Human beings are social animals, hardwired to form groups, but why do we treat some groups favorably and yet ostracise others? This is the Us vs Them mentality that not only divides society but has historically led to genocide.
So what causes the Us vs Them Mentality and how does this thinking trap divide society?
I believe three processes lead to the Us vs Them Mentality:
- Learned Survival
But before I discuss these processes, what exactly is the Us vs Them Mentality, and are we all guilty of it?
Us vs Them Mentality Definition
It is a way of thinking that favours individuals in your own social, political, or any other group and disapproves of those who belong to a different group.
Have you ever supported a football team, voted for a political party, or proudly flown your national flag on your property? These are all examples of an Us vs Them way of thinking. You are picking sides, whether it’s your favorite team or your country, you feel comfortable in your group and are wary of the other group.
But there’s more to Us vs Them than simply picking a side. Now that you are in a particular group you can make certain assumptions about the types of people who are also in your group. This is your in-group.
If you are a member of a political group, you’ll automatically know, without asking, that other members of this group will share your ideas and beliefs. They’ll think the same way as you and want the same things that you do.
You can also make these sorts of assumptions about other political groups. These are the out-groups. You can make judgments about the sort of individuals that make up this other political group.
And there’s more. We learn to think favourably about our in-groups and look down on out-groups.
So why do we form groups in the first place?
Groups and Us vs Them
Why have human beings become such social animals? It’s all to do with evolution. For our ancestors to survive they had to learn to trust other humans and work alongside them.
Early humans formed groups and began to cooperate with one another. They learned there was a greater chance of survival in groups. But human sociability is not simply learned behavior, it is deeply rooted in our brains.
You’ve probably heard of the amygdala – the most primitive part of our brain. The amygdala controls the fight or flight response and is responsible for generating fear. We are fearful of the unknown because we don’t know whether this presents a danger to ourselves.
On the other hand, is the mesolimbic system. This is a region in the brain associated with reward and feelings of pleasure. The mesolimbic pathway transports dopamine. This is released not only in response to something pleasurable but to all the things that help us survive, such as trust and familiarity.
So we are hardwired to distrust what we don’t know and to feel pleasure for the things we do know. The amygdala produces fear when we come up against the unknown and the mesolimbic system generates pleasure when we come across the familiar.
As well as having hardwired brains that fear the unknown and feel pleasure at the familiar, our brains have adapted to our environments in another way. We categorize and group things together to make it easier for us to navigate through life.
When we categorize things, we are taking mental shortcuts. We use labels to identify and group people. As a result, it’s easier for us to ‘know’ something about these outside groups.
Once we have categorized and grouped people, we then join a group of our own. Humans are a tribal species. We gravitate to those we feel are similar to us. All the while we do this, our brains are rewarding us with dopamine.
The problem is that by categorizing people into groups, we are excluding people, especially if resources are an issue.
For example, we often see headlines in the newspapers about immigrants taking our jobs or houses, or world leaders calling migrants criminals and rapists. We choose sides and don’t forget, our side is always better.
Us vs Them Mentality Studies
Two famous studies have highlighted the Us vs Them mentality.
Blue Eyes Brown Eyes Study, Elliott, 1968
Jane Elliott taught third-graders in a small, all-white town in Riceville, Iowa. The day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr her class came to school, visibly upset at the news. They couldn’t understand why their ‘Hero of the Month’ would be killed.
Elliott knew that these innocent children of this small town had no concept of racism or discrimination, so she decided to experiment.
She divided the class into two groups; those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes. On day one, the blue-eyed children were praised, given privileges, and treated as if they were superior. In contrast, the brown-eyed children had to wear collars around their necks, they were criticized and ridiculed and made to feel inferior.
Then, on the second day, the roles were reversed. The blue-eyed children were ridiculed and the brown-eyed children were praised. Elliott monitored both groups and was astounded by what happened and the speed of how it happened.
