US-VERSUS-THEM: The prize of being a social animal
Written by Gabe
“Man is by nature a social animal,” states the Greek thinker, Aristotle, in his work on politics, aptly named Politics. From a modern point of view, he was wrong regarding many things. This isn’t one of them.
We have depended on each other to survive since our first days. The earliest humans traversed the wilderness in bands, as without the support of their kinsmen they would have died a quick and lonely death, be it by injury, predators, or infection. Our ability to cooperate, share ideas and work together in groups is one of our greatest advantages - without it, we would have died out as just another species of ape, unique only in our hairlessness and ability to walk on two legs, and no one would have been here to invent the computer, discover quantum mechanics, write novels, drive cars, oppress their own species in military dictatorships and watch thrilling games of basketball.
This team spirit is not only an amazing strength - it’s also one of our most detrimental, most painful weaknesses.
Why? We love belonging to collectives. We love it so much that it prevents the entirety of humanity from being one.
Humans have evolved to see themselves and others as members of groups. Eye colour, favourite food, financial status, the brand of clothes somebody wears, language, sexuality, religion, political stance, appearance - anything can be a way to categorise people.
We call groups one considers themselves to be a member of ingroups and groups one doesn’t associate with outgroups.
Another thing humans have evolved to do is to discriminate. Us-versus-them mentality is almost as commonplace as groups themselves. It appears everywhere. Atheists versus the religious. Liberals versus conservatives. Israelis versus Palestinians. Natives versus immigrants. Skin colour A versus skin colour B. It has been shown that while we empathise with the misfortunes of those in our ingroup, we commonly exhibit schadenfreude , that is, joy based on others’ suffering, at the pain of outgroup members.
We’re also generally much more altruistic towards our ingroup than to outgroups. Stereotypes are also heavily intertwined with how we perceive outgroups - we attribute specific (often negative) personality traits to members of outgroups, as if they all behaved in the same way.
It has previously been thought that discrimination against outgroups happens as a result of competition or conflict. This probably isn’t true. In 1970, the social psychologist Henri Tajfel conducted a series of experiments on students from a UK state school. The point was rather simple: he wanted to see the way groups influence how people interact with each other.
The experiment went like this: first, he seemingly tested the students on the accuracy of their visual processing, and then assigned them into groups based on their supposed results. The process of group selection was, in reality, random.
Afterwards, he gave them a task - they were supposed to allocate money to other students, given a choice: either maximise the profit for everyone or just members of their own group. Despite having known each other for years prior, the students observably preferred their own, newly-made group and actively discriminated against the others.
This shows that people are capable of discrimination against outgroups by simply being divided into groups, without any conflict or competition occuring beforehand.
Another problem brought to us by our preference for collectivism is the concept known as groupthink. Groupthink is a phenomenon that happens when groups of people make irrational decisions, either from a desire for harmony or a fear of disagreement. In situations of groupthink, individuals refrain from stating their actual opinion or doubting the group’s decision, leading to sometimes catastrophic outcomes. It has been shown that simply seeing our group’s label can make us completely reconsider our own opinion - Geoffrey L. Cohen, a Yale University psychologist, conducted four studies, all very similar, on university students. The studies involved presenting the students with either a liberal or conservative welfare policy. If background information about the views of their party was absent, liberals agreed with the liberal one and vice versa. However, simply stating that the students’ preferred party supported the policy, even if untrue, could make liberals support the conservative policy and the other way around. Most participants also denied being influenced by their group, instead saying that the policy agrees with their views.
All of what I’ve mentioned so far blends into a rather unsavory stew when we enter the arena of conflict and disagreement. Our tribalistic tendency can make us forget what is the actual point of the argument we’ve found ourselves in, and we fight the “enemies” just because we see them as our enemies, instead of various individuals with their own motivations and inner lives.
I’ve witnessed many instances of this occurring in just my own life, and I suppose that you have too. In extreme cases our bias for favoring our own ingroup even leads to genocide and ethnic cleansing. Sadly, these cases, although extreme, aren’t that uncommon.
On a final note, I would like to ask you to slow down and actually think through your actual position and beliefs every time you get involved in a group dispute, so that you don’t get caught up in one of our greatest evolutionary disadvantages.
Cohen, G. “Party over policy,” Journal of personality and social psychology, 2003. Available at: https://ed.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/party_over_policy.pdf
Emamzadeh, A. “The psychology of ‘us-vs-them’,” Psychology Today, 2019. Available at:
Everett, J. et co., “Preferences and beliefs in ingroup favoritism,” 2015. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00015/full
Psychology Today, “Groupthink,” Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/groupthink
Tajfel, H. “Experiments in intergroup discrimination,” 1970. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20191206013420/https://asfranthompson.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/tajfel-1970-experiments-in-intergroup-discrimination.pdf