One of the greatest threats to humankind is our tendency to create what sociologists call in-groups and out-groups. While such distinctions contribute to group solidarity, increased safety, and a personal sense of belonging, they can also lead to the us versus them thinking that underlies humans’ greatest acts of cruelty. Each of the following precipitate from us versus them thinking and the failure to witness the humanity of the “Other”:
- Stigma — For example, the term “borderline” is a common pejorative used in the mental health field, which usually devalues women with early life histories of abuse and emotional invalidation. Distinctions between psychotic and nonpsychotic can also imply a psychotic person has less worth, or is even less human, than a nonpsychotic person.
- Inequities in care — A study of pain treatment in emergency departments showed “black children were significantly less likely to receive pain medications when compared to their white counterparts.”
- Maltreatment — One article on trauma-informed systems of care began with the story of how a provider in a detention facility tasered a youth held in the center while saying, “Got another one!” to her co-worker.
- Gender-based violence — Harassment, “slut shaming,” sexual assault, and rape are tools of intimidation meant to degrade the “Other.”
- Genocide — Dehumanizing a group and identifying them as a threat to the survival of the in-group paves the way for the worst form of human cruelty.
Scientific research suggests humans naturally create in-groups and out-groups. For example, in a recent study of in-group affiliation, the American participants were less likely to remember Afghan soldiers’ justifications for war-related atrocities (the out-group) than American soldiers’ justifications for committing similar atrocities (the in-group). The researchers concluded the participants’ selective ‘forgetting’ allowed them to morally condone in-group members’ actions while also distancing themselves from members of the out-group — a process that seemed to occur without intention on the part of the study’s participants.
Yet the seemingly natural propensity to form in-groups and out-groups may now threaten our collective ability to thrive as a species. Regardless of the role in-group and out-group distinctions played in human evolution, the time has come to explore how we might evolve differently. There are simply too many humans on the planet, too many weapons and other methods of destruction and dehumanization, not to search for a more interdependent approach to “human nature.”
The question, of course, is How do we evolve differently? Personally, grand gestures that attempt to ‘fix’ nature, like seeding clouds to produce rain or genetically engineering crops, make me anxious. I’ve also written about the explosion of SSRI use, which seems to me to be as much about social engineering as treating mental disorders. I prefer the power of modest ideas, which can start with minimal shifts in orientation yet nevertheless lead to lasting and meaningful change. What follows are a few suggestions for loosening the grip of us versus them thinking. But first, a deeper look at why we likely evolved to create in-groups and out-groups.
The Evolutionary Origins of the Tribe
My understanding of why humans naturally construct us versus them distinctions relies on anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar’s Social Brain Hypothesis. Dunbar hypothesized that the expansion of the neocortex region of the brain — the area most often associated with humans’ enhanced capacity to process and remember information — was an adaptation to increasingly complex social dynamics. Thus, rather than evolving for tool use and analytical thinking, we humans gained bigger brains to master the complexities that come with group living. And there seems to be an upper limit on the number of people in a tribe, or in-group, that humans can psychologically handle. According to Dunbar:
“The social brain hypothesis implies that constraints on group size arise from the information-processing capacity of the primate brain, and that the neocortex plays a major role in this. However, even this proposal is open to several interpretations as to how the relationship is mediated. At least five possibilities can be usefully considered. The constraint on group size could be a result of the ability to recognize and interpret visual signals for identifying either individuals or their behavior; limitations on memory for faces; the ability to remember who has a relationship with whom (e.g., all dyadic relationships within the group as a whole); the ability to manipulate information about a set of relationships; and the capacity to process emotional information, particularly with respect to recognizing and acting on cues to other animals’ emotional states. These are not all necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do identify different points in the cognitive mechanism that might be the crucial information processing bottleneck” (p. 184).
From his extensive research, Dunbar reached the following conclusion about the number of people we humans comfortably bond with:
“Humans are said to be able to attach names to around 2,000 faces but have a cognitive group size of only about 150” (p. 184).
Given the natural limits placed on human connection, I find compelling the significance of social sharing and networking on the web. The number of relationships and group memberships many people regularly entertain on the web go well beyond the upper limits Dunbar found to be common to our hominid ancestors for whom face-to-face communication was the norm. Through the web, many regularly project in-group status to complete strangers, as well as rapidly gain membership in communities of supposedly like-minded people who they often don’t know. At the same time, many of us show signs of increased, and rapid, us versus them thinking. On the web, it is easy to dismiss or ridicule another person or group based on a few traits, beliefs, or iconic images. The internet even has a built-in method for finalizing out-group designations: the click of a mouse, and on to another website.
