Why Are We So Divided and What Can We Do about It? Psychological Research Has Some Clues

Our nation is increasingly becoming divided into opposing groups.  And these divisions are becoming more and more entrenched.  So, why is this occurring? 

Similarity Brings Comfort

Psychologists say it is easiest to stick with people who we see as similar to ourselves. It requires more effort to step outside our bubble.  So, we tend to associate with people who look or think like ourselves.

We then we take the similarity even one step further by assuming that people who are similar to us on one characteristic are similar to us on many other characteristics.  For example, if a person belongs to the same political party or religion that we do, we might think they also like the same activities that we do. Thus, we have a strong tendency to categorize people with a broad brush.

We also want assurances that we will be liked before we attempt to interact with someone else.  People who are similar to us tend to be liked by us and tend to like us more so than is the case with dissimilar people.  Again, then, we isolate ourselves from the challenge of being with dissimilar people.  The process of seeing our group as the best group is known as ingroup bias.

Ingroup Bias is Hardwired

Viewing others in the same way we view ourselves is a function of a part of our brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex.  Other parts of our brain also predispose us to ingroup bias.

We see the same behaviors of people not in our group as different from those of people in our group. A group of psychologists presented Democrats and Republicans during the U.S. Presidential election of 2004 with an initial statement (e.g., a politician said they were going to lower taxes) from a presidential candidate of their own or another political group.  Participants were subsequently shown a statement which involved an action which contradicted the initial statement (e.g., the politician is now not lowering taxes). Participants perceived less contradiction between the initial statement and the action that contradicted the statement from their own group leader. This biased processing of information from ingroup versus outgroup leaders showed up as activation in certain areas of the brain.

When feeling threatened by an outgroup member, another part of our brain is activated.  Australian psychologists asked Non-Muslim participants to decide to either shoot a photograph of a Muslim (outgroup member) or a Non-Muslim (ingroup member) who, in the photograph, was holding a gun. When confronted by the photograph of the outgroup member with a gun and while deciding to shoot the photograph of this member, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex of the Non-Muslim participant was activated. But it was not activated when deciding whether to shoot the photograph of the ingroup member.

Ingroup Bias is Amplified by Social Media

Social media increases our isolation from others. We tend to subscribe to popular media which only confirms our point of view.  People outside our group may have a different point of view but we are not exposed to it.  And when we are not exposed to outgroup members, our ingroup bias is intensified.

Stereotypes of outgroup members run rampant. We even then begin surmising what other people think.  People who dress like Muslims might think like or (gasp) be terrorists.  People who are trying to immigrate to the United States might think they can be freeloaders.  These stereotypes all come from seeing people outside our group as not only making us uncomfortable but as being a threat. 

It is the way we see people not like us that creates fear and hate—not the actual reality.  Yes, some people from our group as well as some people outside our group are, at best misinformed, and even terrorists and freeloaders, but most people are not.  Yet we continue to have a perception of people not like us in terms of stereotypes.

See Others as Individuals, Not as Members of a Group

To change our perception, we must be exposed to people not like us in positive contexts.  We cannot just stay in our safe shell.  We have to actively seek out people who are not similar to us. We will then see others as individuals, not just as members of an outgroup.

One way to develop positive images is through travel where we interact with others—this could be travel within or outside the United States.  Another way is for positive images and stories about people from groups other than our own to be presented in popular media (social media, television, magazines, newspapers), schools, churches, even stores.

There are many benefits to taking the risk of being with people different from ourselves.  One benefit is changing attitudes toward outgroup members.  The change in attitudes reduces conflict, which benefits one’s well being as well as society.

Another benefit of interacting with outgroup members is self-expansion. Self-expansion means we develop a wider view of who we are and of what we are able to do.  We are motivated to expand ourselves.  And one of the best ways to do so is to engage in activities with members of an outgroup.  We begin to incorporate some of the positive characteristics and resources of others into our view of our self.

Yes, we need to reach out and speak to people other than ourselves.  But, most of all, we need to listen to them.

REFERENCES

Aron, A., McLaughlin-Volpe, T., Mashek, D., Lewandowski, G., Wright, S.C. & Aron. E.N. (2004) Including others in the self, European Review of Social Psychology, 15(1), 101-132, DOI: 10.1080/10463280440000008

Domínguez D, J.F., van Nunspeet,F., Gupta, A., Eres, R., Louis, W.R., Decety, J., & Molenberghs, P. (2018). Lateral orbitofrontal cortex activity is modulated by group membership in situations of justified and unjustified violence, Social Neuroscience, 13 (6), 739-755. DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2017.1392342

Hampton, A.J., Fisher Boyd, A.N., & Sprecher, S. (2019). You’re like me and I like you: Mediators of the similarity-liking link assessed before and after a getting-acquainted social interaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36 (7), 2221-2224. DOI:10.1177/0265407518790411

Locke, K.D., Craig, T., Baik, K.D., Gohil, K.(2012). Binds and bounds of communion: effects of interpersonal values on assumed similarity of self and others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 103(5), 879-897.

