(The First of Two Parts)
Man is by nature a social animal… Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god – Aristotle
‘All men are pigs’. ‘Women make bad drivers’. ‘You are from Visakhapatnam? So, you must be a Madrasi.’ ‘Congress (or BJP) supporters are morons, and they will destroy the country’! ‘You are an Indian? You must be good at computers’. ’Women are better cooks than men’. ‘Men will never stop to ask for directions’. ‘My religion is the one true religion’.
Can you find the common thread between the sentences in the paragraph above? They all stem from our instinctive boxing of individuals into groups, and our tendency to ascribe (correctly/incorrectly) attributes to such a group for its benefit or at its expense. But how do these groups arise?
In nature, we see immense clashes and strife among different species, and competition within the species. Naturalists often call it “the struggle for existence”. But we also see reciprocal collaboration and mutual aid, especially among animals belonging to the same species, or at least the same society. From the aggregates of slime mould to swarms of locusts, flocks of starlings, herds of elephants and shoals of dolphins, grouping is a phenomenon seen across the animal kingdom. But why?
The primary advantage of being a part of large groups is survival. The slime moulds come together to enter the “social cycle” in times of food scarcity. This mass of thousands of cells, resembling a slug, moves towards favourable source for survival. Groups also enable animals to seek protection against predators in the habitat and sharing of food resources. The humble ant lacks any of the typical protective features – its colour does not enable camouflage, nor does it have a hard shell or a stinging apparatus fit for individual defence. Yet, ants in their thousands become a formidable force of nature, and can take beetles and spiders as prey. Mutual cooperation is also a means to ensure safety of the newborns. Greater ani (or the black cuckoo) exhibit cooperative nesting, with genetically unrelated females laying their eggs in a common nest. The survival rates of eggs raised cooperatively are much higher than when raised by lone breeding pairs, as it offers better protection from predators such as snakes and capuchin monkeys.
In humans, social behaviour extends beyond personal and physical survival. Emotional well-being, propagation of knowledge, and advancement in lifestyle are some factors stimulating cooperation and bonding in humans. However, an emergent property of groups is an “us” versus “them” narrative – the reason why we end up creating memes such as this one:
So, how does cooperation between the “us” and bias against the “other” arise? How do psychology and biology, especially neuroscience, contribute to our understanding of this fascinating phenomenon? In this first part, I explore the psychological basis of group identity through two seminal experiments.
Fifty years ago, researchers gathered 22 12-year-old boys with comparable personal and economic backgrounds but who did not know each other. Initially, all the boys were allowed to mingle with each other for a day and form friendships. They were then randomly assigned to two groups and only allowed to interact within their group. Through engaging in cooperative activities, such as hiking and swimming, the boys bonded within groups over the course of a few weeks. They evolved status hierarchies and also coined names for their group. When the two groups became aware of the presence of the “other” (out-group), the friendships forged prior to group formation were abandoned in favour of “in-group” friendships. The boys characterised their own group in favourable terms, and the other group in unfavourable terms. The groups became defensive of the camp facilities they enjoyed and considered the other group to “abuse” these facilities. Competitive games between the groups triggered hostility. Starting with verbal abuse like name-calling, over a period of time it escalated to one group burning the other’s flag, ransacking the others’ property, to an extent that the researchers had to physically separate the boys from fighting.
Conducted at the Robbers Cave State Park, it came to be known as the Robbers cave experiment and is one of the most well-known demonstrations of Realistic Conflict Theory. According to this influential theory, similarities and cooperative action result in in-group formation, while conflict arises due to competition for limited resources.
An example of hostility between groups in the Robbers Cave Experiment. Click here to see experimental footage.
One sees shades of this in conflicts plaguing people across the world – India-Pakistan or the Arab-Israeli conflict. Basically, assign strangers to groups, perpetuate the groups, throw the groups into competition, stir the pot, and soon there will be conflict!
How long does it take for these in-group bonds to be forged? Days? Weeks? Months? To address this, Tajfel, a Polish social psychologist, came up with an interesting experiment. He showed paintings of two artists – Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky (without their signatures), to 14 to 15-year old boys and asked for their preferences.
Are you Kandinsky or Klee?
All the boys were from the same school, so they already knew each other. They were then randomly assigned to the Klee group or the Kandinsky group (although the boys believed it was based on their preference). The boys were then asked to allocate points (which was converted to money), from a book of tables (like the one below), to members of either their own group or others.
The boys would be “fair” if they allocated points equally between in-group and out-group. But, while allocating points, the boys awarded more points to their group, a reflection of in-group favouritism. Also, given a choice between maximising profit for all versus maximising profit for their group, the boys chose the latter. Even more interestingly, the boys were found to be more concerned with creating as large a difference as possible between the amounts allocated to each group, in favour of their own group. When they had to choose between maximum joint profit (an arrangement which awarded the most possible points/money to two anonymous boys from the two groups – “white or mauve” in the figure) and maximum difference (an arrangement that awarded more points/money to their in-group at the expense of the other – “red” in the figure), they chose maximum difference.
This shows that blatant discrimination can be created just by categorising the boys into meaningless groups. That is, as soon as the groups are defined, your loyalty is to the group. It does not need days of bonding to develop, neither does it depend on how much information one has about the in-group versus out-group.
This gave rise to the Social Identity Theory; people ascribe a part of their identity to their association with a “group”. In Tajfel’s experiment, the boys sought to achieve higher self-esteem by positively differentiating their “own” group from the “other”. Social groups help us make sense of the world and of our place in it. It is through the process of social identification that the individual transitions from an “I” to an “us”, and, thereby, also creates a “them”.
In today’s world, we all belong to several “in-groups” or labels – from the trivial sports team, class, school, city adulation to the more socially impactful labels such as state, religious belief, ethnic identity, skin colour, and political ideology. These, in turn, influence and shape our behaviour. Bias and hostility towards “others” cannot only be seen as an argument or a brawl over the results of a friendly cricket match, but also extend to our fear of immigrants, mistrust of people from a different religion/ideology/nation/political belief, or bias on the basis of skin colour.
Are these biases evolutionarily and biologically driven? If yes, are they fixed and unchangeable? Going back to the Robbers Cave experiment, when the two opposing groups were forced to work together by creating situations where one group could not achieve the goal by itself, the hostility between them reduced. And this decrease in hostility was to an extent that, by the end of the “reconciliation” period, the boys were eating together, and, when they finally left for their homes, they agreed to ride in the same bus, and were not seated along group lines. It is possible that these boys unlearnt their group identities and formed new ones! As much as competition for resources produces bias and conflict, sharing and pooling of resources towards common goals can help mitigate the same.
Is group identity and bias a conscious and deliberate phenomenon? Or are there levels of preconscious processing that contribute to it? In the next part, I will examine the role of biology, especially neuroscience, in shaping group identity.
(Thanks to Niranjan Kambi and Ajit Ray for their inputs.)
Also read: The Final of Two Parts