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Us Versus the Virus

How the social psychology of superordinate goals is kicking into high gear.

WikiImages / Pixabay
Source: WikiImages / Pixabay

It is summer of 1954 and the kids in a small camp in Robber's Cave State Park (in Oklahoma) are divided into the "Eagles" versus the "Rattlers." We had a version of this called "color wars" when I went to camp back in the 1970s. The counselors and other camp staff used every trick in the book to, in a friendly way, get the teams to build strong bonds within their groups and to truly despise (again, in a kind of benign way...) everything and everyone connected with the other group. Competition between the groups was fostered and strong ingroup favoritism and outgroup hostility (see Billig & Tajfel, 1973) were quickly and easily elicited. For days on end, in the woods of Oklahoma in the summer of 1954, those Rattlers just hated the Eagles. And vice versa.

This ingroup/outgroup effect corresponds to a general tendency for people to favor others who are "on their team" or who "share their identity" in some sense relative to others who are "on the other team." For better or worse, the ingroup/outgroup effect and the strong human tendency toward tribalism that goes along with it (see Haidt & Kesebir, 2010) comprise a foundational part of our evolved psychology, largely as humans lived in small, close-knit tribes for the lion's share of human evolutionary history (see Geher, 2014). In other words, ingroup/outgroup thinking and the tribalism that goes along with it run deep in our evolved psychology.

This particular camp activity in the study being described in this post was famously documented by pioneering social psychologist, Muzafer Sherif. A humanist at his core, Sherif was interested in understanding the factors that could eradicate our tribalistic nature. Are there ways to reduce the ingroup/outgroup effect and to get people to essentially expand their psychological ingroups? Are there ways to get people to see all others as "on their team"?

The Powerful Effects of Superordinate Goals

After a period of cultivating a strong ingroup/outgroup culture, Sherif changed the social psychological landscape. He presented the campers with a series of situations in which all campers, Eagles and Rattlers alike, had to work together so as to achieve some goal. For instance, the kids were going to be able to watch a movie one night, but it turned out that the camp itself didn't have enough money to show it and the kids had to, as such, working across Eagle/Rattler lines, come up with a certain sum of money so that they could all watch the movie. A similar situation took place with an ostensible water shortage that equally affected the Eagles and Rattlers in adverse ways.

Well, guess what? Creating these superordinate goals had a powerful effect on the attitudes of the campers. After having worked with all the other kids, regardless of group identification, the outgroup-identification walls started to break down and the kids started to hold positive attitudes toward the other kids regardless of whether they were Eagles or Rattlers. The introduction of superordinate goals, simply, went a long way toward getting everyone to see themselves as on the same team.

Superordinate Goals and the Coronavirus Pandemic

In my 50 years, I've never seen anything like the coronavirus pandemic. Sweeping, brutal, and blind in its destruction of human life, the coronavirus stands, to my mind, as the most powerful example of a common enemy to us all that I've ever seen.

In a sense, Sherif's Robber's Cave experiment is happening right now. Conservatives and liberals alike have a common enemy. And it is the coronavirus. Southern states and northern states have a common enemy. And it is the coronavirus. The governments of North Korea, Iran, the UK, and the US have a common enemy. And it is the coronavirus. At local levels, people who have bickered with one another for years about all kinds of stupid things, like whether someone leaves up their holiday lights for too long for another neighbor's taste, now have a common enemy. And it is the coronavirus.

At this difficult moment in human history, each of us, all 8 billion of us, has a common enemy. And it is the coronavirus.

From a social psychological perspective, along with the horror and ubiquity of the coronavirus pandemic, there's something else: We have a new superordinate goal. Stopping the destructive trajectory of the coronavirus is that superordinate goal.

While I hate to quote High School Musical, in short, "we're all in this together."

A good thing about all that is this: Social psychological work going back to the 1950s (see Sherif, 1958) shows us a silver lining. When a superordinate goal that matters to people presents itself, ingroup/outgroup conflict tends to fall by the wayside. And people band together across all kinds of groups in pursuit of achieving that common goal.

Bottom Line

Look, when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, failure is not an option and we all know it. Just as the Eagles and Rattlers put their differences aside to collaborate, work together, and move toward achieving common goals, we all need to put our differences aside at this time in human history. If ever there were a time to think like a humanist—focusing our efforts on what is best for humans writ large—that time is now.

Stopping the destruction of the coronavirus that is wreaking havoc on human families across the globe is now the primary goal. And that goes for all of us, thereby making it a truly pan-human superordinate goal. And it is a battle that we cannot lose.

Be well, be safe, and be smart. The only chance we have of beating this beast is to make the appropriate sacrifices (such as wearing masks, sheltering in place, etc.), make smart decisions, and to cooperate in a truly global fashion. Working together, we got this.


Billig, M., & Tajfel, H. (1973). Social categorization and similarity in intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 3, 27–52.

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Haidt, J., & Kesebir, S. (2010). Morality. In S. Fiske, D. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.) Handbook of Social Psychology, 5th Edition. Hobeken, NJ: Wiley. pp. 797–832.

Haslam, Alex; Oakes, Penny; Turner, John; McGarty, Craig (1996). "Social identity, self-categorization, and the perceived homogeneity of ingroups and outgroups: The interaction between social motivation and cognition". In Sorrentino, Richard; Higgins, Edward. Handbook of Motivation and Cognition: Foundations of Social Behavior. 3. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 182–222.

Ross, L., & Nisbett, R.E. (1991). The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.

Sherif, Muzafer (January 1958). "Superordinate Goals in the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict". American Journal of Sociology. 63 (4): 349–356. doi:10.1086/222258.