Why Are We So Divided and What Can We Do About It?

Psychological research has some clues.

Posted Jan 10, 2020

Our nation is becoming increasingly divided into opposing groups. And these divisions are becoming more and more entrenched. Why is this occurring? 

Similarity Brings Comfort

Psychologists say it is easiest to stick with people whom we see as similar to ourselves. It requires more effort to step outside our bubble. We tend to associate with people who look or think like ourselves.

We then take the similarity even one step further by assuming that people who are similar to us on one characteristic are similar to us on many other characteristics. For example, if a person belongs to the same political party or religion that we do, we might think they also like the same activities that we do. Thus, we have a strong tendency to categorize people with a broad brush.

We also want assurances that we will be liked before we attempt to interact with someone else. People who are similar to us tend to be liked by us and tend to like us more than is the case with dissimilar people. Again, then, we isolate ourselves from the challenge of being with dissimilar people. The process of seeing our group as the best group is known as ingroup bias.

Ingroup Bias Is Hardwired

Viewing others in the same way we view ourselves is a function of a part of our brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex. Other parts of our brain also predispose us to ingroup bias.

We see the same behaviors of people not in our group as different from those of people in our group. A group of psychologists presented Democrats and Republicans during the U.S. Presidential election of 2004 with an initial statement (a politician said they were going to lower taxes) from a presidential candidate of their own or another political group. Participants were subsequently shown a statement that involved an action that contradicted the initial statement (the politician is now not lowering taxes). Participants perceived less contradiction between the initial statement and the action that contradicted the statement from their own group leader. This biased processing of information from ingroup versus outgroup leaders showed up as activation in certain areas of the brain.

When feeling threatened by an outgroup member, another part of our brain is activated. Australian psychologists asked non-Muslim participants to decide to either shoot a photograph of a Muslim (outgroup member) or a non-Muslim (ingroup member) who, in the photograph, was holding a gun. When confronted by the photograph of the outgroup member with a gun and while deciding to shoot this, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex of the non-Muslim participant was activated. But it was not activated when deciding whether to shoot the photograph of the ingroup member.

Ingroup Bias Is Amplified by Social Media

Social media increases our isolation from others. We tend to subscribe to popular media, which only confirms our point of view. People outside our group may have a different point of view, but we are not exposed to it. And when we are not exposed to outgroup members, our ingroup bias is intensified.

Stereotypes of outgroup members run rampant. We even then begin surmising what other people think. People who dress like Muslims might think like or (gasp) be terrorists. People who are trying to immigrate to the United States might think they can be freeloaders. These stereotypes all come from seeing people outside our group as not only making us uncomfortable but also as being a threat. 

It is the way we see people not like us that creates fear and hate—not the actual reality. Yes, some people from our group, as well as some people outside our group, are at best misinformed, and even terrorists and freeloaders, but most people are not. Yet we continue to have a perception of people not like us in terms of stereotypes.

Gerd Altman/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altman/Pixabay

See Others as Individuals, Not as Members of a Group

To change our perception, we must be exposed to people not like us in positive contexts. We cannot just stay in our safe shell. We have to actively seek out people who are not similar to us. We will then see others as individuals, not just as members of an outgroup.

One way to develop positive images is through travel where we interact with others—this could be travel within or outside the U.S. Another way is for positive images and stories about people from groups other than our own to be presented in popular media (social media, television, magazines, newspapers), schools, churches, even stores.

There are many benefits to taking the risk of being with people different from ourselves. One benefit is changing attitudes toward outgroup members. The change in attitudes reduces conflict, which benefits one’s well-being as well as society.

Another benefit of interacting with outgroup members is self-expansion. Self-expansion means we develop a wider view of who we are and of what we are able to do. And one of the best ways to expand ourselves is to engage in activities with members of an outgroup. We begin to incorporate some of the positive characteristics and resources of others into our view of our self.

Yes, we need to reach out and speak to people other than ourselves. But, most of all, we need to listen to them.

References

Arthur Aron, Tracy McLaughlin-Volpe, Debra Mashek, Gary Lewandowski, Stephen C. Wright & Elaine N. Aron (2004) Including others in the self, European Review of Social Psychology, 15:1, 101-132.

Domínguez D, J.F., van Nunspeet,F., Gupta, A., Eres, R., Louis, W.R., Decety, J., & Molenberghs, P. (2018). Lateral orbitofrontal cortex activity is modulated by group membership in situations of justified and unjustified violence, Social Neuroscience, 13 (6), 739-755.

Hampton, A.J., Fisher Boyd, A.N., & Sprecher, S. (2019). You’re like me and I like you: Mediators of the similarity-liking link assessed before and after a getting-acquainted social interaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36 (7), 2221-2224.

Locke, K.D., Craig, T., Baik, K.D., Gohil, K.(2012). Binds and bounds of communion: effects of interpersonal values on assumed similarity of self and others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 103(5), 879-897.

Molenberghs, P., Louis, W. R. (2018). Insights from fMRI studies into ingroup bias. Frontiers in Psychology, 9 (1868), 1-12.

Paolini, S., Wright, S., Dys-Steenbergen, O., & Favara, I.. (2016). Self‐Expansion and intergroup contact: Expectancies and motives to self‐expand lead to greater interest in outgroup contact and more positive intergroup relations. Journal of Social Issues. 72, 450-471.

Westen, D., Blagov, P. S., Harenski, K., Kilts, C., and Hamann, S. (2006). Neural bases of motivated reasoning: an fMRI study of emotional constraints on partisan political judgment in the 2004 US presidential election. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 18, 1947–1958.