The things that divide us
Amidst all the rabid accusations of one group against the other in politics now, ever wondered what really divides us humans? We usually answer that with the obvious things like politics, family, religion, socio-economic status, or nationality. We’d like to think that the things that come between us are substantial, important things. But believe it or not, study after study has shown that at the heart of human nature, it takes the littlest, “shallower” things to draw the line between who is “us” and who is “them.”
This sense of social identity does not seem to be learned but innate. Children as early as 5 years old can exhibit bias in favor of a group they were assigned to, even if that group was not their own choice or did not hold any particular favor for them before they were assigned to that group. In this experiment, the kids were made to think they were grouped according to drawing ability. There were also other things that the researchers made the kids think about the group which were all “made up.” It turned out that kids that young can already form a sense of “social status” based on how they perceive their own group and their own similarity with their group members (remember that they were not really grouped according to their similarities). This greatly influenced how much the kids rated their desire to stay in their group.
Even more proof that we just naturally favor “our” group even if we do not know our group members can be seen in a painting preference experiment. In this experiment, a couple of boys who did not know each other, took turns to view 2 paintings, one by Kandinsky and the other by Klee. They were then told that they were grouped according to which they preferred but in reality, they were not. They did all these without any of the boys meeting any other member of their supposed groups. Then each of the boys were set aside and asked to assign “virtual money” to the individuals who belonged to both groups. These individuals were labeled so that the “giver” could identify to which group the individual belonged. As expected, the boys exhibited a strong preference to give to their own group.
An even more sobering realization of what divides us, even as children can be gleaned from a milder Lord of the Flies kind of experiment called Robber’s Cave experiment. This was about two groups of kids who at first were housed in separate cabins, not knowing the existence of the other group. They developed loyalties and once they were exposed to the other group, hostility naturally ensued even if they did not have any prior cause for rivalry or conflict. They only came together when they were asked to solve a problem that necessitated that they formed a coalition with the rival group.
Inside our brains where scientists can now peer into, to see what is going on when we witness the failures of our rivals reveal that we relish it in the same brain part as we relish our own victories. In a particular study, the ventral striatum – that part of the brain that rejoices from the rewards of your own group’s success is also active when your rivals fail. Scientists think this contributes to why you want to harm rivals – it gives you a rewarding feeling. Furthermore, this rejoicing feeling extends to other people who are associated with your rivals – such as their fans. While this study was on baseball teams and their fans, you can imagine how interesting it would be if it applied to political alliances. This could explain why any one dominant group would not only rejoice in causing the downfall of their direct rivals – but all other groups associated with it.
So biases could be useful so that you get to be part of groups who can support you and help you survive but in the same manner, there are innate, “shallow” biases that mislead you to the wrong conclusions and reactions.
If you strongly doubt that you have your own biases and you think you judge people fairly, regardless of skin color or the shape of their eyes, you belong to the majority. Nobody wants to think of themselves as being unfair. But the reality is, we all are, depending on the situation. If you want to know more about the biases you did not think you had, test your own unconscious biases in this Harvard-based project.
So does this mean we should all just put up our arms in surrender to the trigger-happy nature within us – the one who is always eager to define who is “us” and who is “them.”?
Certainly not. We are the ONLY species who can willingly check ourselves against the tendencies of our own nature. Heck, we are the only beings who study our own nature, aware that we harbor darker shades that should be checked.
Knowing that our own blind spots are built-in and that our biases about anything form like shampoo bubbles from the most meager of information, we should always leave room for the possibility that we could be wrong about the things we are willing to die or kill for. Or at least calibrate our responses to allow for a range of responses to situations. To act with only one kind of response to “otherness” is not very sapien of being human. – Rappler.com