Separating Yourself from the Pack

    While groups can provide a sense of belonging and purpose, negative group dynamics can be harmful. It's important to have supportive individuals who can counterbalance negative group behavior.

    enJuly 11, 2022

    About this Episode

    Have you ever gotten into a heated argument about politics? Maybe you’ve said something you're not proud of during game night with friends, or booed the opposing team at a sporting event. Psychologist Mina Cikara studies what happens in these moments — when our mindset shifts from “you and me” to “us and them.” This week on the show, Mina shares the profound ways that becoming a part of a group shapes our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

    If you like this show, be sure to check out our other work, including our recent episode exploring whether there's any merit to the idea that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

    Also, check out our new podcast, My Unsung Hero! And if you'd like to support our work, you can do so at support.hiddenbrain.org. 

    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Being part of a group can change our behavior, but understanding how group dynamics work can help us maintain our individuality while still feeling connected. This knowledge can help us avoid negative group outcomes like the Vancouver riots.
    • Our tendency to favor our own group can lead to increased hostility and aggression towards those belonging to the out-group, which can have serious consequences in certain settings.
    • Understanding our own experiences and emotions can help us develop empathy and understanding for others who may be going through difficult times or situations that we may not fully comprehend.
    • Being part of a group can affect our behavior, sometimes leading to harmful actions. Understanding how this happens can help prevent conflict and promote positive interactions.
    • Our identities can change in different contexts and being in the minority can lead to exclusion. Competition can result in policing of group boundaries and negative consequences. Understanding these dynamics can promote inclusive behavior.
    • Our brains automatically narrow "us" versus "them" based on economic scarcity and group affiliation. Understanding and confronting biases is necessary for promoting inclusivity and empathy in a diverse society.
    • Competition between groups can increase feelings of apathy or even pleasure in others' misfortune. This "parochial empathy" can become acceptable in certain situations and must be carefully managed in both social and personal contexts.
    • Even when socially unacceptable, people may engage in Schadenfreude due to strong group identification. This can lead to support for undemocratic practices and manipulation of rules in the name of protecting marginalized groups.
    • Acknowledge the uniqueness and complexity of individuals to avoid groupthink. Express outrage constructively and avoid being hijacked by emotions to prevent destructive consequences.
    • Learning more about an individual's background decreases the importance of group membership in determining empathy. Programs that promote relationships between individuals from different groups can help overcome group divisions and increase understanding. See people as individuals and recognize the power of personal details.
    • Imagining ourselves in scenarios where we help strangers can close the empathy gap between people of different groups. To build meaningful connections, we must recognize and challenge our own biases and preconceived notions.
    • While groups can provide a sense of belonging and purpose, negative group dynamics can be harmful. It's important to have supportive individuals who can counterbalance negative group behavior.
    • When we show small acts of kindness and courage, it can have a ripple effect that changes lives and perspectives, ultimately making the world a better place.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    How Group Dynamics Influence Our Behavior

    Being part of a group can have a transformative effect on individuals, leading them to behave in ways they wouldn't on their own. The psychology behind how group dynamics influence our behavior is complex and can lead to unpredictable outcomes, as seen in the Vancouver riots after the Stanley Cup finals. Psychologist Mina Cikara studies the cognitive and emotional processes at play when people become part of a group, and how we can learn to maintain our autonomy while still feeling connected to the group. Understanding these dynamics can help us navigate group situations and avoid negative outcomes.

    The Impact of In-Group/Out-Group Dynamics on Aggression and Loyalty

    In-group/out-group dynamics can lead to increased aggression and loyalty towards a group, even in individuals who do not identify with that group. This can be seen in sports events, where fans may become more aggressive towards those who support rival teams, and may even lead to physical altercations.

    Reflections on Identity and Empathy from a Baseball Game

    Mina Cikara's experience during a baseball game led her to reflect on an earlier event in her life, which foreshadowed her unexpected transformation. The event was her family's experience of the war in Yugoslavia, which forced them to make difficult choices and exposed her to the complexities of identity and power dynamics in a conflict zone. Her behavior at the baseball game showed how emotions can override rational thinking and how people can become passionate about things they don't care about. Through understanding our own past experiences and emotions, we can develop empathy and understanding for others who are going through difficult times or situations that we may not fully comprehend.

    The Influence of Group Dynamics on Individual Behavior

    The power of group dynamics can transform individuals and lead to harmful behavior, even among those who strongly oppose it in their day-to-day lives. The thin line between who we think we are and who we can become is intensified by the gravitational pull of groups, as people align within and against each other. Even close friends and family can turn on each other when swept up in the fervor of the moment. Understanding the brain mechanisms behind these dynamics can help us combat harmful group behavior and prevent the escalation of conflict.

