Group Think

How do the groups you identify with shape your sense of self? Do they influence the beer you buy? The way you vote? Psychologist Jay Van Bavel says our group loyalties affect us more than we realize, and can even shape our basic senses of sight, taste and smell. 

If you like our work, please consider supporting it! See how you can help at And to learn more about human behavior and ideas that can improve your life, subscribe to our newsletter at

Additional Resources


The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony, Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer, 2021.


Building social cohesion between Christians and Muslims through soccer in post-ISIS Iraq, Salma Mousa, Science, 2020.

Can exposure to celebrities reduce prejudice? The effect of Mohamed Salah on islamophobic behaviors and attitudes, Salma Mousa, American Political Science Review, 2019.

From groups to grits: Social identity shapes evaluations of food pleasantness, Leor Hackel, Géraldine Coppin, Michael Wohl, Jay Van Bavel, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2018.

Identity concerns drive belief: The impact of partisan identity on the belief and dissemination of true and false news, Andrea Pereira, Elizabeth Harris and Jay Van Bavel, PsyArXiv, 2018.

Social identity shapes social valuation: Evidence from prosocial behavior and vicarious reward, Leor Hackel, Jamil Zaki, and Jay Van Bavel, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2017.

Core disgust is attenuated by ingroup relations, Stephen Reicher, Anne Templeton, Fergus Neville, Lucienne Ferrari, and John Drury, PNAS, 2016.

See your friends close and your enemies closer, Yi Jenny Xiao and Jay Van Bavel, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2012.

Minority influence, divergent thinking and detection of correct solutions, Charlan Jeanne Nemeth and Julianne Kwan, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2006.

Basking in reflected glory: Three (football) field studies, Robert Cialdini, Richard Borden, Avril Thorne, Marcus Randall walker, Stephen Freeman, and Lloyd Sloan, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1976.

Studies of independence and conformity: A minority of one against a unanimous majority, Solomon Asch, American Psychological Association, 1956.


Jay Van Bavel: Do Politics Make Us Irrational? TED Ed Talk, 2020.

Jay Van Bavel: The Dangers of the Partisan Brain, TEDxSkoll, 2017.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. When Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black president in 1994, he had big dreams for his bitterly divided country.

Nelson Mandela: We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society, a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

Shankar Vedantam: He had spent a lifetime fighting the racist apartheid regime, including more than a quarter century in prison.

Jay Van Bavel: He was a heroic figure already by that time. But to many white South Africans, they saw him as a criminal and a terrorist.

Shankar Vedantam: This is psychologist Jay Van Bavel. As president of the United South Africa, Nelson Mandela or Madiba as he was known to his supporters, needed to find a way for the people in his "rainbow nation" to see themselves as South Africans first. Other politicians might have turned to speeches and policies, Madiba turned to sports.

Jay Van Bavel: He used the rugby world cup, which was being hosted in South Africa. And during the apartheid era, South Africa had been banned from competition. And the South African team was known as the Springboks and they were beloved by the white South Africans and despised by the black population. But what Mandela did was he went out onto the podium, not just as the president, but as a fan, he had the green Springboks captain jersey, and he used it as a way to make a statement that we're one team, we're one country now. And he took a symbol of oppression and used it as a symbol of togetherness.

Shankar Vedantam: The Springboks' team captain, Francois Pienaar, remembers the moment Madiba walked into the team's locker room. It was before the finals against New Zealand.

Francois Pienaar: He said good luck boys and they turned around. And my number was on his back and that was me. I couldn't sing the anthem because I knew I would cry. I was just so proud to be a South Africa that day

Shankar Vedantam: The match was a nail biter. It went into overtime. South Africa ended up winning 15 to 12. Across the country, black and white South Africans cheered together in triumph. Nelson Mandela knew that getting enemies to cheer for the same sports team was only a start. Much work remained to heal the wounds of apartheid. But his intervention revealed how a psychologically astute leader can find ways to create connections among people, even bitter enemies. This week on Hidden Brain, how group identities bring us together, tear us apart, and transform our understanding of the world.

