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The Hope And Horror Of Us-Versus-Them Thinking (Part 1 Of 2)

Republicans versus Democrats.

Trumpers versus Never-Trump.

White supremacists versus Black Lives Matter.

In today’s hyper-polarized world, you don’t have to look far for evidence of us-versus-them thinking. Simply turn on the news or log in to Facebook or Twitter to find heated battles on everything from politics to social issues to what color that viral dress really was.

Indeed, it can be easy to take a polarized view on polarization and “us-versus-them-ism” itself, with many people decrying how far apart we’ve become on seemingly everything, and how this growing divide is a bad thing.

But I don’t think it’s so simple. In fact, I see us-versus-them thinking as simultaneously the greatest accelerator and destroyer of human progress, a true double-edged sword that can win wars or create them where there’s no need. This is the “hope and horror” of us-versus-them.

First, let’s consider the good part, the hope-inspiring part.

Humans make progress through organizations, or collections of people bound together by shared vision, values, purpose, and belief. We are a team-based society, whether we’re talking sports (LeBron James, Tom Brady, and other superstars can’t succeed without their teams), entertainment (think about how many people are needed to create a feature film or TV series), or even science (where research shows the most innovative scientific work relies increasingly on teams).

That means the “Great Man” theory of the past — that “natural” leaders singlehandedly drive key changes to the course of history—fails to capture the primacy of teams in human progress. Even brilliant, seemingly solo scientists like Einstein need a scientific community in which to share their ideas, hear critiques, and go back to the proverbial drawing board with even greater direction and inspiration. Same for “great people” in any domain.

Thus teamwork is the driving engine and accelerator of advancement across all areas of human endeavor. And what drives such collaboration? Us-versus-them thinking, largely.

Research shows that collectives thrive in the presence of a shared enemy: a group’s focus on their task, along with the psychological experience of cohesion and identity, increases in the presence of a common enemy, for greater performance.   

A classic demonstration of this was provided by the psychologist Muzafer Sherif in the 1950s. In what became known as the Robbers Cave field experiment, 22 11-year-old boys were sent to a summer camp in Oklahoma’s Robbers Cave State Park. They were split randomly into two groups for which they chose names (e.g.., The Eagles). The groups bonded while hiking, swimming, and enjoying other activities. Then they took part in a four-day series of inter-group competitions. In line with research findings, both groups’ cohesion fueled their efforts to beat the other group, demonstrating the power of us-versus-them thinking.

But the Robbers Cave experiment also shows the dark side of us-versus-them. Sherif found evidence of deep prejudice between the groups, as manifest in physical and verbal conflict during the competitions. Afterward, when asked to describe their group and the other, the boys used very favorable terms for their