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June 2014: Opening our Minds to the Unfamiliar

A man I’ll call Andrew Erickson, a 50-year-old executive, told me he outworks just about everybody he knows.

The other day, his sister called to see if Andrew could drop in and eat breakfast with their 88-year-old dad, who lives down the road.

“I can do it at 5:45 a.m.,” said Andrew, “because I have to be at work by 6:45.” “But Andrew,” the sister protested, “Dad doesn’t wake up until 7:30.”

The truth is, Andrew doesn’t have to be at work at 6:45, he just behaves like he does.

Andrew has toiled since childhood, when he routinely stayed late organizing inventory in his dad’s hardware store. “I wanted my father to notice me, to be proud of me,” says Andrew. “I’ve worked nonstop ever since. If I take a one-week vacation every year it would be a lot. People around me – my wife, my kids – they know this about me. I’m a machine, really.”

You can say what you want about Andrew – that’s he’s a work addict, that what really drives him is a craving for acceptance, that he’s as likely to change his 70-hour work week as an alcoholic running a liquor store is likely to stay sober.

Virtue or habit?

The most basic fact about Andrew might also be the least obvious: His work ethic is simply a blind repetition of an old family habit. Like his grandparents and parents, he’s locked into a multi-generational pattern: “We’re hard working Norwegians – it’s the way we’re built.”

That sounds noble. But here’s the unspoken cost: “Because all we know is hard work, we’ve over-depended on it. Other important dimensions of life – time off, reflection, exercise, and connection to family members – have been mostly ignored.”

In his preference for what is known and natural, Andrew is not an exception.

We are, all of us, earnestly attached to the familiar. (Interestingly, “familiar,” and “family” share linguistic roots). It’s tough to break away from what cherished family members have always told us, always done, always believed.

Nora Mae Johnson

My clients, most of whom earned college degrees, would like to think they are open-minded, worldly, and tolerant of different beliefs, ideas and ways of looking at life.

The reality is that they are more like Nora Mae Johnson than they might think.

I met 82-year-old Nora Mae deep in the mountain “hollers” of Eastern Kentucky, on the outskirts of Sandy Hook. On the small, sloped porch of her one-room shack, atop a barren hill, amid a population that’s 99.25 percent white and multi-generationally poor, she told me about her life.

It turns out that Nora Mae has never traveled off that hill, visited a dentist, attended school, conversed with a black person, seen an Asian or enjoyed indoor plumbing. She talked about coal mining, the Little Sandy River at the bottom of the hill, and the country music of Billy Ray Cyrus, Loretta Lynn, The Judds, Ricky Skaggs, Crystal Gayle and Patty Loveless, all “born n’ bred” in Eastern Kentucky.

Nora Mae Johnson and Andrew Erickson have something in common: both are more isolated than they believe, stubbornly content, and, when you get right down to it, allergic to the unfamiliar.

Xenophobia in Leadership

Xenophobia – fear of strangers – is commonly thought of as “hatred-producing anxiety” that fuels racism, sexism, genocide, war, and judging the unknown as despicable. I think of xenophobia not only as fear of strangers but as an anxiety-driven fear of “different” ideas, lifestyles and beliefs.

Are we all a little bit xenophobic? If so, how does this powerful pull towards the familiar afflict parenting and organizational leadership? How does it impede our maturity and our citizenship?

Here are some examples:

  • At a company I work with, three failed hires for a new VP position left the human resources director scratching her head. She asked the CEO: “Do you think we gravitate towards selecting candidates that are too much like us?”

  • A 43-year-old mother reflected on the isolation of her two children: “They’re electronically connected to the whole world, but I don’t think they’ve ever seen the poorer sections of our own community. I’m questioning why we never expose them to the inner-city…”

  • Partners in a “family-oriented” firm discussed their concern about naming Judith, who is single and gay, as partner. “She’s talented,” one said, “but she doesn’t represent our family values.”

  • A Livingston County, NY church subscribing to “biblical teachings” vigorously protested a proposal to erect low-income housing in the church’s neighborhood. Finding no evidence for stopping the project, the Supreme Court (in the words of a local business owner) “ruled against bigotry.”

  • A globally- experienced, strategic leader was hired by a homegrown family business to bring fresh ideas and expand opportunities. When asked about his experience, he said: “Slow progress and tough slogging. They want bold approaches, but they don’t want to change.”

What would families be like if parents and children made a point to investigate – instead of rejecting – ideas, persons or places that seemed strange or unfamiliar?

What would a company be like if its leaders faced issues they wanted to avoid, explored truly new directions, and connected with any colleague against whom they harbored ill will?

It’s likely that the hills surrounding us contain vast veins of gold for our maturity. Perhaps by venturing from our backyards, we can find the treasure of the unfamiliar that is not so far away.

