Saturday, January 24, 2015

Identity - Affinity - the Common Heart and Mind

Us vs. them -- how we all get it wrong and how to fix it.

Who the heck am I?  And what about them?  It's a mess trying to figure it out, and you can waste years getting it wrong.

Our identity seems to come from the place where we fit; our group gives us that sense of self, of having a place.  Henri Tajfel's great contribution to psychology was social identity theory, a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership.

Tajfel tells us that our groups (e.g., our social class, school, sports team, etc.) are our primary source of self-worth.

To fan that particular flame, we all tend to overplay the worth of our own group.  E.g., America is the best country in the world!  We may carry it further by discriminating against the out-group, the one to which we don't belong.  For rude examples from our history, the Italians, the Irish, and others were said to be inferior in many ways!
We're warned, "We dare not rank ourselves among persons distinguished by their
self-commendation. They are not wise, measuring themselves
as they do, comparing themselves with others."

That is, however, the natural (as in non-intellectual) process.  Do we have a choice?

We divide the world into “us” and “them”, the in-group and the out-group.  Without controls, in-group members will tend to create and exaggerate negative aspects of an out-group to make themselves somehow justified and superior as they discriminate. Materialistic rivalry among teenagers is an example throughout the developed world.

Prejudicial views between cultures can result in racism; at its worst, racism can result in genocide, such as occurred in Germany with the Jews, in Rwanda between the Hutus and Tutsis and in the former Yugoslavia between the Bosnians and Serbs.

Materialistic rivalry among
rich kids in Iran.
Henri Tajfel proposed that stereotyping (i.e. putting people into groups and categories) is based on a normal cognitive process, our intellectual tendency to group things together.  In doing so we tend to exaggerate...
1. the differences between groups
2. the similarities of things in the same group.
We categorize people that way. We see the group to which we belong as being different from the others, and we see members of each group as being more similar than they really are. Such categorization is one explanation for the unfounded prejudice and discrimination we see in cultures and individuals.  We separate ourselves from others unnecessarily.

One hundred and seventy ... million!
The Dalit are not alone; 270 million or 21.9% people out of 1.2 billion of Indians
 lived below the poverty line of $1.25 per person per day in 2011-2012
E.g., in & out groups and unfounded prejudice
  • Northern Ireland: Catholics – Protestants
  • Rwanda: Hutus – Tutsis
  • Yugoslavia: Bosnians – Serbs
  • Germany: Nazis – Jews
  • Politics: Liberals – Conservatives
  • Football: Cowboys – Redskins
  • Gender: Males – Females
  • Status: Upper – Lower Classes
  • India: The Varnas and the Dalits (Untouchables)

Social Identity Theory - An Outline

Tajfel and Turner (1979) proposed that there are three steps in categorizing others as “us” or “them”. They take place in a particular order.

1.  First, we categorize. We categorize objects in order to understand them and identify them. In a very similar way we categorize people (including ourselves) in order to understand the social context. We use categories like black, white, Christian, Muslim, student, and store clerk because they are useful.

Colonial Mexican Caste System - After the Spanish colonized Mexico, one's
position in a caste system depended on how European or indigenous one
seemed. Both biological and sociocultural indicators were used to
measure ethnicity.
If we can assign people to a category, that tells us things about them that help us interact appropriately. Similarly, we find out things about ourselves by knowing what categories we belong to. We understand appropriate behavior from the norms of our group, but only if we can tell who belongs to which group.

2.  Social identification comes next, and we adopt the identity of our group. If for example you have categorized yourself as a student, the chances are you will adopt the identity of a student and begin to act in the ways you believe students act (and conform to the norms of the group). There will be an emotional significance to your identification with a group, and your self-esteem will become bound up with the group's worth and reputation.

3.  Finally, we compare. Once we have categorized ourselves as part of a group and have identified with that group, we then tend to compare our group with others. If our self-esteem is to be maintained our group needs to compare favorably. This is critical to understanding prejudice, because once two groups identify themselves as rivals they are forced to compete in order for the members to maintain their self-esteem. Competition and hostility between groups is thus not only a matter of competing for resources (like in Sherif’s Robbers Cave) like jobs but also the result of competing identities.

Conclusion and Caveat

In our human nature, such in-group thinking is not artificial, not just the occasional quirk of culture or circumstance.  It is a real and natural part of every developing person beginning in early childhood and continuing throughout our lives.

Chickens do prejudice?
As modern science and early writers have explained,
we're not without a choice.  The mind can be
rebuilt, renewed, changed, despite our
less than perfect tendencies,
 our human nature.

By nature, that's the way it works, and it can be destructive to all involved unless we consciously choose otherwise.

That's 'nature' to the extent that animals do it naturally.  Chickens do prejudice! Chickens, in the photo (above, left) ostracise the one who's different.  When you feed them, the big red ones will attack the little grey one if it tries to join in.  
If it's so natural in the animal world, shouldn't we as humans have risen above such behavior?  Of course.  Sapiens.

By itself, understanding these things does little to avert a life of pointless selfishness and separation unless we are profoundly changed; formed naturally and reformed again as thoughtful and aware, perhaps.  A second birth sort of thing.

How might we avoid being conformed to this common heart and mind?  Can we instead be transformed into something greater?  If ever there were a worthy goal, being rebuilt in the image of some magnificent human (as opposed to animal) would be worth a life's investment. See Romans 12 for a practical description of what's involved.

Narrow minded exclusivism is automatic unless challenged and deliberately changed.
I.e., we're chicken-ignorant unless we find the way out.


Thanks and a hat tip to S. A. McLeod, (2008). Social Identity Theory and to The Apostle Paul and others for laying out the way forward.

You might appreciate The Adult Mind and perhaps Adult Thinking.