Mankind’s greatest strength is also its biggest weakness

Sexism. Racism. Homophobia. Islamophobia. Ablism. Ageism. Our world is plagued by discriminatory practices towards various groups, based on certain characteristics that they might possess. Society is rife with implicit assumptions that women are more incompetent, dark-skinned people are more likely to be criminals, those with non-normative sexual orientations are deviants, and the list goes on and on.

You’re either in or you’re out

All of these issues have the same underlying explanation: they represent an in-group versus out-group dynamic. We use a variety of attributes of characteristics to define who can belong to our ‘in-group’: race, religion, country, gender, etc.… This has great benefits to those who belong, as being part of the in-group facilitates cooperation and trust, and increases the chance your fellow group members will look on you favorably. In-groups are a foundation for communal undertakings that would have been impossible to achieve individually.

But as a natural consequence of having an in-group, there has to be a corresponding ‘out-group’, which consists of all those who lack the necessary attribute or characteristic to belong. And since we tend to look so favorably on those in our in-group, we tend to be a lot more negative towards the out-group. ‘They’ are different than ‘us’, they don’t belong, and we don’t appreciate or value them as much. Feelings of antisemitism, the phrase ‘OK boomer’, hostile sentiments towards China, all are in one way or another expressions of “fuck the outgroup”.

We use out-groups to distance others from ourselves. This is mainly done to foster the strength of ties in the in-group, but often results in poor relations and lower overall trust towards those outside of our group. The more we focus on what sets us apart, instead of what binds us together, the more divided we become. Few things are arguably as harmful on the societal level as beliefs of ‘otherness’. And the more we distance ourselves from others, the easier it becomes for us to wish harm upon them. Hutus equated Tutsis with ‘cockroaches’, Nazis called the Jews ‘rats’, Native Americans were viewed as ‘savages’. All tools to create a stronger negative perception of an out-group, of those who are different. All tools that allowed for the committing of enormous atrocities, which were often unimaginable to inflict on those who were more similar to us.

“We are seemingly hardwired to be part of a group in some shape or form”

Mankind’s greatest strength

Our strong sense of group belonging is arguably mankind’s biggest strength. There is only so much a person can achieve by themselves, and society as we currently know it could only have come about through cooperation between individuals.

Being part of a group made life a lot easier: some people could stand watch at night while others rested, people could specialize and create a division of labor, buildings could be constructed that would be impossible for any individual. Research shows we’re more likely to consider something said by a person that belongs to our group as fact. Without collaboration and group-membership, it’s hard to see how mankind could have evolved past a stone age-level society.

While it’s not clear in which direction the causal relation lies, we even have a dependency on group belonging that affects our mental well-being. Whether it’s a sporting club, friendship network, or religious community, being part of a group benefits our mental health. It lowers the chance we’ll become depressed, and belonging to multiple groups decreases this chance even further.

This need seems to be almost innate. Just like how we get hungry when we need to eat, and thirsty when we need to drink, we can get lonely when we feel like we don’t belong. And just like how a temporary state of hunger or thirst isn’t harmful, but prolonged experience is, feelings of loneliness don’t cause harm in the short run, but can be devastating in the long run. We are seemingly hardwired to be part of a group in some shape or form.

A natural result?

So why are we so group-oriented? There is a good argument to be made that natural evolution is the cause. We’ve been subjected to strong selection effects that have arguably fostered teamwork and collaboration in us as a species.

How is this possible? Aren’t our genes selfish instead of collaborative? If evolution is a form of survival of the fittest, surely those individuals that are selfish and exploit the group for their own ends would thrive?

“Our propensity to cooperate only goes so far.”

It actually turns out that focusing purely on personal gain is not beneficial on the broader evolutionary level. A great example comes from the chicken breeding experiments conducted by William Muir. Muir did experiments to breed ‘super-chickens’ that laid more eggs than average. For his experiments, he used several cages full of chickens, and selected the most productive hens from each cage for further breeding. But after repeating this process for a few generations, individual egg production actually plummeted. On top of that, many chickens were found plucked to death.

What happened? By selecting based on individual productivity, Muir selected for the most dominant and aggressive animals within a cage. However, when these aggressive chickens were put together, they were no longer able to exert their dominance over the others. Instead, they often got into conflict with each other, and their capability to lay eggs suffered as a result.

While Muir was successful in the end in producing more productive chickens, the solutions turned out to be quite different. Instead of selecting for the individual chickens with the highest production, Muir started selecting for the cages with the highest overall production, and used those for breeding. The cages with the highest total output generally housed the most docile and cooperative chickens, which allowed all members to contribute. After a few generations of selective breeding, the chickens became much more docile and cooperative, and productivity shot through the roof. Selection pressures clearly favored group work over individual achievement.

The same logic applies to humans. Those that are willing to work in groups can outcompete those who operate as loners, especially when resources are scarce. Conversely, what might be beneficial for an individual does not always translate to being beneficial for the entire group or species. So those that decided to cooperate come out ahead, and were more likely to reproduce.

Yet our propensity to cooperate only goes so far. Cooperating with group members whom you trust can bring enormous benefits, but a willingness to cooperate with complete strangers is a recipe for exploitation. Our tendency towards collaboration and cooperation is therefore primarily oriented towards members of our own group.