    Understanding the Dynamics of Identity in Competitive Situations

    Our identities are highly context dependent, and can change as we move from one situation to another. Being in the minority can also make our identities more salient, and may lead to experiences of exclusion and competition. In highly competitive situations, people may police the boundaries of their own groups and exclude those who are not deemed to be part of the group, which can have negative consequences. Understanding the dynamic nature of our identities and the impact of competition on group dynamics can help us navigate complex social situations and promote more inclusive behaviors.

    The Influence of Group Norms on Bias and Perception

    Our brains instinctively narrow the definition of who we consider to be 'one of us' based on economic scarcity and group affiliation, leading to biases in how we perceive emotions and distances from opponents or out-group members. Studies show that simple manipulations in the lab can have measurable effects, highlighting the powerful influence of group norms and attitudes on our behavior and thinking. This can have real-world consequences, such as racial biases and dehumanization of out-group members. Awareness of these biases is crucial in promoting inclusivity and empathy in a diverse society.

    The Impact of Group Competition and Parochial Empathy

    Competition accentuates group identities and can lead to increased perception of competition even in situations where competition was not initially present. Being a member of a group primes individuals to feel apathy or even Schadenfreude towards those outside their own group. This phenomenon, known as parochial empathy, can be socially acceptable in certain domains. The template of competition is activated when people are split into groups, even if those groups hold no meaning, leading to the activation of a whole set of associations associating groups with competition. These changes in thinking and feeling can have serious consequences and must be carefully managed in both social and individual contexts.

    The Complicated World of Schadenfreude and Group Identification in Sports and Politics

    Expressing pleasure at someone else's pain is generally not socially acceptable, but in competitive domains like sports and politics, it has become more normalized. People may secretly engage in Schadenfreude even in situations where it is not socially acceptable. Strong group identification can also lead to this behavior, even if it is harmful to members of their own group. The framing of politics as a war and the perception of attacks by the other side can make almost anything morally acceptable in self-defense, leading to increased support for undemocratic practices and manipulation of rules. This creates a complicated and dangerous situation in which people feel justified in their actions for the sake of protecting marginalized groups.

    Overcoming Groupthink: Acknowledging Individuals in Moral Justification

    People often justify immoral actions as morally righteous when they strongly identify with a group or cause, leading to groupthink and swept away emotions. Mina Cikara's study revealed that individuating information can help avoid groupthink and perspective-taking by acknowledging uniqueness and complexity of individuals. It is crucial to find constructive ways of expressing outrage without getting hijacked by emotions and avoiding destructive consequences.

    Building Empathy Through Personal Details

    When people are given more information about individuals, such as their background stories, group membership becomes less important in determining empathy towards them. This is because people tend to encode information about group membership less deeply when it is mixed in with other details about the individual. Programs like Seeds of Peace aim to build relationships between individuals from different groups to overcome the impact of group identities. Seeing individuals as individuals rather than solely as part of a group can help to overcome group divisions and increase empathy and understanding. It is important to recognize the power of individual details and see people holistically rather than solely through the lens of their group identity.

    Stepping Into Someone Else's Shoes Enhances Empathy and Strengthens Connections

    Deliberately putting ourselves in the shoes of strangers can boost our emotional connection with them. Vividly imagining scenarios in which we have to help someone shows that the empathy gap between in-group and out-group disappears. The ability to simulate scenarios vividly is directly related to increased empathy. Preconceived notions and prejudices often prevent us from truly getting to know people, and it's important to acknowledge and challenge these biases in order to build meaningful connections with others.

    The power of groups: exploring their potential for both positive and negative impacts.

    Groups can shape us in both good and bad ways, and while we often focus on the negative impact of group dynamics, groups also serve important functions for individuals such as belonging, meaning, purpose, and shared reality. The potential for good that groups carry is too valuable to abolish, but it is important to mitigate the negative impacts of groups turning against each other. A personal story of bullying highlights the importance of supportive individuals who can counterbalance negative group dynamics.

    The Power of Kindness and Courage to Change Lives

    A new ringleader bullied a girl in middle school until the girl opened up to her about the constant torment. The ringleader ultimately apologized and stopped the bullying, changing the girl's perspective on humanity and allowing her to flourish. Small acts of kindness and courage can have a ripple effect and change the world.

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