Why It Is So Easy to Hate Each Other

Being more skeptical of your intuition may make help you see others more clearly

Posted Jul 14, 2016

Wikimedia Commons (Hatred by Ben Slow)/Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons (Hatred by Ben Slow)/Public Domain

It would not be much of a stretch to say that “hate” is almost always the lead story on the evening news, and the demonization of others who do not share our view of the world is the driving force behind most of the human suffering that we visit upon each other on a daily basis.  Whether we are talking about minority groups, infidels, or over-the-top inflammatory rhetoric by politicians seeking to energize the electorate, self-righteous outrage against evil others is the order of the day.

Where does it all come from?

Sizing up other individuals as allies or adversaries has always been a human priority.  In the prehistoric world in which we evolved, it was a fairly rare occurrence to encounter a person whom you or one of your relatives did not know personally. When such an event occurred, an advantage accrued to those who were cautious and suspicious around strangers and who quickly and decisively sized up who this stranger was in relation to themselves.

Hence, one of the oldest and most pernicious of human qualities is the ease with which we put people into categories. 

First and foremost, we want to know whether a person shares genes, worldviews, and group allegiances with us or not.  This sets in motion a series of mental steps that determine the degree of comfort, trust, and cooperation we will display toward the person in question.

Group identity fosters a sense of loyalty and sets up perceptual filters that exert powerful influences on us.  Psychologists have identified a number of cognitive triggers that get pulled once we have decided whether someone is “One of Us” or not.

The Ultimate Attribution Error

We hold positive illusions about our ingroup and negative illusions about outgroups, and we see our own group’s moral values as more desirable and as superior to those of others.  This proclivity can be amplified and magnified by religious ideologies that convince us that God is on our side.

Psychologists refer to this as the ultimate attribution error.  

Consequently, we are automatically suspicious of outgroup members' values and intentions; they are at best misguided, and at worst they are downright evil.  This enables ruthless behavior against outgroup members and fosters solidarity with ingroup members who share our values.

And loyalty matters.  In the prehistoric world, ostracism from the group was tantamount to a death sentence.  And so we acquired strong, reflexive loyalty mechanisms and an overwhelming susceptibility to conformity pressure from one’s peers.

It does not take much to jump-start the group identification process.  Psychologist Henri Tajfel developed a research methodology that has come to be known as the Minimal Group Paradigm.  This is used in experiments in which participants are divided into two groups based on some flimsy superficial thing such as the results of a coin toss or the color of their clothing.  Even this random and meaningless way of dividing people into groups results in a tendency to favor one’s own group over the other and to hold self-serving biases about the two groups.

How much more powerful are these tendencies when the chasm between groups is based upon real life categories?

The Outgroup Homogeneity Effect

Members of outgroups are seen as being more similar to each other than members of ingroups are, and the actions of any individual (e.g., racist, terrorist, criminal) are perceived as being more typical of the outgroup as a whole.  Extreme individuals within our own groups are perceived as eccentrics and they are dismissed as deviants who are not at all typical of what our group is like.  This is known as the outgroup homogeneity effect. 

Try asking someone about what a “typical” member of some group that they belong to is like.  It could be a church, a fraternity, a softball team, or a work group.  After a brief, quizzical pause, you are likely to get an answer along the lines of “Well, we have all kinds of different people in this group; each person is a unique individual.”

Next, ask them what the typical member of some rival group is like.  You will likely receive a quicker reply, and it may very well start out with something like “Oh – those guys!  They are all alike.”  And if you don't personally know many people from that group and all you hear about them comes from media outlets that reinforce your beliefs, your stereotype hardens more quickly than cement.

Many studies have indicated that members of outgroups even look more alike to us than members of ingroups; cross-racial identification of faces is notoriously bad.

Belief Perseverance & Illusory Correlations

Once we believe something to be true, evidence does not easily shake it from us.  We cherry pick tidbits that confirm our belief and disregard things that contradict it.  After all, if we know that we are right, there must be something wrong with information that is incongruous.  This leads us to see things that we expect to see (illusory correlations). 

Consider the common example of holding a stereotype about a group of people.  Imagine that you firmly believe that the group is made up of humorless, angry individuals.  All it takes is meeting one person whose behavior even remotely confirms your stereotype and you walk away from the encounter with an even stronger stereotype in place, thinking about how you should have seen that coming.

On the other hand, meeting an individual who does not match our stereotype is disconcerting.  Our mental schema has let us down and we did not accurately predict how the interaction would unfold.  In spite of this experience, however, we do not throw out our stereotype.  We dismiss the person as an aberration and perhaps set up a sub-category within our stereotype for oddballs, which allows us to maintain the integrity of our beliefs.

We will use any marker available to us to classify people into an in-group or an outgroup, and race and religion are two of the easiest criteria to use -- which goes a long way toward explaining the social problems swirling around these things throughout human history.  After all, if you can determine from a distance that someone is not from your group because of the color of their skin or the way they dress, this can save cognitive work while you categorize them. It has even been proposed that the ease with which regional accents develop comes from the need to quickly announce where you are from.  After all, if you are from “around here” the chance that we share genes or alliances are quite good, and this will encourage me to treat you better than I might otherwise.

In this very political season, we also see the categorizing power of political affiliation.

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, George Saunders described a cross-country pilgrimage to political rallies where he interviewed supporters of candidates as well as protestors in attendance at these events.  Saunders was impressed with the similarity of the responses he got from both right-wingers and left-wingers when he posed detailed hypothetical scenarios about individual illegal immigrant families or other hot button issues.  Typically, his interviewees responded thoughtfully and compassionately to the plight of individuals.

However, as the issues he posed became more abstract and complex, people on both sides of the aisle retreated into talking points that had been cherry picked from their respective media worlds, many of which had at best a fragile connection to objective truth.  The more abstract the issue is, the easier it is to avoid the sticky, uncomfortable details of individual cases.

He discovered time and again that people had not usually thought through the issues very deeply.  They find out which side of an issue their team is on and then buy into it as a way of displaying loyalty and advertising solidarity with their group.  Unfortunately, this was also usually accompanied by simplistic vilification of the opposition as I have described above.

So, what good is all of this? Can learning about it really change anything?

I will admit to being more than a bit pessimistic about the prospects for overcoming the obstinacy of human nature.  At the very least, however, I believe that educating ourselves about the cognitive biases that we all share can make us more skeptical of our intuition and make us more thoughtful and charitable in our reactions to those who disagree with us.

After all, we have to start somewhere.