Molenberghs, P., Louis, W. R. (2018). Insights from fMRI studies into ingroup bias. Frontiers in Psychology, 9 (1868), 1-12. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01868 

Paolini, S., Wright, S., Dys-Steenbergen, O., & Favara, I.. (2016). Self‐Expansion and intergroup contact: Expectancies and motives to self‐expand lead to greater interest in outgroup contact and more positive intergroup relations. Journal of Social Issues. 72, 450-471. DOI: 10.1111/josi.12176.

Westen, D., Blagov, P. S., Harenski, K., Kilts, C., and Hamann, S. (2006). Neural bases of motivated reasoning: an fMRI study of emotional constraints on partisan political judgment in the 2004 US presidential election. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 18, 1947–1958. DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2006.18.11.1947

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When the Unpleasant Feelings Emerge

love and hate

In a truly intimate relationship, the rejections, irritations, and disappointments are as much a part of loving as are the securities, pleasures, and dreams.  No marriage is made in heaven and no relationship is built on only the heavenly feelings.  But no one ever forewarns us about the trials and tribulations.     Instead we believe that if it’s really love it will be sunny days forever, with no dark clouds to muddy up the horizon.  After all, we were always told that love is never having to say you’re sorry.

So, with our trusty aphorisms tucked deep within our hearts, we rush off to find the perfect love or, at least, a lover who will never hurt us.  And we begin spending a lot of time and energy just trying to avoid any unpleasantness in our newly-found relationship.

What never bothered our partner before, nor bothered us about our partner can become exasperating.  We notice he isn’t paying attention when we are talking (has he ever?).  Or she has left the door open to welcome the flies again (such a generous spirit).  Each morning he leaves her lists of things to do (does he think he is her boss?).  She tells him he is headed for diabetes if he doesn’t lose some of that weight (as if she has any control over this).  These little quirks and sins against the relationship gradually slip out, with the cumulative effect being disillusionment, resentment, and hurt.  What was comingled starts becoming unmingled.

Often, when this inevitable unpleasantness creeps into the relationship, we don’t know how to deal with it.  We leave our lover (either emotionally or physically), hoping to find a new love, one which will finally measure up to our ideal. Anyone who has ever been left by a lover knows that love hurts but, by then, it’s too late.

But, it doesn’t have to be the end of the relationship, nor does it have to be a relationship of shared misery. You could use your unpleasant feelings to begin a conversation with your partner.  This conversation can help each of you understand the other’s point of view, and even draw you closer together.  Or you could realize that you can get past the irritation into a more accepting attitude towards your partner and yourself.  Yes, sometimes your partner is selfish and sometimes you can be selfish.  So, it is important to let your partner know how his or her behavior affects you.  But it is up to your partner to change this behavior, not up to you to constantly complain about it. So why not just accept your flawed partner instead of trying to change him or her?

What the World Needs Now

world and heart

Love is what the world needs now.  But can we love someone who thinks differently, acts differently, and looks different?  There is a way to do this and it is called “empathy”. 

To have empathy for another person means setting aside our evaluations of that person.  Then we actively listen to the other person’s thoughts and feelings and acknowledge we heard them.1  That doesn’t mean we agree with the other person, just that we understand where that person is coming from and tell that person that we do.

When we are viewing another person with empathy, we have momentarily let go of our defenses.  And when we acknowledge the other person’s thoughts and feelings it disarms him/her.  Defenses are not needed by either party, so better communication and cooperation can emerge.

A loving empathy has been used even to defuse conflict between groups of people.2 The surprising fact is that both parties do not have to show empathy initially.  It only takes one person or group to start the process of empathic communication.  And then empathy begets empathy.3

Through empathy, then, we have the power to connect with others at a level that is deeper than attitudes.  We connect through acknowledging our common human needs and fears. 

The empathic approach to relationships is backed by evidence that it works—it works to neutralize power differences and tensions.4 Empathy is a viable alternative to our present way of seizing and using power.  It is a quiet revolution.5

References

  1. Rogers, C. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology 21, 95-103.
  2. Rogers, C., and Sanford, R. (1987). Reflections on our South African experience. Counseling and Values (Special issue on Carl Rogers and the person-centered approach to peace) 32, 17-20.
  3. Feshbach, N.D. & Feshbach, S. (1982). Empathy training and the regulation of aggression: Potentialities and limitations. Academic Psychology Bulletin, 4, 399-413.
  1. Rogers, C. R., and Sanford, R. (1987). Inside the world of the Soviet professional. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 27, 277-304.
  2. Rogers, C. (1977). On personal power: Inner strength and its revolutionary impact. New York: Delacorte Press.