Part of what makes the internet and smart phones and all the apps so enticing is the potential for creating emotional reactions we find soothing, exhilarating, stimulating — really, whatever we are looking for. However, while on the web searching to fulfill needs and desires, we also come up against things that offend and repel us. At these moments, I believe we are most likely to revert to us versus them thinking. It’s not that we actually formulate the thought, “Me and my group disagree with that,” but rather there is a felt sense of coming in contact with the “Other” that seems to trip some hard-wired need to distance oneself in order to preserve real-world or virtual group affiliations. It’s as if even listening to “them,” or perusing their websites, is tantamount to endorsing their attitudes and beliefs. We don’t need members of our virtual or real in-groups standing over our shoulders, monitoring us as we surf the web, since we are typically quite good at monitoring ourselves when it comes to in-group affiliations. Membership in groups, no matter how freely we join them, inherently involves a significant amount of self-disciplining with regards to the group’s norms.
Furthermore, because of our natural proclivity to blur the line between the real and the imaginal, especially when feeling strong emotions, it’s relatively easy for the attitudes and beliefs used to parse the World Wide Web to later leak into our face-to-face interactions — especially when backed by a sense of being part of in-groups that share similar beliefs and goals. As anthropologist Arjun Appadurai wrote, “the imagination, especially when collective, can become the fuel for action” (p. 7). Unfortunately, the web allows us to practice quickly jumping to conclusions about the “Other” without equal opportunities for learning how to de-escalate face-to-face confrontations with people we perceive as threats.
The world we live in is profoundly different from our hominid ancestors’ world. Neither the environments we inhabit today, nor the relationships we keep, are “natural” according to the conditions in which the human body, psyche, and social groups first evolved. Through the web, we have the potential to witness and interact with the imaginations and realities of billions of people — far more than Dunbar’s 150. The more we live partially virtual existences, mentally revolving between us versus them thinking as we navigate a crowded internet and planet, the more we become entrenched in mental models adapted to a world we no longer inhabit. And we have no idea what the consequences will be.
The need for ‘us – us’ thinking
Dunbar noted that the neocortex is a system that interacts with other systems of the brain, including the reptilian brain system that governs basic body functions like respiration, and the limbic system, which houses a lot of our emotional architecture. The limbic system includes the amygdala, which activates fear-based defense responses, as well as the anterior insula cortex, which contributes to feelings of empathy, attachment, and love.
Memories stimulated in the neocortex connect with emotions kindled in the limbic system, which the reptilian brain pairs with body reactions. Distinctions between us and them use all these systems of the brain, and seem to capitalize on neurobiologically-based action tendencies that constrict consciousness, allowing for quick decisions about whether to orient towards attachment (“us”) or defense (“them”) — that is, rapidly concluding whether someone is friend or foe.
Given the climate-related crises predicted to occur within a few decades, if we humans are to have any hope for a healthy, thriving planet, we collectively will have to resist the natural action tendency towards defense and “them” thinking.
The simplest way to avoid one action tendency is to orient towards the other primary action tendency, which happens to revolve around actions that promote empathy, attachment, and love. Such a shift isn’t always easy. I know from personal experience, as well as working with people with horrific trauma histories, this is an active choice that must be made everyday, sometimes every hour, and on really tough days, every moment.
Redirecting the action tendency of defense involves continually reorienting towards feelings of empathy, if not actively trying to imagine ways you might be similar to an “Other.” However, when frightened or angry, it can feel nearly impossible to access empathy. At such times, acknowledging you are having a natural, hard-wired defense reaction can help. Let go of trying to feel empathy for the “Other” and instead mindfully witness your body’s reactions while holding empathy for yourself. Mindfully witnessing slows down the defense response that might otherwise escalate painful emotions or lead to shut down, which interfere with clear thinking and empathic engagement with others.
If neither of those strategies work for you, it might help to think about the added stress caused by frequently scanning for the “Other” and the potential impact on your physical health and mental well-being. Remember, healthy self-love often translates into more compassion for others. I have also found the Buddhist meditation practice of Tonglen yields wonderful results:
I end here with a video by Tiffany Shlain and the Moxie Institute that I first saw at the Being Human conference in 2012. Titled A Declaration of Interdependence, this video does a great job capturing the dual nature of humanity that I think we should try to “engineer” in ourselves as the new norm of us – us thinking, which I believe rests on two seemingly contradictory beliefs:
- We are all unique.
- We are all alike.
This may be the sweet spot of our collective survival.
Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Dunbar, Robin. 1998. “The Social Brain Hypothesis.” Evolutionary Anthropology no. 6 (5):178-190.
© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).