strangers. They are likely to evaluate others based on their reliability and worth. But in places where people are not highly mobile, opportunities to form new relationships are limited – and ending existing relationships can have dire consequences. In these places, maintaining loyalty to one’s own group while keeping a safe distance from other groups is a good coping strategy.

“In mobile settings, people constantly come and go from different relationships; being open to strangers is likely adaptive in these circumstances,” said study co-author Michele Gelfand, professor of psychology at UMD. “On the other hand, in low mobility contexts, individuals have far fewer opportunities to form new relationships. They get most of their needs met by the group with which they identify; in this context, it is more logical to treat people according to the groups to which they belong.”

The researchers ran their theoretical model of the games over tens of thousands of iterations, covering various scenarios on the UMD’s Deepthinkt2 supercomputer cluster. In the low mobility scenarios, the researchers found that 75% of the population adopted strategies that favored their own group and were hostile to others. When the researchers increased the amount of mobility in the model, the opposite scenario developed, with around 70% of the population using strategies that depended more on individual behavior. Thus, mobility counteracted the evolutionary dominance of group perception and ethnocentric strategies.

The team then tested their results against real data from the US Census Bureau, which provides mobility measures for all 50 states. Mobility was positively correlated with responses to the question “I am interested in the cultures of other countries” and negatively correlated with responses to questions related to ethnocentric attitudes. This analysis of the census data was consistent with the model results.

“It’s always good to test whether what you predict in your model actually happens in real life,” Nau said.

Gelfand is careful to note that the research does not address how mobility affects people’s attitudes, but rather how it affects people’s interactions with each other.

“One characteristic an agent may have in our model is whether they treat another person more like an individual, rather than a member of a particular group,” Gelfand said. “As the level of mobility increases a bit, they start to need to interact with new groups. They do much better in these kinds of circumstances if they treat others as individuals. It becomes adaptive .”

Gelfand also cautioned that because the model is very abstract, it won’t apply to all real-world scenarios. “But overall, in a context of mobility, you start to treat people as individuals rather than just recognizing them as a member of a category,” she said.

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