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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Seeing Others as a Threat and How to Change It

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Our nation is increasingly becoming divided into opposing groups.  Yes, most of us have a tendency to feel most comfortable when we associate with people who look or think like ourselves.  People who look or think differently than we do, make us uncomfortable.  So, we stay away from them and isolate ourselves even further with our own kind.

Our isolation from others is intensified as we subscribe to popular media which confirms our point of view.  People outside our group may have a different point of view but we are not exposed to it.  Then we begin surmising what other people think.  People who dress like Muslims might think like or (gasp) be terrorists.  People who are trying to emigrate to the United States might think they can be freeloaders.  These stereotypes all come from seeing people outside our group as a threat, which popular media perpetuates.

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 terrorists and freeloaders, but most people are not.  Yet we continue to have a perception of people not like us as a threat.

To change our perception, we must be exposed to people not like us in positive contexts.  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 to view positive images and stories about people from groups other than our own in popular media (social media, television, magazines, newspapers), schools, churches, even stores.

We need to reach out and speak to people other than those in our own group.  But, most of all, we need to listen to them.