Shankar Vedantam: When we think about what we do and why we do it, we often assume we are acting intentionally and autonomously. I do something because I want to do it. I choose to do it. In recent years, social scientists have shown that this is often untrue. Our actions, our preferences, the very way we see the world is filtered through the prism of our group identities. This idea has fascinated Jay Van Bavel for a long time. He's a psychologist at New York University. He has studied how our group loyalties pull us together, how they tear us apart and how we can apply what we have learned about the science of group identity to build better lives and better communities. Jay Van Bavel, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Jay Van Bavel: Thanks for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to start by talking about some of the ways in which our group identities can draw us together with other people, Jay. You grew up in Canada and I understand your parents told you to sew the Canadian national flag onto your backpack. Did you ever find yourself bonding with other Canadians when you traveled overseas?

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah. So this is a great piece of advice you learn if you're ever going to travel in Canada. Your family, your friends will tell you to sew a Canadian flag on your backpack so that it serves as a signal to other people in other parts of the world who you are and where you're from. Canada's a reasonably well liked and respected country, but it does something even better, which is it allows you to connect with people. So I was actually on my first ever international trip in high school and we were in Venice, one of the most beautiful, interesting cities in the world, some of the best food in the world. And I was a Canadian teenager. So I found the first McDonald that I had seen in probably a week. And I wandered in and I'm in line to get some chicken nuggets. And this young teenage girl comes up and just starts talking to me in English. And it quickly dawned on me that she saw that I had a Canadian maple leaf on a sweater that I was wearing. And so it was her way of saying that we shared this in common and if I was anywhere in Canada, I doubt she would've come and started talking to me. But since we were all the way around the world, that identity was something that bonded us in an unfamiliar situation.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. So that's fascinating because of course, as you just pointed out, if you were both in Toronto or Ottawa, the fact that you were both Canadians would've been utterly unremarkable, but in Venice, that portion of your identity stood out.

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah. So it turns out that one of the most powerful ways to trigger an identity is to be a minority in a situation. When you're all surrounded by fellow Canadians, you're not thinking about yourself for the most part in terms of being a Canadian. But it's really powerful when you're both in a foreign land. That thing that might otherwise be really mundane becomes really significant to you.

Shankar Vedantam: We've all had experiences like this. We know what it's like to be part of a group, to belong to a club. As a psychologist, Jay has discovered that our group identities are more a source of connection. They tell us what we should care about.

Jay Van Bavel: I ran this study in Ottawa, which is the capital of Canada, in collaboration with a colleague who was a professor at Carleton University. And he set up a table in the ByWard Market, which is a famous old market in Ottawa. And he pulled people who were walking by and offered them a choice between a taste test. They were able to sample honey or maple syrup. And then we randomly flipped a coin and assigned people to one of two conditions. Half of the people were primed to think about their personal identity. So they talked about books they liked as an individual. The other half of the people were primed to think about their Canadian identity. And what we found is that when they were primed with their individual identity, they tended to like the taste of honey and maple syrup roughly the same, but when they were primed with their Canadian identity, they liked the maple syrup more than the honey. And so what it suggests is that when your identity is salient, it makes you prefer things that are associated with that identity. And for Canada, maple syrup is one of the big ones. We literally have the maple leaf on our national flag. We have a strategic national reserve of maple syrup. So Canada takes maple syrup pretty seriously.

Shankar Vedantam: So companies that are smart about group identity can sometimes use this to spur sales. Tell me what Molson Breweries did in their "I am Canadian" ad.

Jay Van Bavel: When I was a teenager, Molson Breweries, which is one of the biggest beer breweries in the entire country, came up with this really incredible ad. And it's just, this guy walks on stage...

Audio from Molson Brewery Ad: Hey, I'm not a lumberjack or a fur trader and I don't live in an igloo or eat blubber or own a dog sled and I don't...

Jay Van Bavel: And he just goes on this rant about what it means to be Canadian, and in particular, how it's different from an American.

Shankar Vedantam: I have a prime minister, not a president. I speak English and French, not American....

