The problem with 'we' is 'they'

No matter how independent you think you are, you are still how other people have shaped you. While you do have a hand in your identity, other people are your brain's editors. As you "write" your own identity while living your life, you will notice that what you write is never final – it is always subject to revisions by your experiences, and these experiences are largely with other people. If you understand this, then you'd realize how important it is to have diverse experiences and to meet different kinds of people with different views and biases. This is also one of the reasons for attending school outside the home – so that you will be weaned from the biases of your parents who already have a good share in shaping you even when you have already started going to school.

In my case, because my parents married when they were barely out of their teens, we did not have a permanent house until I was in 4th grade. This meant that I had a different school each year, from nursery to 4th grade. Childhood development experts will tell you that the years 0-5 are very crucial in shaping one's identity. Mine was a chopsuey of experiences: different houses, different friends, different neighbors, and a number of very interesting and kind relatives (including one who thought he was Bruce Lee) who lived with us wherever we were. I was riveted by the newness of everything and everyone every year. I think this is also the reason why I thought it was normal to make new friends, or to be part of a new group every year. I also thought it was normal to say goodbye to them every year. But come to think of it, that has become my mode of identity-building in life: I make new friends, and I have different groups that I identify with as I enter different doors in my life. But because I have more control now of whom I can stay in touch with compared to when I was a child, I do not necessarily say goodbye to people I have known after a certain time – unless I want to.

But I was raised by Baby Boomers. My identity-building menu had a lot to do with family, extended family, the people my parents had as friends, the interesting places and neighborhoods we lived in, the different schools I went to (I went to 5 different schools in elementary alone), and the books I read. The cultural and socio-economic range that I was exposed to was also wide compared to what I had in high school and college, but by that time, I was already fundamentally most at home with curiosity and diversity. In the case of my nephews, aside from family and school, they seem to have been partly raised by Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. Their identity was tied a lot to cartoon characters with different accents and peculiarities, even when they grew up. But I thought their experiences still offered a kaleidoscopic view of life – diverse and open.

In this day and age, identity-building also happens online. And because it can happen inside the seemingly sterile spot in your house where your computer is, you do not readily realize that it can monopolize and cage your identity. How does it happen there, particularly in online sites that are leaning toward extreme closed views?

A recent study did just that: it looked into what happens in those sites with a tendency for extreme views.

Focusing on a Swedish online forum that is inhabited by anti-immigrant views, the study analyzed the context of about 60 million words in the forum. The study found that people reveal their internal stage when they have already identified with a certain group, by going from referring to themselves as "I" to "we." This is related to another of the researchers' findings that people who already identify with the group also become clear on who the "others" are, namely, "they." This was measured in the increase of the use of "we" and "they" as identification with the group deepens.

Another major thing that the researchers found out was that when you join groups like that, then your language also starts to change to take on the kind of language that is dominating in the forum. In this case, the language is extreme, offensive, and closed to other views.

This explains once again why having a forum by itself – whether live or online – is not progress when it comes to spaces for human conversations. It's not necessarily growth either to just have a group and to talk to each other. Only when your group is a group with diverse opinions – with members who respect each other and will not pounce on each other out of disagreement – do you give your brains a chance to have wider connections to find common ground from where you can arrive at productive, meaningful insights. Otherwise, why have a forum if it is only to curse at each other? This is like sanctioning the worst and basest in our humanness and letting it roll. This is why trolls already have their identities already cut out for them. Trolling is extremism on (digital) steroids. They fake, therefore they are.

How you see yourself – from "I" to "we" – as you identify with a particular group, and the way your language morphs to sound like the language of your group are not merely forum experiences – they become part of who you are. You are whom you engage with repeatedly. That is just how our brains work. No amount of "unliking" and swearing at this study or this column can change that.

This is why diversity and openness are crucial to shaping our complex identity as individuals. I try very hard not to say anything when people say "Don't judge me." It is hard, because the nature and job of any brain is to judge. It does not even have to suit up for it.  But an open mind is aware that the judgment it makes may be wrong or incomplete, and so it holds off a verdict.  This is what is gloriously absent in extreme groups in social, economic, or political fields.

Being with like-minded people is not always good for your growth. Explore other views and see what common ground you can arrive at. Try on other shoes to see how life looks from other viewpoints. It will not only make you smarter, but it will also make for a better world. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at