“I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes,” – Jane Elliott
Before the experiment, all the children had been sweet-natured and tolerant. However, during the two days, children who were chosen as superior became mean and started discriminating against their classmates. Those children designated as inferior began to behave as if they really were inferior students, even their grades were affected.
Remember, these were sweet, tolerant children who had named Martin Luther King Jr as their Hero of the Month only a few weeks ago.
Robbers Cave Experiment, Sherif, 1954
Social psychologist Muzafer Sherif wanted to explore intergroup conflict and cooperation, particularly when the groups compete for limited resources.
Sherif selected 22 twelve-year-old boys which he then sent on a camping trip at Robber’s Cave State Park, Oklahoma. None of the boys knew each other.
Before leaving, the boys were randomly split into two groups of eleven. Neither group knew about the other one. They were sent by bus separately and on arrival at the camp were kept separate from the other group.
For the next few days, each group took part in team-building exercises, all designed to build up a strong group dynamic. This included picking names for the groups – The Eagles and the Rattlers, designing flags, and picking leaders.
After the first week, the groups met each other. This was the conflict stage where the two groups had to compete for prizes. Situations were engineered where one group would gain an advantage over the other group.
The tension between the two groups rose, starting with verbal insults. However, as the competitions and conflicts wore on, the verbal taunting took on more of a physical nature. The boys became so aggressive that they had to be separated.
When talking about their own group, the boys were overly favorable and exaggerated the other group’s failings.
Again, it is important to remember that these were all normal boys who had not met the other boys and had no history of violence or aggression.
The last process that leads to the Us vs Them mentality is the forming of our identity.
How do we form our identity? By association. In particular, we associate with certain groups. Whether it is a political party, a social class, a football team, or a village community.
We are so much more than individuals when we join a group. That’s because we know more about groups than we do about an individual.
We can make all kinds of assumptions about groups. We learn about a person’s identity based on what group they belong to. This is social identity theory.
Social Identity Theory
Social psychologist Henri Tajfel (1979) believed that human beings gained a sense of identity through attachments to groups. We know that it is human nature to want to group and categorise things.
Tajfel suggested that it is only natural then for humans to group together. When we belong to a group, we feel more important. We are saying more about ourselves when we are in a group than we ever could as individuals.
We gain a sense of pride and belonging in groups. “This is who I am,” we say.
However, by doing so, we exaggerate our groups’ good points and the other groups’ bad points. This can lead to stereotyping.
Stereotyping happens once a person has been categorized into a group. They tend to adopt the identity of that group. Now their actions are compared to other groups. For our self-esteem to remain intact, our group needs to be better than the other group.
So we favour our group and act with hostility to the other groups. We find this easier to do with an Us vs Them mentality. After all, they are not like us.
But of course, there is a problem with stereotyping people. When we stereotype someone, we are judging them on their differences. We don’t look for similarities.
“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” – Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
How Us vs Them Mentality Divides Society
The Us vs Them mentality is dangerous because it allows you to make quick mental shortcuts. It is easier to make snap decisions based on what you already know about a group, rather than spend time getting to know each individual within that group.
But this type of thinking leads to group favoritism and ostracism. We forgive the mistakes of those in our groups yet are unforgiving to those in any out-groups.
We start seeing some people as ‘less than’ or ‘not deserving’. Once we begin to dehumanize an out-group, it is easy to justify behavior such as genocide. In fact, the main cause of genocide in the 20-century is dehumanization because of conflict within groups.
When dehumanization occurs, we become so polarised from our fellow human beings we can rationalize our behavior and validate the unethical treatment of others.
By looking for the similarities and not the differences, it is possible to blur the distinctions between rigid groups. Recognizing an Us vs Them mentality in the first place and investing time in getting to know people, not judging them by the group they are in.
And finally, realizing that befriending others, not attacking them, actually makes you more powerful.
“No matter how we define “us”; no matter how we define “them”; “We the People,” is an inclusive phrase.” Madeleine Albright
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