Group identity, tribalism, and war

by Feb 24, 2022Uncategorised0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 9 minutes

people standing near stage

These are frightening moments for many in and on the edge of Europe. I write this as tanks and missiles are letting rip in the Ukraine and some think the UK has a government led by a party bankrolled by Russian money, and that Russian control of social media swayed the Brexit referendum. These are issues beyond my capacity to comment on as a psychotherapist, but I just offer a few thoughts about our human predisposition for group loyalty, banding together against the ‘other’ and how being a  group species is the best and worst of human nature.

soldier walking on wooden pathway surrounded with barbwire selective focus photography

We are profoundly social creatures who are adapted to fit into groups, to try to belong, that was a primary survival mechanism, whether we lived in small hunter gatherer bands, or larger social groups as some anthropologists are beginning to suggest. It is literally painful to be ostracised and not fit in. We know the kids and adults we worry about are the ones who have few or no friends and don’t know how to make their way in the social world. Group loyalty is based on utterly random factors, such as whether we are born in Russia or Ukraine, what religion our parents had or even much more crazily irrelevant factors.

brick wall with nationalism paint

In one experiment boys were shown pictures comprising only of dots and asked to estimate how many dots the pictures contained. They were then told randomly, with no grounding in reality, that they had over or under-estimated, and were either ‘over-estimators’ or ‘under-estimators’. They then were asked to interact with other boys who were described to them as either over or under-estimators. Surprisingly they tended to favour others in their own, in fact spurious, group and be pretty horrible to those not in their group  (Tajfel & Turner 1979).

grayscale photography of man in front of window

Humans tend to split into ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ and be extremely influenced by social pressures. Children learn early on what is necessary to be ‘in’, such as with which nuances to speak, what games to play or what to wear. Infants as early as a year old recognise their culture’s language. Intergroup ‘bias’ and believing in the coherence of one’s own group increases self-esteem (Hewstone et al. 2002), so it might be good for us to feel that we belong.

Prejudice about ethnicity, class or nationality are examples of this predisposition. In a classic experiment a teacher divided her class into brown and blue eyed pupils and announced that the brown-eyed pupils were better  in various ways (Peters 1987).  The children with the low-status eye-colour showed a marked deterioration in many ways, and previously well-functioning friendships between blue and brown eyed children went wrong. Such a need for group belonging has sensible evolutionary roots but at a huge cost.

people raising flags near bonfire

The propensity to be cruel and cold to those defined as ‘other’  was seen for example the well-known Stanford prison experiments, even if aspects of the studies have failed to replicate perfectly. In this, adults were arbitrarily asked to play the role of either prisoners or guards. In a very short time the two groups, who in reality had little to differentiate themselves from each other, had ‘taken on’ their respective roles, and the prisoners became distrustful of the guards who in turn became surprisingly vindictive and cruel (Zimbardo et al. 2000). Their over- identification with their groups led to hatred and mutual enmity, a prisoners revolt and guard violence. The participants identified very profoundly with the group they belonged to, and were unable to see the point of view of those in the ‘other’ group who had become ‘alien’.

Something similar was seen in the famous experiment by Stanley Milgram (1974) in which around 65% of the subjects were prepared under pressure from a white-coated male in authority, to administer what they believed were potentially fatal levels of electric shock in order to conform to the experimenter’s wishes. This confounded all predictions and is a stark example of the power of social pressure.

man in white dress shirt wearing black framed eyeglasses

Paradoxically, our group nature is a force that drives the most moral and caring of our behaviours but also some of our most terrible acts. The felt wish to be ‘in’ starts early. Working out who is a stranger or who is safe is something that babies as young as 6 months do. A different part of our brains lights up when we look at a familiar face as opposed to a stranger. These are the predispositions that the unconscious bias in racism is built upon.  As a hypersocial and cooperative species, most humans want to be accepted and fit in. Standing out from the crowd is uncomfortable process, as most of us know.

Being excluded from one’s group, whether being cold-shouldered by neighbours work colleagues or family, is literally painful. Studies investigated the effects of brief episodes of ostracism in over 5,000 people (Williams and Nida, 2011). These might include, for example, setting up a ball game and then ensuring that someone is left out. He found that when ostracised, the same brain areas are involved as in physical pain, particularly the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Unlike physical pain, with ostracism the pain can return each time the incident is thought about.

Imitating, even being slavish copycats, can be a huge advantage; it is how we learn. One study gave human children, young chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys tasks that became more complex, but also yielded increasing rewards. For example, they had to turn various switches and push buttons to get doors to open. The chimps took about 30 hours to get to level two, the capuchins much longer but human children made it in just three hours, because human children learnt from and copied each other, were keen to help and be helped. Chimps still did not manage even when there was also a chimp present who had been trained to do all the tasks (Dean et al. 2012).

person wearing jacket and helmet on road

In humans cooperation motivates us and fires reward circuits in our brains (Rekers et al. 2011). Sometimes such imitation makes little obvious sense, such as smoking cigarettes to appear cool, or natives of the New Guinea highlands eating the brains of diseased relatives, and thus dying too. Mostly, though, imitation is a sensible strategy, enabling fitting in, cooperation, cultural transmission, and successful group life.

