The human mind has a tendency to categorize people into social groups. And often these social groups can create an “Us vs. Them” mentality toward people who may be different than us in some way, whether it’s race, gender, age, nationality, culture, religion, or socioeconomic status.
In the early 1970s, British social psychologist Henri Tajfel explored a phenomenon he called the minimal group paradigm. The basic idea behind this concept was to investigate the minimal conditions required for discrimination to occur within groups.
Amazingly, studies on this approach have shown that people tend to favor a group bias even when they are categorized on relatively meaningless distinctions, for example: eye color, what kind of paintings they like, or even the flip of a coin.
This tells us that we can potentially separate ourselves from a certain group of people on any random and arbitrary characteristic. Therefore, everyone is susceptible to be a perpetrator and/or victims of social prejudice and ostracism.
It appears that thinking of ourselves in terms of groups automatically leads to a kind of irrational group favoritism.
In studies done on minimal group paradigm, participants are usually given an opportunity to allocate money or “points” to other participants, and tend to favor giving points to members of their own group vs. members of another group.
Even more interestingly, it was found that participants will often maximize relative in-group gain (“Group A” vs. “Group B”) rather than absolute in-group gain. This means that participants are more willing to see their Group “win,” rather than have outcomes where all people end up better overall.
It’s not hard to see how this “Us vs. Them” mentality can be destructive to both ourselves and society as a whole. And it is scary to think just how susceptible we are to these biases, even under completely random circumstances.
Despite all of this, it makes sense that we’ve evolved to perceive these social categories. During tribal times, it would be beneficial to perceive unfamiliar people as a potential threat and treat them as such for protection and security.
But today many of these social categories and stereotypes are propagated by society, tradition, and culture. They aren’t relevant anymore, but we continue to believe them and in many ways they become self-fulfilling beliefs.
We first need to become more aware of our tendency to put people into groups and create an “Us vs. Them” mentality.
We see it all the time in politics (Republicans vs. Democrats), war (Palestine vs. Israel), sports (Mets vs. Yankees), and other aspects of our culture, but at the end of the day a lot of this thinking creates unnecessary tension and antagonism between everyone.
Group thinking causes us to act irrationally and uncooperative, because we are more concerned about conforming with our group instead of thinking intelligently for ourselves, or recognizing other people’s interests and values outside of our own social circle.
Instead of seeing people in groups, a better perspective is to see everyone as an individual worthy of respect, equality, and kindness, regardless of what groups they may be categorized in.
We shouldn’t necessarily ignore these common differences between us, but we certainly shouldn’t use them to judge people as “superior” or “inferior” – or see them as a battle between “Us vs. Them.”
If you choose to associate with a group identity, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Just be super mindful of it and be cautious if that identity starts to have a negative influence on how you view other people who you don’t identify with.
I personally try to identify with everyone in some way. I believe at the core of human beings, we are all just trying to find happiness and enjoy life – and in that sense we are all connected as one, so there is no need to divide.
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