Jay Van Bavel: It had a Canadian flag flying in the background. It talked about hockey being the national sport. So all these things that Canadians really cherish as part of who they are and their culture and Canadians often don't have a very strong sense of identity and this ad captured it. And this ad won a number of awards because it signaled to Canadians something really important like who am I? But at the same time, it also increased sales very dramatically for Molson Brewery because it resonated with people's national identity.

Shankar Vedantam: Group identities can influence the beer we drink, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear. But they can also do something even more significant. They can shape our basic perceptions. What we see, hear, even smell. I asked Jay about a study out of the University of Sussex involving a very stinky t-shirt.

Jay Van Bavel: This has to be one of my favorite studies. Yeah, so this was run in the UK and they wanted to see how identity might shape our smell. And so they used a very clever trick to manipulate people's social identity. And then they had them smell this stinky shirt, which they had had a research assistant wear this shirt for a week, sweating in it, exercising in it, not taking it off and then they put it in this sealed bin and they had participants come in and smell this shirt. And what they did was they manipulated the shirt so it either had a logo from the rival university, which was the University of Brighton or the other half the students got to see this with a Sussex, University of Sussex logo. And so what they found is that when people were primed to think that this was an out group member shirt, they thought it was much more disgusting, a much more putrid and odorous. Then when they thought the exact same smelling shirt was from a member of their own ingroup. And so it suggests that what we find disgusting is determined also by our identity and who we define as an ingroup and outgroup.

Shankar Vedantam: So this is a remarkable study because in some ways I think it's uncontroversial and unsurprising to say that people are loyal to their groups. But I think the surprising insight from this kind of research is that groups don't just tell us what kind of foods to like, or which politicians to support, they actually shape the very way we see the world.

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah. I mean, what we are trying to argue and what the growing body of research suggests is that these identities are a lens that shapes all kinds of our senses. They shape how we're smelling and interpreting smells, what we're seeing, maybe what we're hearing and so they help provide a way of interpreting information as it comes in through all our senses.

Shankar Vedantam: One last example, I want to look at about the power of groups to shape how we see and what we see. Jay, you tell the story of the 1966 World Cup soccer finals between England and Germany. What happened during the finals?

Jay Van Bavel: So this might be one of the most famous and controversial games of all time. It was tied and it went to extra minutes. And there was a shot by this English player and it went off the crossbar and it came down and landed very close to the goal line and then bounced out. And all the English players celebrated. They thought this was the World Cup winning goal. And there's huge debate over whether that goal actually crossed the line. And so to this day, there's still controversy about whether this crossed the line. And so what seemed to happen here is that those players wanted to interpret this ball as going over the line and being the winning goal. The German players did not. And so I spent an entire day watching old videos in slow motion and pausing them to see if the goal actually crossed the line. I looked up the study from Oxford University saying it didn't cross the line and so I do not think he scored. It looked like it came down right on the goal line and bounced out. However, the same player scored later in overtime and so England would've won anyways.

Shankar Vedantam: We see the same things in all kinds of sports all over the world, Jay. Fans of different teams will see different things happen on the field and each of them is completely sure that what they saw in fact is objective reality.

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah. And sports fans often think the referees are unfair to them because they're seeing everything through their own lens. In fact, in Canada, there's one song that's banned from all the hockey arenas and it's called Three Blind Mice, which people used to play. The home teams used to play when they didn't like a call to imply that the three ref were biased and blind. And so this turns out that this is a really deeply rooted problem for people they're so used to filtering it through their own lens. They get very upset at officials.

Shankar Vedantam: The passion that we feel for our favorite sports teams can quickly lead to feelings of us versus them, whether the them we are talking about are referees or fans of rival teams. It makes sense that when we care deeply about something, we'll feel a sense of kinship with the people who share our views and a lack of connection with people who disagree with us. But it turns out a shared passion isn't needed to trigger the psychological effects of group identity. One study published in the 1970s, randomly assigned volunteers to one of two groups. The members of the first group were supposed to like the artist, Paul Klee. Members of the second group were supposed to like the artist, Wassily Kandinsky.

