Let’s imagine you’re having an argument with a friend about a topic you disagree on. You turn into the advocate and start dishing out facts, statistics, and any form of evidence you can think of to support your argument and convince your friend to agree with you. You drown the person with facts, only to realise one frustrating thing: facts do not change people’s minds.
Why does this happen? Humans have the evolutionary tendency to categorise things. In order to make sense of the world, we need to put objects and people into groups according to their ethnicity, gender, social class, religion, political beliefs and so on. The group we belong to gives us an important source of self-esteem, identity and belonging to the social world. We start seeing our in- group as dominant, “the best in the world”, and as a result hold prejudiced views against the out-group.
Tajfel and Turner (1979) explain that we evaluate “us” (our in-group), versus “them” (our out-group) through three mental processes. First, we categorise people according to traits. Then, we go through a process of social identification, whereby we adopt the identity of our in-group and gain a sense of belonging to that group membership. Finally, we engage in social comparison where we start comparing our group with other groups. This is when rivalry tends to develop; the diversity between groups tends to become exaggerated, so prejudice and stereotyping become prominent.
Back to the argument with your friend. According to social psychologist Demis Glasford, people want to feel good about their opinions and the groups they belong to. Therefore, whenever we are presented with a belief or idea that contradicts our own, we experience cognitive dissonance, a mental discomfort which is difficult to accept. The notion of naïve realism, or thinking that our own reality is the correct one, drives us to believe that those who belong to our out-group cannot be right in their beliefs.
This might not seem like a big deal at first, yet the implications can be alarming. When we start thinking of society as divided and adopt an “us” and “them” mentality, we start to blindly accept facts from the source that supports our point of view and completely disregard alternative opinions. We risk falling into the trap of dehumanisation, we strip humanity off members of the out-group and start regarding them as unworthy of respect or opinion. We become quick to attack and address them in derogatory terms. Ever heard the term “addict”, “illegal immigrant” or human beings described in a single negative characteristic in the news? That is an example of how an individual from the out-group becomes reduced to a single characteristic, rather than portrayed as a person with a fully complex life like the rest of the members in our in-group.
Psychologist Albert Bandura describes this dehumanisation as a moral disengagement strategy that tricks people into accepting behaviour that they would otherwise recognise as unfair and unethical. People start to rationalise and justify behaviours of their in-group to make them acceptable, even if they are immoral. This is why oppression, genocides and other corrupt behaviour become normalised. In fact, inter-group conflict remains one of the world’s largest problems, and the last century has seen over 200 million people killed in genocide, war and other forms of oppression (Cikara, 2015).
On a smaller scale, inter-group conflict also affects our everyday life since society, and even governments, have become strongly polarised. In fact, research has shown that in countries with strong patron-client relationships (i.e. in which civilians experience strong allegiance to the authorities in power), citizens support corrupt governments because they expect to receive tangible benefits from corrupt leaders (Manzetti and Wilson, 2007).
The issue of inter-group conflict is reflected in everyday discourse, in comments on social media, and on the news. So what can we do to counter it? First off, we need to challenge how we think about who is responsible for injustice. We tend to give responsibility to a few bad apples within our in-group, but fail to realise that with our actions we might be supporting them. When we accept that we too are part of the group and take responsibility for our actions, change might occur. Secondly, dehumanisation can be overpowered through empathy and respect. Try to truly put yourself in the perspective of individuals from the out-group and objectively understand their point of view. Then, consider the situation from both sides and challenge yourself to make a decision that is unbiased and non-judgemental. Finally, “too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought” (John F. Kennedy). Understand that as difficult as this might be, some views cannot be challenged. When the conversation gets too heated, it may be time to end it. Remember that no matter what our differences may be, our relationship with that person is more important. Sometimes, agreeing to disagree and backing away may be the wisest option.
Bandura, A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities. Personality and social psychology review, 3(3), 193-209.
Cikara, M.(2015). When ‘I’ becomes ‘We’. TEDxCambridge.
Demis E. Glasford, John F. Dovidio & Felicia Pratto. (2009). I Continue to Feel So Good About Us: In-Group Identification and the Use of Social Identity – Enhancing Strategies to Reduce Intragroup Dissonance. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. 35. 415-27.
Luigi Manzetti & Carolin J. Wilson (2007). Why Do Corrupt Governments Maintain Public Support? Comparative Political Studies, 40(8), 949–970.
Henri Tajfel, John Turner, William G. Austin & Stephen Worchel (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. Organizational identity: A reader, 56-65.