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 own group and derogatory descriptors for the other. Attempts to reduce the prejudice and conflict by increasing contact between groups only exacerbated the situation.

Unfortunately, the Robbers Cave campers represent much broader society today, where extreme us-versus-them thinking is the norm, tearing families, communities, and countries apart—whether political groups fighting for power in the upcoming election (where it’s often less about voting for your candidate than voting against the other), companies battling for market share (and sometimes cheating, like Volkswagen did in the emissions scandal), or activists looking to abolish or heavily reform established institutions (such as the Defund the Police movement). Contact between groups typically results in vitriolic exchanges and, too often, violence, as seen in the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police.

That’s the hope and horror of us-versus-them. This mentality brings us together, within our groups, while tearing us apart in the bigger picture. It creates both cohesion and conflict. It’s necessary and destructive. And it’s probably the defining feature of US culture today. That’s partly because it doesn’t take much to identify with a specific group. The “minimal group paradigm” that emerged from social psychology research suggests we automatically like people in our group even when membership is assigned arbitrarily, such as based on shirt color or other forms of “Seussian” stars on our bellies or Robbers Cave random assignments. If groups are based on deeper values, then this effect is likely much stronger.

So what’s the solution? If we need an us-versus-them mentality to bring out our best in certain domains, but also suffer from its dark side, how can we handle this powerful double-edged sword, especially in a society that’s increasingly pushing against established lines and boundaries? How to best balance group-based identity and the richness of diversity—that is, when is it okay to put up any kind of social barrier? To feel like you truly belong to something?

Those are the questions I’ll take up in part two of this piece, to help us wield the double-edged sword of us-versus-them more thoughtfully, for the benefit of all.

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