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We and they: the human urge to identify with groups

One of the most universal and powerful of human traits is the urge to form strong attachments to groups, ranging from the family, through gangs, tribes, organizations, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups, to nations. Almost certainly, identification with groups has its roots in our genes; it has been, is and will continue to be of utmost importance for the fate of our species and the groups within it.

Likemany human traits, group bonding has both highly positive and deeply negative consequences. On the positive side, loyalty to groups is essential to our ability to form collaborative ventures that can achieve tasks that individuals could simply not undertake (constructing a city water system), or to achieve tasks jointly with an efficiency of effort far beyond the abilities of individuals (a modern factory with its efficient division of work). Organizations are visible everywhere in all civilizations, ancient and modern, and they provide key social mechanisms because we are so ready to form attachments to them, and to orient our behavior to the accomplishment of their goals. Governmental organizations, corporations, formal and informal associations, and traditional groups like the tribe or family all depend on our loyalties for their effectiveness and utility.

On the negative side, loyalty to groups creates in us a strong tendency to evaluate events and prospects in terms of whether they are good or bad for ‘our’ group, whatever their effects on others.We divide the world into ‘we’ and ‘they’, and when the outcomes for ‘we’ and ‘they’ diverge, we have little hesitation in choosing the outcomes favorable for ‘us’, whatever may be the detriment to ‘them’.When the conflict becomes acute, as it often does, we are quite ready to visit harm on ‘them’ if we believe it will protect ‘us’ from harm, or even if we believe it will simply lead to gains in the achievement of ‘our’ goals. So war, conquest and slavery have been with us from the earliest history of humankind.

It is not that we are always insensitive to the harm we do to the other, for we often have some moral qualms about it. But history, down to the very present, shows how easy it has been, and is, to rationalize the harm we inflict on the ‘other’. ‘We’ have never lacked rationalizations for war, slavery or colonialism, of which ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ and ‘the white man’s burden’ are only two of the more flagrant examples.

Source: We and they: the human urge to identify with groups