9 Responses to “June 2015: “We vs. They””

  1. June 01, 2015 at 6:43 am, Ela Gandhi said:

This is such a good and simple explanation of how prejudices flourish. However two things strike me and I would like to further discuss them. I refer to your point 3 1. I have often come across people who would listen silently but continue to harbour strong views and sometimes these are very much negative views that can be problematic. We can think of examples from our own experiences. 2. Very often I come across people whose views are shaped by public media and the views presented therein. The basis of the views are shallow and prejudiced but people accept them as the truth. Is it not important then that we engage in these debates to dispel the myths that are blown around by such sensational journalism? I absolutely agree that “we and they” is wrong for we all need to constantly review our views and structure our thoughts on the basis of new information and knowledge. Rational thinking is what helps to keep on track! We are often driven by emotions.

  1. June 01, 2015 at 12:31 pm, Katrina Roby said:

This is a great conversation starter and I appreciate the simplicity and honesty of the message. Where I would like to see additional discussion is around the willingness of some to give up the comfort of conformity. I would imagine that if I were to have had a benefactor who would leave me the family business so long as I “continue with our values”, it might prove difficult for me to walk away from such an advantage. Being a minority, of very meager beginnings, and additional challenges, a boot with it’s straps intact would have been a blessing. Ponder that! It is when people are once again willing to stand up for what is right, rather what is easiest, we will see progress.

  1. June 01, 2015 at 2:26 pm, Alan Ziegler said:

This topic reminds me of a comment from Voltaire; “Prejudices are what fools use for reason.” And the 1st point made by writer Gandhi reminds me of a phrase from MLK Jr’s letter from the Birmingham Jail: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

  1. June 02, 2015 at 1:37 am, Don Nims said:

To whom it may concern:

Few people know; What it’s like to be not the same as you; I look at things differently; Even though the answer’s the same – or better; Not to be accepted for whom I am; Is hard; I strive to fit in, but society won’t let me; They have a different ideal; Close minded they are; I can do anything if given the chance; And coaching; You just gotta know how to get through; Be fair and listen for clues; You will be rewarded.

– Author unknown

  1. June 02, 2015 at 1:01 pm, andrea schara said:

Interesting personal experience demonstrating how families form coalitions of us against them. (Often with good reasons as to survival.) Mina Cikara an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the Intergroup Neuroscience Lab at Harvard University has examined the conditions under which groups and individuals are denied social value etc..

You might be interested in the following

Although these coalition-based distinctions might be the most basic building block of bias, they say little about the other factors that cause group conflict.

Why do some groups get ignored while others get attacked? Whenever we encounter a new person or group we are motivated to answer two questions as quickly as possible: “is this person a friend or foe?” and “are they capable of enacting their intentions toward me?” In other words, once we have determined that someone is a member of an out-group, we need to determine what kind? The nature of the relations between groups—are we cooperative, competitive, or neither?—and their relative status—do you have access to resources?—largely determine the course of intergroup interactions.

Groups that are seen as competitive with one’s interests, and capable of enacting their nasty intentions, are much more likely to be targets of hostility than more benevolent (e.g., elderly) or powerless (e.g., homeless) groups. This is one reason why sports rivalries have such psychological potency. For instance, fans of the Boston Red Sox are more likely to feel pleasure, and exhibit reward-related neural responses, at the misfortunes of the archrival New York Yankees than other baseball teams (and vice versa)—especially in the midst of a tight playoff race. (How much fans take pleasure in the misfortunes of their rivals is also linked to how likely they would be to harm fans from the other team.)

Just as a particular person’s group membership can be flexible, so too are the relations between groups. Groups that have previously had cordial relations may become rivals (and vice versa). Indeed, psychological and biological responses to out-group members can change, depending on whether or not that out-group is perceived as threatening. For example, people exhibit greater pleasure—they smile—in response to the misfortunes of stereotypically competitive groups (e.g., investment bankers); however, this malicious pleasure is reduced when you provide participants with counter-stereotypic information (e.g., “investment bankers are working with small companies to help them weather the economic downturn). Competition between “us” and “them” can even distort our judgments of distance, making threatening out-groups seem much closer than they really are. These distorted perceptions can serve to amplify intergroup discrimination: the more different and distant “they” are, the easier it is to disrespect and harm them.

SEE ALSO: Energy & Sustainability: 5 Steps to Feed the World and Sustain the Planet | Evolution: Did Affluence Spur the Rise of Modern Religions? | Health: The Conflicted History of Alcohol in Western Civilization | Space: Dark Matter Particles Interact with Themselves | Technology: Timeline: The Amazing Multimillion-Year History of Processed Food | More Science: The Flavor Connection Thus, not all out-groups are treated the same: some elicit indifference whereas others become targets of antipathy. Stereotypically threatening groups are especially likely to be targeted with violence, but those stereotypes can be tempered with other information. If perceptions of intergroup relations can be changed, individuals may overcome hostility toward perceived foes and become more responsive to one another’s grievances.

