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Us vs. Them: How We Create Ingroups (and Outgroups)

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We’ve all felt it—we’re out in public, minding our own business, when suddenly we come face to face with one of Them. Instantly our heartrate speeds up, we get a flood of adrenaline, and our breathing quickens. We didn’t expect to see one of Them here, but here They are, and now we have to be in the same room with Them.

And who could blame us for such a strong reaction? After all, They are the ones wearing Saskatchewan Roughriders jerseys.

Those of us who grew up watching the Blue Bombers with the (mostly) vain hope of them winning the Grey Cup will recognize this specific experience, though the feeling itself is universal. Everyone has encountered an individual belonging to a group that make us uncomfortable.

By contrast, there are other groups in our lives that we strongly identify with.

Psychologists call these structures ingroups and outgroups, and considerable attention has been given to understanding them. And for good reason: group bias may be at the root of almost all human conflict.

Simply put, an ingroup is a social group that we psychologically identify with. This could include race, religion, gender, political party, or even a sports fandom. We usually belong to several different ingroups, even several at the same time, with one or more being primary group associations.

An outgroup is the opposite—a group that we don’t identify with or don’t belong to.

When we identify with an ingroup, it makes us feel safer, more welcome, more at home. We tend to experience greater freedom of expression. We also look positively on members of our ingroup, ignoring their faults, focusing on their positive features, and showing them favouritism.

This is what is known as ingroup bias, a tendency to believe and behave in certain ways when it comes to dealing with our ingroups, bypassing conscious thought entirely.

But ingroup bias can produce negative effects. We’re more likely to be suspicious or hostile towards people who aren’t in our ingroup. We may also compromise our morals, making us more likely to be dishonest if it will benefit the ingroup, even if honesty is highly valued by the group. For example, see the many sexual abuse scandals across religious or sports groups, frequently covered up by members of those groups.

Another dangerous effect: when our personal beliefs are at odds with the expected beliefs of the ingroup, we may change our beliefs to match those of the ingroup without thinking critically. If you’ve ever noticed a loved one seem to change after they join, or become more devout in, an ingroup, this may be what’s going on.

Group bias exists on a spectrum. Not everyone will feel inclined to lie to protect members of their ingroup when they’re caught in an abuse scandal. For some, outgroups may inspire mild discomfort. For others, they may experience hatred, bigotry, and fear.

These biases can sometimes cause people to act in ways that dehumanize others, and so many examples of this exist that including them here in a single article would be impossible.

So where does our tendency to classify the people around us into ingroups and outgroups come from?

Human beings evolved as social creatures. Cooperation, altruism, and protection are all powerful benefits of belonging to a strongly bonded social group. Ten people around a campfire at night can protect each other much better than two can! Thus, natural selection has always favoured those who were more naturally inclined to band together and form strong bonds.

Having a strong ingroup also allows them to protect themselves from other groups. Starting with other tribes and moving on to larger groups, city-states, and nations, conflict has arisen over land, food, and other resources throughout history.

Feeling a stable bond to our ingroup helps us feel safe in the world. When people leave the group, it can cause psychological distress. Studies have shown that we tend to automatically regard people who leave our groups as irrational or dishonest, which shields us from their legitimate reasons for leaving. We can even feel an inclination to attack, verbally or otherwise, those who leave our ingroup.

Some studies have shown that when we identify strongly with an ingroup, our brains are flooded with oxytocin—a chemical that induces feelings of closeness and good will.

Neurologists have also found that our brains have a strong tendency to divide the world into us and them, and to change the definition of us based on the social situation we’re in. This allows us to change the ingroup we’re identifying with based on the current circumstances. (This is why we don’t wear Bomber jerseys and face paint when we go to work).

Now that we know where ingroup and outgroup biases come from, how can we use this information to make the world a better place?

One example that has become even more relevant in the wake of COVID-19 is that people are leaving their religious groups in record numbers. According to Statistics Canada, religious group identification just dropped below 70 percent for the first time. American data is consistent with Canadian numbers, showing sharp declines not just in attendance to religious services (which one would expect when churches conduct services online), but with religious affiliation itself.

And when people leave our religious ingroup, suddenly the negative biases we held towards outgroup members apply to this person we otherwise care about. This is an automated and unconscious response, yet it can lead to profound distress for everyone involved.

Social psychologists from the University of Waterloo have discovered a connection between the strengths of one’s religious beliefs and one’s willingness to associate with former members of the same religion; the stronger one’s religious beliefs, the more willing one is to dislike, reject, ostracize, or dehumanize people who leave the religion. Our natural inclination to be altruistic to one another can be overridden by the strength of our ingroup bias, which causes real harm to those who may have left a religion for legitimate reasons.

Remember, our ingroup bias is designed to protect our own belonging to the ingroup and even our own survival. When people leave the ingroup, our instincts tell us that the ingroup may be weakened and less able to defend itself. Therefore, rejecting those who leave our ingroup protects the integrity of the ingroup… but it does so at the expense of our relationship with those who leave.

How can we prevent our ingroup bias from causing harm to those in our lives who move on from our shared religion? As always, the best defence is knowledge. Being aware of ingroup bias can help us avoid giving in to those feelings.

We can also remember that our natural psychological tendency to divide the world into us and them is something we can change.

We can redefine the boundaries of our ingroups. Some community-minded writers have started referring to this as creating a “tribe,” a fluid ingroup that can be as inclusive as we want. In this way, we needn’t lose those loved ones who happen to be leaving our religion, and we can avoid subjecting them to rejection and ostracization.

After all, the year is 2022. Our ingroup can be as large as we want it to be—and if we are willing, we can expand it to include all of humanity.

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