Social identity was once an essential evolutionary trait, but it could now be preventing us from finding common ground with our political opponents.
Today, I saw a picture of Vice President, Mike Pence, helping to fix damaged graves in a Jewish cemetery; sleeves rolled up and hands dirty. It was shared by none other than the infamous (if not a little try-hard) right-wing “provocateur”, Milo Yiannopoulos. But when I hear the name ‘Pence’ I immediately think of christian supremacy and the threat of theocracy in the United States, not helpful family man who saw Indiana through a $2 billion budget surplus. Yet the exact opposite is most likely true for the millions of people who put this man in his current position of power. He is a man whose idol blamed the Sandy Hook shooting on same-sex marriage, but if that is all we allow ourselves to see we are doing nothing but pushing ourselves ever further from the common ground we desperately need.
So why does it always seem to go this way? Why focus almost entirely on the failures of the other side rather than respecting their successes and trying to find the common ground? The answer, or at least part of it, lies in social identity theory. Popularised by social psychologist Henri Tajfel; the theory states that each of us have a self-concept made-up, in part, by our social identity – our perception of membership to certain social groups.
These groups could be based on anything from race, gender, political beliefs, or favourite crisp flavour. As humans we love to do this: we do it all the time without even noticing. This is beautifully illustrated in Tajfel et al’s Kandinsky versus Klee experiment. A group of 48 boys between the ages of 14 and 15 were shown a mixture of paintings by the two artists. With no knowledge of which artist painted which picture they made judgements about which they loved and which they hated. The boys were then split into two groups named the ‘Kandinsky group’ and the ‘Klee group’. Unbeknownst to the boys, the groups were chosen completely at random.
Once grouped, the boys were tasked with reward allocation where they had 15 generic ‘points’ to share out between one boy from their group, and one from the other group. They were only provided with the boys code number, and group name. Furthermore, the points were tied together, meaning that if you score (x) to one boy, the other boy gets (15 – x) points. Interestingly, even with such meaningless rewards, the children showed a significant preference for their own group, at the expense of the others. We can be in arbitrary groups, handing out arbitrary rewards based on something we don’t fully understand, but it doesn’t matter. That is already enough to diminish the humanity of the other side; the ‘out-group’.
As ridiculously short-sighted as this behaviour may seem, when viewed from an evolutionary perspective it makes a lot of sense. As social, tribal creatures we needed to protect our own from those in outside groups who directly threaten us, or at least who we perceive as threatening. So when I see Pence or Yiannopoulos, men I deeply disagree with on issues that are very close to me, I don’t want to think about how nice they are to their elderly mothers, I want to be able to sustain my negative image of them because it’s a whole lot easier that way.
Those of us who did this with the greatest ease and minimal energy expenditure survived, and passed this behaviour onto the next generation. Over millennia, this has become deeply ingrained into our very humanity, but now it is pushing us to the edge of destruction. As globalisation pushes forwards we are encountering an increasing number of out-groups, and we can’t keep up. The same failures of adaptation can be seen in our confirmation biases and apparent lack of rationality. We are in fact incredibly reasonable beasts, but after millions of years it is only now that these traits are no longer effective and instead become counter-productive.
This problem exists on both sides, with humans having a strong tendency to derogate those we perceive as out-group members. We see the worst in each other. Take the Oscars for example; the rich and successful leftist elite taking their chance to lecture those that disagree with them. Flaunting their fame as if it makes them the most important and righteous people in the world. Then totally cocking up and mistakenly handing over the Best Picture award to La La Land, rather than a coming of age movie about a homosexual black youth in Miami.
Clearly the Oscars do not represent all who believe in left-wing politics, right? No, but that’s only clear to those already on the left. To everyone else we are the ‘out-group’ and judged accordingly. A quick scroll through a comment section for The Daily Caller (one of Trump’s favoured news sources) shows exactly what the right take away from such an event:
Honestly, it’s difficult to fault some of these comments, but this becomes a real problem when you realise that, in this case, the in-group – an ever growing right-wing movement – takes this opportunity to consolidate their standing whilst simultaneously shrugging off anything and everything that they perceive as out-group rhetoric. The actions of these super rich celebrities are not pulling us closer to a mutual understanding, but are forcing the wedge between us ever deeper. We need a change of tact.
To fight against our very instincts is never easy, but perhaps we can now group these once useful social behaviours among those most undesirable tendencies of Plato’s tyrant, a character who sounds all too familiar. The first step is education: the more we as individuals understand our subconscious behaviour the easier it becomes to address them. The further introduction of psychology and philosophy as staples of our education systems may work well towards this end, providing us will the tools we need to identify and critically analyse our own behaviour on a level that is simply not wide spread at the moment.
Similarly, if we find a way to identify the shared characteristics between us and those in perceived out-groups we can significantly improve relations and reduce in-group bias. It takes a special kind of asshole to wake up in the morning and think “today, I’m going to make someone’s life hell” and I believe that even a man as vile and contemptuous as Trump does not go that far. If all we allow ourselves to see is the villainy of the other side, that villainy will consume us all.