The flexible nature of both group membership and intergroup relations offers reason to be cautiously optimistic about the potential for greater cooperation among groups in conflict (be they black versus white or citizens versus police). One strategy is to bring multiple groups together around a common goal. For example, during the fiercely contested 2008 Democratic presidential primary process, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama supporters gave more money to strangers who supported the same primary candidate (compared to the rival candidate). Two months later, after the Democratic National Convention, the supporters of both candidates coalesced around the party nominee—Barack Obama—and this bias disappeared. In fact, merely creating a sense of cohesion between two competitive groups can increase empathy for the suffering of our rivals. These sorts of strategies can help reduce aggression toward hostile out-groups, which is critical for creating more opportunities for constructive dialogue addressing greater social injustices.

Of course, instilling a sense of common identity and cooperation is extremely difficult in entrenched intergroup conflicts, but when it happens, the benefits are obvious. Consider how the community leaders in New York City and Ferguson responded differently to protests against police brutality—in NYC political leaders expressed grief and concern over police brutality and moved quickly to make policy changes in policing, whereas the leaders and police in Ferguson responded with high-tech military vehicles and riot gear. In the first case, multiple groups came together with a common goal—to increase the safety of everyone in the community; in the latter case, the actions of the police likely reinforced the “us” and “them” distinctions.

Tragically, these types of conflicts continue to roil the country. Understanding the psychology and neuroscience of social identity and intergroup relations cannot undo the effects of systemic racism and discriminatory practices; however, it can offer insights into the psychological processes responsible for escalating the tension between, for example, civilians and police officers.

Even in cases where it isn’t possible to create a common identity among groups in conflict, it may be possible to blur the boundaries between groups. In one recent experiment, we sorted participants into groups—red versus blue team—competing for a cash prize. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to see a picture of a segregated social network of all the players, in which red dots clustered together, blue dots clustered together, and the two clusters were separated by white space. The other half of the participants saw an integrated social network in which the red and blue dots were mixed together in one large cluster. Participants who thought the two teams were interconnected with one another reported greater empathy for the out-group players compared to those who had seen the segregated network. Thus, reminding people that individuals could be connected to one another despite being from different groups may be another way to build trust and understanding among them.

A mere month before Freddie Gray died in police custody, President Obama addressed the nation on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma: “We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. To deny…progress – our progress – would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”

The president was saying that we, as a society, have a responsibility to reduce prejudice and discrimination. These recent findings from psychology and neuroscience indicate that we, as individuals, possess this capacity. Of course this capacity is not sufficient to usher in racial equality or peace. Even when the level of prejudice against particular out-groups decreases, it does not imply that the level of institutional discrimination against these or other groups will necessarily improve. Ultimately, only collective action and institutional evolution can address systemic racism. The science is clear on one thing, though: individual bias and discrimination are changeable. Race-based prejudice and discrimination, in particular, are created and reinforced by many social factors, but they are not inevitable consequences of our biology. Perhaps understanding how coalitional thinking impacts intergroup relations will make it easier for us to affect real social change going forward.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S) Mina Cikara is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the Intergroup Neuroscience Lab at Harvard University. Her research examines the conditions under which groups and individuals are denied social value, agency, and empathy. Professor Cikara tweets about psychology and neuroscience at @profcikara. Jay Van Bavel is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Perception and Evaluation Laboratory at New York University. He studies how our collective concerns–group identities, moral values, and political beliefs– alter our perceptions and evaluations of the world around us. You can follow him on Twitter @jayvanbavel.

  1. June 03, 2015 at 1:05 pm, Vincent Randy said:

This post reminds me of a poem by Kipling which goes as this: “FATHER, Mother, and Me Sister and Auntie say All the people like us are We, And every one else is They. And They live over the sea, While We live over the way, But – would you believe it? – They look upon We As only a sort of They ! We eat pork and beef With cow-horn-handled knives. They who gobble Their rice off a leaf, Are horrified out of Their lives; And They who live up a tree, And feast on grubs and clay, (Isn’t it scandalous?) look upon We As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun. They stick lions with spears. Their full-dress is un-. We dress up to Our ears. They like Their friends for tea. We like Our friends to stay; And, after all that, They look upon We As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food. We have doors that latch. They drink milk or blood, Under an open thatch. We have Doctors to fee. They have Wizards to pay. And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree, And all good people say, All nice people, like Us, are We And every one else is They: But if you cross over the sea, Instead of over the way, You may end by (think of it!) looking on We As only a sort of They !”

  1. June 05, 2015 at 1:00 am, sherry said:

LOVE this poem….says it all. xo

  1. June 07, 2015 at 8:00 pm, Rose said:

The Kipling poem is excellent!

  1. June 09, 2015 at 6:45 pm, S said:

Thanks for this excellent statement, John. In my own research and writing on tribalism, I have found Bowen’s work on emotional process in society right on target. Polarization within and between groups is a mark of societal regression, an anxiety-driven process in which togetherness overrides individuality. I found a great resource in David Berreby’s book: Us and Them: Understanding your tribal mind.

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