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US Vs Them; Why We Form Prejudices

Humans are social creatures. They always have been and possibly always will be. Of course, unless Black Mirror is actually predicting our future in which case things look even bleaker.

Other than the fact that technology is creating more bridges between people rather than helping them break down their hypothetical walls, group or herd mentality has also always been a constant part of human nature.

This is something social psychologist and researcher Henry Tajfel identified in his 1971 study “Social Categorization and In-group Behaviour” when he aimed to explore the concept of minimal group paradigm which explored the least amount of conditions required for group bias to occur.

Surprisingly or better yet unsurprisingly, Tajfel and co found out that people formed a bias even if the conditions were relatively meaningless or not that important such as over eye colour or favourite things. The findings of this study concluded that people, when grouped even on the basis of something entirely random will unify and form a potential bias against the “other” group. 

Source; Frank Gathering – University of Florida

This is not only irrational but also means that regardless of how much we may or may not have in common with others, we are both susceptible to out group biases and can engage in carrying out and forming prejudices. The most shocking part of the study was however, the fact that the participants were not adults but children. Which just goes to show how quickly we can be pushed to form an inherent bias.

Racism  for example is not an innate prejudice that we grow up with but one that is cultivated by socialization, media influences and depends on what group we’re a part of.

And one does not have to look too far from our own context to know this to be true. There is far more Us Vs Them mentality in our own country than we’d like to admit. And we’re not even talking about our age old feud with our neighbouring nation.

We have seen how easily charged speeches can turn families against their loved ones and even cause people to act out by using physical violence. Just look at how people who subscribe to different political views treat each other online and one can understand.

The fear of the unknown and the relative fear that the “other” group will cause us harm are motivating factors that lead to these prejudices. Group thinking is extremely dangerous and as we have seen in many cases makes people subscribe to an ideology or act which they do not understand completely. However, in order to make sure they are part of something bigger than them, which offers them some form of protection is what leads to perfectly good humans becoming mindless sheep.

Instead of thinking for themselves, they “follow the leader” and sometimes even abandon basic human decency and traits. Their is nothing wrong with relating to or following a certain group but when that act becomes mindless and is followed without any thought of our own, it helps to take a step back and wonder whether our actions can potentially cause other people harm.

According to Tajfel, this inherent desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves stems from the very human desire to connect to other people by taking part in what the study calls “Self Enhancement.” We want to feel good about ourselves and we should be able to until it harms others.

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