Why do groups act like dicks to each other?

For the first eight years of my career, I was a scientist working in for-profit businesses developing life-saving drugs. In this setting, the other corporate scientists and I often encountered a strange and mysterious group: business people.

I have created a green, glowing liquid. How could this go wrong? (image source)

Business people, in our estimation, lacked the understanding of what it was we actually did. They seemed unable to comprehend the technical brilliance of how we carved life-saving technologies out of the smelly muck and chemicals of our lab. The statistics we used to measure our success made their eyes glaze over. They appeared overly concerned about dollars and cents. Such a narrow world view, we thought, to reduce everything down to money. We were trying to cure cancer, for crying out loud, while they were unwilling to tear their eyes off the next quarterly report. We scientists exchanged eye-rolling glances at meetings, affirming to each other that we researchers, through our efforts to peel back the blanket of ignorance, were a noble breed.

Ask me about my stock portfolio (image source)

Then I joined the dark side and earned my MBA, crossing the floor to become a business person. We business people had to keep from rolling our eyes at scientists. They were an esoteric lot, fascinated more by technical minutia than creating something people valued enough to buy. They had their heads in the clouds and for all their technical jargon and whiz-bang statistics, seemed unable to comprehend the fiscal realities under which the company operated. We exchanged glances with cocked eyebrow during meetings, certain that it was we business people who understood the harsh nature of reality and whose focus on productivity kept the wheels of society turning.

Belonging to a side is fun.

There is, however, a dark side to belonging to a group, and I see this darkness frequently as I scan the news. To explore this darkness, I will introduce the concept of Social Identity Theory. I will examine how it explains the dynamics we see in our society, followed by ways to soften the harder edges of inter-group dynamics.

Social Identity Theory

Henri Tajfel and John Turner developed Social Identity Theory in the 1970s. In brief, it postulates the following.

  • People form groups naturally.
  • The groups we belong to form part of our identity (I am a teacher, a Canadian, a Vancouverite, a Jedi).
  • Groups need other groups to exist. Being a Jedi only has meaning if there are other groups to contrast ourselves against—Sith, ordinary people, and so on.
  • People like feeling good about themselves, so they view their group in a positive light. This is often done in contrast to other groups. Jedi are awesome; Sith are dicks; ordinary people are meh.
  • When groups interact, people tend to make choices that favour members of their group over other groups.

So far, so good. If you have spent more then ten minutes as a human being, you likely see the above list as obvious truths.

What happens, however, when group-group interaction shifts from friendly interaction to competition and then to conflict? We see predictable behaviours along two fronts: (1) within the group and (2) between groups. Within the group:

  • Loyalty to your group increases.
  • People internalize beliefs and behaviours setting themselves apart from the group with whom they compete
  • Questioning your group’s actions are discouraged. As tensions rise, your fellow group may see your questions as an act of betrayal.

Between the groups:

  • As a member of one group, you negatively stereotype members of the other group. No longer seeing them as individuals, you dehumanize them (all Sith lack self-control).
  • As the conflict escalates, your negative stereotypes turn to demonization (Sith are heartless, cruel, and callous. They are willfully ignorant).

This process, left unchecked, leads to violence (cue lightsaber battle).

Perhaps this pattern seems familiar?

Do you see our society fragmenting into groups? I do. I see people sorting themselves into liberals or conservatives, black, white, men, women, citizen, immigrant, and everything else under the sun.

Forming group identities is unavoidable. It is what humans do. The problem arises when groups start to see themselves in conflict with others. That’s where we start following our group unquestioningly. That’s where we demonize other groups. History books are filled with examples of where those dynamics lead.

What is your take on the news? Are these groups convincing themselves they are under siege by the others? Do you see examples of groups demonizing and dehumanizing each other?

How about the groups to which you belong? Is it possible you and your group might be engaging in some of the above behaviours?

Maybe we should fight?

If another group is attacking your group, is it not reasonable to fight back? Perhaps I’m naively optimistic, but I seldom feel violence is warranted. Those group dynamics that take hold during conflict cloud judgement, limiting our ability to see the other group as anything but an enemy. They further erode our capacity to challenge our own group’s behaviour because groups under duress quash questioning. Are we so sure we are all enemies?

Breaking the cycle

Humans form groups, that is unavoidable. These group dynamics happen naturally. They are hardwired into us. How, then, do we stop seeing each other as enemies?

We have many group identities—I listed off several of mine: Canadian, Vancouverite, teacher, (Jedi). We give priority to different identities at different times. Some days I am a proud Canadian. Others, I’m a proud Vancouverite.

Notice how some identities include others. My Canadian identity includes my Vancouver identity. It also, however, includes other people who might call themselves Calgarian, Torontonian, and Winnipegger.

Sometimes, an effective way to head off unnecessary conflict is to appeal to a common umbrella identity. We are all Canadian/American/whatever. Sometimes, reminding ourselves that we are all part of a bigger whole can be enough to allow us to see the human in the other.

We do hurt each other, sometimes by accident, other times with intent. That notwithstanding, we all bring our own gifts to the table. We each have insights and values that, if we combine them wisely, open the stars to us.

Have you learned to understand someone you once considered an enemy? Please, share your story in the comments. We need to hear it. If you find this topic interesting, let me know by clicking “like” and share with your peers. Is there a topic you would like me to discuss? Let me know in the comments. Finally, click “Follow” if you want to receive notifications whenever I post something new.

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