Dr Robert Sapolsky was a guest on yet another episode of Big Picture Science. In this podcast he talks about the group-think mentality of humans and their natural impulse to divide the world between us vs them:
It’s so depressing in that we are wired up to make us-them distinctions over race, gender, age, status symbols, over every such thing. We make them within milliseconds. Emotive parts of the brain are responding to that in ways that are often pretty unpalatable before we are even consciously processing subliminal responsiveness. Over and over the theme of thems we’re not very nice to — it’s incredibly automatic. Even oxytocin, as a hormone makes you nicer to people you consider an us and crummier to people you consider a them in implicit unconscious ways…but it’s incredibly easy to manipulate us as to who counts as a them.
He goes on to talk about how factors like the influence of environment and the way in which we think about other people can change who we consider to be us and them.
The malleability of this trait was also demonstrated in a study looking at how flags and logos influenced the psychology of individuals. By creating a stronger sense of a unified us, it also leads to outsiders seeing that group as more monolithic and threatening. One only needs to look around the world today to see numerous examples of these groups and their symbols: national flags, political party logos, symbols of supernatural beliefs, company logos, etc.
In one study even six-to-nine-month-old infants were found to show racial bias towards members of their own race and against those of other races.
Distance also appears to heighten our sense of who we consider to be them. As the biologist Dr Kathleen Taylor writes in her book Brainwashing: the science of thought control:
The greater the distance, the more bloodthirsty the aggressor may be. Indeed, as the historian Joanna Bourke notes, a wide-ranging survey of American infantrymen during the Second World War found that ‘servicemen who had not left America hated the enemy most, and men serving in Europe hated the Japanese more than did the men actually killing Japanese troops in the Pacific’. Or, as novelist John Buchan put it eighty years earlier, ‘You find hate more among journalists and politicians at home than among fighting men.’
Continuing on the theme of war, Desmond Morris mentions it in The Human Zoo as the ultimate force for in-group cohesion and hatred of the out-group. This perhaps is precisely why so many unscrupulous “leaders” have pursued it as a course of action:
In addition to law, custom, language and religion there is another, more violent form of cohesive force that helps to bind the members of a super-tribe together, and that is war. To put it cynically, one could say that nothing helps a leader like a good war. It gives him his only chance of being a tyrant and being loved for it at the same time. He can introduce the most ruthless forms of control and send thousands of his followers to their deaths and still be hailed as a great protector. Nothing ties tighter the in-group bonds than an out-group threat.
Indeed, history and the world in its present state is replete with examples of groups that harbour resentment of other groups, most often for what occurred during past wars. In some cases this can stretch back hundreds of years or more, making the rare cases of forgiveness all the more remarkable.
But perhaps the most objectively egregious example of this us vs. them separation, is the male-female divide, where one group was oppressed for no other reason than simply being born as the other sex. Writing about women, Tertullian (AD 160–220), one of the founding fathers of the Catholic Church, wrote:
You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man.
On the other side of the divide, was the author Valerie Solanas (1936-1988) who wrote in her SCUM Manifesto:
To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples…Just as humans have a prior right to existence over dogs by virtue of being more highly evolved and having a superior consciousness, so women have a prior right to existence over men. The elimination of any male is, therefore, a righteous and good act, an act highly beneficial to women as well as an act of mercy.
Fortunately for the males of our species, no significant number of people decided to act on these crude, extreme and unscientific beliefs! And of course, no one systematised them to treat the other group as a second-class human for hundreds of years (as was done with the former belief by many groups).
When we examine many of these us and them divisions more closely, we also find that in many cases they are created by artificial means: one individual or a small band establishing who precisely is us and who is them. Over time these divisions become entrenched, and soon the many commonalities that often outweigh the differences between the groups are forgotten. Most troubling of all is that humans reserve their best qualities for the us and their worst for them.
From misogyny to anti-semitism, slavery, social class and beyond, there is no shortage of examples demonstrating how humans have vilified another group: religion, ethnicity, sex, nationality, etc. If there is any cause for optimism, it should be the fact that in recent decades we have seen a reduction in the amount of such irrational hatred and persecution of the other (at least in the developed world). Education, greater exposure to diverse groups of people, along with improved social and economic stability all appear to play a positive role in dampening this tendency; but as we repeatedly find, it lies dormant beneath the surface, always threatening to erupt under the right conditions. Knowing how susceptible the species is to this dichotomy, it comes as no surprise that many have exploited and will continue to exploit this atavistic tendency.