Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky writes a good summary in Nautilus about the hardwired basis for people dividing the world into Us and Them, with disastrous consequences throughout human history ranging from micro aggression and innate bias to genocide justified by rationalized pretexts.
We discern Us/Them differences with stunning speed, as reflected in fMRI studies of facial processing. In particular, amygdala-based threat perception is rapidly activated when we are presented with an Other, along with reduced accuracy in the fusiform gyrus’ facial recognition. We rapidly categorize people’s threat category and ignore their individuality. Hormonally, the “pro-social” hormone oxytocin response is far greater in response to a member of your in-group. Other species of primates show similar distinctive physiological reactions when shown pictures of either strangers or members of their own group. The automatic unconscious nature of these responses and their neurobiological preservation across species attest to their evolutionarily deep-seated adaptive value.
But not only is there the amplified reaction to the other but the exaggerated self-congratulatory affinity with those of our in-group, equally hardwired, equally evolutionarily and unconsciously determined by self-preservation, and often equally irrational. As Sapolsky points out, “Us-ness also carries obligations toward the other guy”. For instance, at a sporting event, someone in need wearing one team’s colors is more likely to be helped out by a fellow fan than by an opposing one. This begs the question — what is the balance between our desire and inclination to be prosocial toward our in-group and antisocial toward outsiders?
“[A]t our core, do we want Us to do “well” by maximizing absolute levels of well being, or merely “better than,” by maximizing the gap between Us and Them? …[S]ometimes, choosing “better than” over “well” can be disastrous. It’s not a great mindset to think you’ve won World War III if afterward Us have two mud huts and three fire sticks and They have only one of each.”
“Thems” evoke some combination of a creepy impulse to avoid ( I have written before about how the feeling of ‘creepiness’ evoked by outsiders is akin to the emotion of disgust against potentially sickening rotten or infectious substances); fear-based fight or flight response to perceived threat; or ridicule and derision. Psychological research shows that we have a complicated taxonomy of different kinds of “Thems”. Our lack of affinity toward them is categorized along different axes including benificence-malevolence and competency-incompetency. We find groups of people to be independently high (H) or low (L) in warmth and skill, generating four categories (HH, HL, LH, and LL) each of which evokes characteristic responses in us. People are also seen as belonging to multiple categories and we shift which we consider most relevant. (Unfortunately, one of the most deep-seated is skin color, of course, although “race” is not a fixed concept and some would claim it lacks any scientific validity apart from value judgment.)
Different aspects of Us-ness have different degrees of fungibility. We have no difficulty starting to jeer at the revered athlete after s/he is traded to an opposing team. But people aren’t traded from the WASPs to the BIPOCs. Although we frame our preferences for those of the in-group with cognitive rationalizations, given that they originate in emotional automatic processes the supposedly rational cognitions about them can be unconsciously manipulated. Those who practice political advocacy and advertising are masters at using subliminal influences we never recognize. As Sapolsky summarizes, “We all have multiple dichotomies in our heads, and ones that seem inevitable and crucial can, under the right circumstances, evaporate in an instant.”
So, along the lines of how to work on making yourself an anti-racist, how can we make these dichotomies evaporate?
- Increasing contact
- Priming beforehand with counter-stereotypes
- “Replacing essentialism with individuation” (i.e. dampening our amygdala in favor of our fusiform gyrus?)
- Flattening hierarchies
Although there is calculated antisocial predation, most human aggression is not rationally planned but emotionally mediated, in response to (often unconsciously evoked) threat. So reducing violence has a lot to do with increasing awareness and deliberately countering these strong Us-Them dichotomies. As Sapolsky concludes, “[G]ive the right-of-way to people driving cars with the “Mean people suck” bumper sticker…”
Or, this, which I have framed on my office wall, from Alan Ginsberg,
‘Well, while I’m here I’ll do the work — and what’s the work? To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumbshow.’