This distinction between trust towards those within and outside of our group is even regulated by our neurology. For example, when we cheer on those who belong to our team we start producing more testosterone. We all have the hormonal regulator oxytocin, sometimes misleadingly known as the hugging hormone. While this hormone does indeed facilitate trust and cooperation (and yes, hugging), it doesn’t apply to everyone. Oxytocin increases the bonds and connections we feel with those within our own group. But oxytocin has either no discernable effect on those in the outgroup, or it might even make us more hostile towards them.

Natural selection isn’t the only mechanism that fosters our group dynamics. We also tend to have a natural gravitation towards those with similar characteristics as us. Simultaneously, we prefer to view ourselves in a positive light. When we combine these two mechanisms, we get a tendency to view others that share our characteristics in a similar positive light. This creates another form of in-group favoritism, where those with similar characteristics are preferred over those with different characteristics.

Everyone loves a good story

Why are we so intent on dividing everything in a narrative of ‘us’ versus ‘them’? Part of the reasons is that it makes for a good narrative that we can identify with. We derive our identities largely from the groups we belong to, and distinctions between groups are everywhere in the world: developed versus developing world, vaccinated versus unvaccinated, democrat versus republican, atheist versus believer, Liverpool FC fan versus Manchester United fan, the list goes on and on. We are natural born storytellers, and as a result we try to turn everything we encounter into a story. An overarching narrative of us versus makes for a story that we can easily make sense of.

“Our stories prefer neat categories with clear delineations.”

That’s why we primarily create groups based on easily identifiable and categorizable characteristics or attributes: sex, race, public displays of homosexual affection, culture- or ideology-specific pieces of clothing or apparel (e.g. wearing a hajib or MAGA cap). Our stories prefer neat categories with clear delineations. This is encouraging, as the slow and steady blurring of groups based on race and sex(uality) provides some hope that we might over time start to let go of using these characteristics as differentiators.

The need for an in-between group

The whole process of in-group vs. out-group dynamics operates by focusing on the differences that exist between groups. While these differences are sometimes imaginary, more often than not they do describe actual heterogeneity between groups of people: for example, most stereotypes are largely accurate. Different groups can and do vary in their characteristics.

The problem is that while differences might exist in the aggregate, most groups also tend to have considerable overlap. Our attempts to frame everything along neat categories makes us focus on the differences that exist, but as a result we lose sight of what we have in common with each other. Categorization lies at the heart of our us versus them dynamics, and many sources of societal conflict and discrimination. The harder it is to define or categorize a group, the less likely we are to be discriminatory against them.

“Instead of focusing on who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, our attention needs to be on those in-between”

What we should be doing is stop thinking along lines of discrete characteristics, and start thinking more along the lines of continuous characteristics.

For example, let’s take a look at a gender difference between men and women. The height of both genders is normally distributed, but women are clearly shorter than men on average.

At the same time however, the two groups also have significant overlap. What we should be doing, is instead of trying to determine differences between men and women based on their average height, to combine the two and create a continuous distribution of length across genders.

Instead of looking at the gaps in averages that exists between the two groups, we shift our focus to where the characteristics of the majority are. Our focus on the gap does not account for individual differences, and more importantly, individual overlap. Population wise, the largest proportion actually consists of the area between 165cm and 180cm, the area where the sizes between the two genders overlap.

To be fair, length is already a continuous characteristic, so this transformation is easy to apply. But most (if not all) the attributes along which we normally draw our dividing lines also have several continuous characteristics: with increasing migration and cultural exchange it’s becoming increasingly rare for people to have a homogenous ethnicity, we’re slowly becoming aware that sex and sexuality are not just binary characteristics but can span a range of different configurations, people that vote for a political party don’t all have exactly the same views and instead span a range of different preferences, etc.

This is why we need to shift our thinking to groups. We need to stop with assessing groups of people based on binary or discrete characteristics, and instead realize that nearly every characteristic is part of an overall spectrum instead. This will shift our attention away from what makes us different, and towards where we are similar. This makes us far less likely to engage in ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narratives, and creates fewer out-groups. Instead of focusing on who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, our attention needs to be on those in-between. When we do, we’ll quickly see we’re all not so different after all.

Casting a wide net

On top of that, we need to make sure we live in diversified environments. When we have few interactions with those that have different cultures or ideologies, it’s easy to see who the ‘others’ are. If you live in a homogenous environment, where everyone has the same ethnicity, beliefs and ideologies, it becomes very clear who belongs to your in-group and who is part of the out-group.

But when we’re raised in an environment with parents from different nationalities, or if we’re surrounded by people with diverse beliefs and ideologies, it becomes much less clear who belongs to the in-group. Instead, we’re far more likely to identify with several different groups.

The more diverse our environment is, the less likely we are to create out-groups based on arbitrary characteristics. That’s not to say we’ll stop creating out-groups altogether. Given how ingrained our group dynamics seem to be, we might never fully escape our tendency of forming in-groups. But there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to expand the scope of those we consider to be part of our in-group. So if in-group favoritism truly is unavoidable, the solution is just to make our in-group as big as we possibly can.


Ron Maas
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