A different part of our brains lights up when we look at a familiar kind of face as opposed to one with less known features (Dawson et al. 2002). Worryingly, babies of only nine months old preferred those who treat people ‘like them’ well and treat people who are ‘not like them’ badly (Hamlin et al. 2013). Prejudice starts early.

Troublingly, it is harder to even sympathise with people we see as dissimilar. We even use different parts of our brains if we try to empathise with those who see the world differently. With people whose views or cultures are very different we rely more on abstract cognitive and deductive parts of our brains, whereas with people we feel are like-minded we use brain areas dominant for empathy and emotional understanding, in fact similar areas to those used when thinking about oneself (Mitchell et al. 2006). We are also more generous to members of our own group when they violate social rules than to those from out-groups, recruiting more mentalizing and empathic brain circuitry (Baumgartner et al. 2012). This all poses real problems for international, cross-cultural and cross-group linking.

The chances of reaching out to those in other cultures and groups are even more compromised by the fact that belonging and group loyalty increases self-esteem (Hewstone et al. 2002), so it is good for us to belong. Prejudice about ethnicity, class or nationality are extreme examples of this double-edged predisposition.

When shown pictures of people in pain, if the other person is of one’s own ethnic or cultural group, such as African-American or Caucasian American, distinct parts of the brain, those involved in empathy, are active (Mathur et al. 2010). Such dehumanisation seems to be at the heart of many atrocities based on prejudice such as homophobia, Nazi anti-Semitic murder, race crimes against black people or genocides such as between Hutus and Tutsis, and possibly at the moment, between Russians and Ukrainians.

Thus, identifying with a group is an extremely mixed blessing. Belonging makes us feel better, is good for the group as a whole, and is one of the roots of genuine mutual care and cooperation. We like to be in tune with those around us and we like to feel understood. Walking, singing or other acts undertaken in synchrony all increase cooperativeness (Wiltermuth and Heath, 2009), but unfortunately this includes marching and fighting together. It can also lead to dehumanisation of others and will inhibit cooperating with those we deem different. Surprisingly, oxytocin, which mainly has such prosocial effects, can be implicated. In close-knit and bonded groups, such as the huddles of sportsmen before games, oxytocin levels rise. Yet when given oxytocin intranasally, people become more likely to help those in their own ethnic group, and less likely to aid those from other groups (de Dreu et al. 2011)..

people standing forming a circle during daytime

Thus our loyalty can be blind and not the least bit ethical, and as Elizabeth Umphress (2010) found, if people identify with the organisation (or country), then they are likely to undertake unethical acts seen as ‘for the good of the organisation’. We can justify bad acts if undertaken for an ‘us’ we identify with.

During wars, punishment of group members who violate norms and rules tends to increase (Sääksvuori, Mappes and Puurtinen 2011), as seen in the severe punishments, often including death, meted out to soldiers who desert.

We all know the positive value of being in a group, giving rise, for example, to loyalty, kindness and generous behaviour. However, group life has a dark side, something that group psychoanalysts have known clinically for a long time (Bion 1961; Foulkes 1984). We have not evolved to empathise with people on the other side of the planet, or even those from other cultural groups. The parochial nature of our allegiances poses serious issues as we are currently seeing.

Maybe there is hope in how we can have shifting and multiple identifications. In a study in Liverpool (Levine et al. 2005) an actor wore either a Manchester United or Liverpool football shirt whilst lying on the ground feigning illness. He was far more likely to be helped if wearing the native Liverpool shirt! Yet when students were asked to write an essay on the joys of being a football fan generally, they were much more likely to stop and help anyone in any team’s kit.  While Russian troops are never going to change allegiance in the coming weeks, we can perhaps hold onto  the fact that humans can change and broadening our range of identifications towards less tribal allegiances.

Psychology has a limited role in such issues of course.  Prejudices are not just in people’s minds, but are often fuelled by conflicts between huge vested interests, such as the historic economic ascendancy of Protestants over Catholics in Northern Ireland. Without challenging these, little change will take place. Nevertheless, studies do suggest that there is hope for shifting attitudes. Some like Rifkin (2010) have argued that the cross-national and cultural worlds of the internet and of global manufacturing can challenge parochial insular ways of being. For example, he argues that global media allows communication that can challenge and break down racial and national boundaries. How much does Russia need the rest of the world in the current climate and vice-versa?

brown bird perched on left palm

Rifkin might be being overly optimistic, but it is a brave attempt to try to theorise something.  Perhaps a bigger hope than appealing to human nature is a hope that the interests of different groups and nations can be brought into line. For now, I like many are all too aware that our parochial nature and inability to care much for either distant people or future generations has also been the source of much cruelty and conflict as we are seeing in this moment,  and is contributing to our very futures. Like many I feel hopeless to do anything in the world that will make a difference, other than reach out in my heart for those suffering.


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