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Divided We Fall

Can we transcend the need for group identity?

Source: nigelb/flickr

If you follow the news, you may be aware that the UK, where I live, has been in state of political turmoil in recent months. In fact, the turmoil began about three a half years ago, when there was a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, and the vote went narrowly in favour of leaving.

One of the unfortunate aspects of this has been a growing sense of division in the country. A new sense of duality has been created, between ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers.’ Particularly over the last few months, the enmity between leavers and remainers has been growing stronger. Leavers refer to remainers as ‘remoaners’, accusing them of refusing to accept the result of the referendum. Remainers see ‘Brexiteers’ as xenophobes and nationalists.

There probably hasn’t been as much enmity between different groups since the English Civil War in the 17th century, when the country was divided into royalists and puritans. Our prime minister Boris Johnson recently made an appeal to 'find common ground, to heal the divisions of our country and to find a new and generous spirit' but divisions have become so entrenched that there seems little prospect of this.

Group Identity

The impulse to divide into different groups is very deep-rooted. Most conflicts in history have been fought between groups who define themselves as different to one another, due to religion, ethnicity, or political beliefs. Sometimes these differences are tangible or physical (e.g. related to national or ethnic distinctions) but often they seem to be created conceptually by an impulse for division. Time and again, larger religious, political or cultural groups have divided into ‘splinter groups’ with a new, distinct identity of their own. This partly explains why there are so many different groups who refer to themselves as ‘Christians’: Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on.

This was a source of bemusement for the Native Americans. As the Seneca Chief Red Jacket said to the European settlers who were trying to convert them: ‘You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agreed, as you can all read the Book?’

Imagine the following scenario, which has probably been played out thousands of times throughout human history: a group of people are persecuted in their homeland (perhaps due to their religious beliefs) and decide to go to live on a remote island or continent, so they can all live together in peace. For a time, they live in harmony, and enjoy their new freedom. But soon they start to bicker. They have different ideas about how they should follow their religion or build their community. Within a few months, one or more sub-groups have formed, and moved to different parts of the island. It’s not long before war breaks out between the different groups, who once lived together harmoniously.

The Need for Group Identity

This impulse for division isn't just about human aggression and need for conflict. The most important factor is human beings’ need for identity. Quite simply, we love to belong to groups because it gives us a sense of identity. We love to peg our hats to conceptual labels, like nationality and religion and political ideology, because it reinforces our sense of self. And an important part of group identity is opposition to other groups. A group defines itself partly through shared beliefs and conventions, but also through a sense of opposition to other groups. The persecuted religious group I described above were able to live in harmony in their home country, because their sense of otherness defined them, and bonded them together. But on the new island, without other groups around them, they lost their sense of identity and community. So they divided into different groups to regain their sense of identity and community.

Incidentally, this is why it is difficult for different religious groups to live in harmony with one another. In theory, there is no reason why different faiths should not tolerate and respect one another. (And to their credit, some religious people do manage to practise this.) But part of the appeal of religion is the strong sense of identity and community it provides. Identity depends on, or at least is reinforced by, otherness and opposition. So religious people, particularly fundamentalists, often find it difficult to look positively on members of other faiths.


In my view, this need for identity points to a fundamental psychological problem which affects almost all modern human beings: ego-separateness. This is our feeling that we exist as entities enclosed inside our own bodies and brains. We feel that we live inside our own mental space, in a state of separation and duality, with the rest of the world and all other human beings ‘out there,’ on the other side.

Ego-separateness is a variable: some people experience it to a greater degree than others. For example, psychopaths and narcissists experience it to an extreme degree, living in complete self-absorption and self-centredness. People who have a high level of empathy and compassion experience it to a lower degree. But for most human beings, ego-separateness creates a basic sense of aloneness and incompleteness. Even if we’re not aware of it, the feeling is there in the background: a sense of apartness, of being a fragment that has somehow broken off from the whole. Religious people sometimes talk about a ‘god-shaped hole’ which human beings try to fill with power, money or pleasure. But in my view, the ‘god-shaped hole’ relates to our sense of ego-separateness. (And ironically, I don't think that conventional religion can genuinely fill the god-shaped hole either!)

Ego-separateness is the root cause of a lot of human behaviour. In my books The Fall and Back to Sanity I have suggested that it is the origin of the human impulse to accumulate power and material wealth, and even related to social pathologies such as warfare and patriarchy. And I also think that is the root cause of the human need for group identity.

There are two main reasons for this, both of which I have touched on already. On the one hand, we are attracted to the sense of belonging that a group provides, which alleviates our sense of aloneness and fragmentation, We don’t feel so alone or fragmented if we are part of a community with shared ideals and beliefs and conventions. Secondly, attaching a conceptual label to ourselves strengthens our sense of self. Our ego-separation makes us feel vulnerable and insignificant, and conceptual labels help to assuage this. We feel like we are ‘someone’ because we have certain beliefs and belong to a certain group.

Beyond Identity

All of this means that, ultimately, the only way that human beings will transcend the need for group identity, and the enmity and conflict which it creates, is by transcending our sense of ego-separateness. This might sound like an unattainable ideal, but there are certainly some people who have managed to do this.

As a psychologist, I have spent much of career doing research on people who have undergone profound personal transformation, usually following intense psychological turmoil, such as bereavement or a diagnosis of cancer. I sometimes refer to these people as ‘shifters,’ in the sense that they have shifted up to a higher level of human development. I also sometimes call the state that these people experience ‘wakefulness,’ in the sense that they have ‘woken up’ to a new sense of meaning and appreciation, with a heightened awareness of their surroundings, and more intimate and authentic relationships. (I also use the term because I think what these people experience is a secular version of the ‘awakening’ which many spiritual traditions describe.)

One of the common traits of these people is that they no longer feel any need for group identity. They no longer feel a need to define themselves in terms of nationality, religion or ideology. To give you an example, several years ago, for my PhD thesis, I studied a sample of 25 people who had undergone this kind of transformational experience. Two of my participants told me that, before their transformation, they had been big soccer fans. They were big supporters of specific clubs, and went to as many matches as they could, to cheer on their team. But now they told me that they no longer felt an allegiance to the soccer clubs. They had lost the need for identity which that allegiance brings. Significantly, they both told me that they like the game of soccer itself, and enjoyed watching matches. But now they didn’t want any particular team to win. In fact, one of them told me that when he watched matches he hoped that both teams could win!

Why did these people lose the need for group identity? Because they no longer felt separate. They lost that sense of being alone inside their own mental space, with the rest of the world on the other side. They now had an interconnected sense of self, a shared sense of identity with other human beings, and the whole world itself. This was the most important aspect of their transformation, and their state of wakefulness.

Collective Awakening

At the moment it seems as if only a small minority of human beings have reached the ‘wakeful’ state, and so transcended the need for group identity. Until then, it is likely that we are stuck with the divisions and conflicts of different groups. But it is perhaps significant that, in my research, the shift into ‘wakefulness’ most frequently occurs after intense psychological turmoil. As a species, we are living in a time of unprecedented crisis, facing a climate emergency which is already causing serious damage to our planet. It is my hope that the turmoil we are in the midst of may have a collective awakening effect, and help us to move beyond the conflict and chaos caused by group identity.