Jay Van Bavel: This I think is one of the most important studies in the history of psychology, maybe in the history of the social sciences. So this was a study run by Henri Tajfel and his colleagues. He ran this study where he basically just randomly assigned youths to one of two groups and he did it on just trivial information. So what type of abstract art they liked. And these young people didn't know these artists at all and in fact, it didn't matter who they actually liked. He just flipped a coin and gave them false feedback anyways.

Shankar Vedantam: The volunteers in the Clay and Kandinsky camps were then told to divvy up money among people in the different groups.

Jay Van Bavel: And what he found is that the moment that you're part of a team or part of a group, you will give more money to members of your ingroup and less money to the outgroup, even if you never interact or meet those people, even if you never expect that they'll meet you. And the thing he also found is that what people really care about is maximizing the difference in money they give to the ingroup and outgroup. So they'll actually give ingroup members less, if it means giving outgroup members even way less.

Shankar Vedantam: What's remarkable about the study of course is that people are forming these loyalties to groups that they've been assigned for really no very good reason and yet within a few minutes almost, they're behaving as if these are long lost brothers and they're treating them as if they're members of an ingroup tribe.

Jay Van Bavel: Yes. And this is something that you might be skeptical when you hear these results, and I was too. And then I ran studies like this, in Canada and the US, and many universities and online, and I've seen this same pattern over and over again. The moment that people are assigned to a team or a group, even though they often can know it's a coin flip that's determining this, means that they like those people more. They want to be friends with them. It shapes their automatic evaluations of those individuals. And we ran a study where NYU students thought they were interacting in economic decisions with members of NYU, which is their members of their own ingroup or Columbia, which is a high status school across New York City. And what they did was they would give more money to NYU students and Columbia students. But what was even more interesting is when they saw NYU students win money, they actually had a brain response that suggested that they were feeling as if they had won the money. And so what it suggests is what is referred to in the literature as "basking in reflected glory" is that when your ingroup as well, it makes you feel good. You have a response in your brain as if you won or something good happened to you. And the same thing I think happens to sports fans. You can be sitting at home, watching the TV all alone and running around and jumping and cheering as if you've accomplished something when your team wins. And this is what we found in the lab.

Shankar Vedantam: What do you think explains this enormous gravitational force that groups exert on us, Jay. Why is it that our minds are so attuned to the needs of our groups even when those groups are completely arbitrary?

Jay Van Bavel: There's a couple key factors that determine why we're so attracted to groups. I think the deepest one is it's something in our biology. So humans evolved for almost the entirety of human in history in these small tribal communities. And we're pretty flimsy creatures. We don't have sharp teeth or poison or wings to fly away if a predator comes. And so we survive by cooperating in groups and coalitions within those groups. And so we have those same tendencies. And then what you have in a modern environment that matters is that groups fill our need to belong. They help us gain status if we're part of a successful group. And they also give us a sense of distinctiveness if our group is different from others. It tells us a little bit in the world about who we are.

Shankar Vedantam: Groups offer us a sense of belonging, and they can bring out the best in us. But the flip side of most ingroups, there's an outgroup. When we come back, how our group identities divide us and what we can do to harness the power of groups to build a better world. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. We've seen how groups can pull us together, give us shared cultural touch points and become an enduring source of resilience and comfort. In our revolutionary past, our group identities were an important source of protection. You would think that a force this powerful would also have downsides. Throughout human history, we've seen numerous examples of how group loyalties can spill over into tribalism and xenophobia and lead to war and genocide. In their new book, The Power of Us, the psychologist, Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer, explore how group identities pull us together and how they tear us apart. They also look at how we can apply what we have learned about the science of group identity to build a better world. Jay, you tell a remarkable story of two brothers in Southern Germany. They were cobblers and together ran the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory around the time of the Second World War. The brothers had a falling out, what happened next?

Jay Van Bavel: So these brothers, it was World War II, 1943, and the one brother Adi, he and his wife climbed into the same shelter as his brother Rudolph's family. And Adi said, according to legend, "The dirty bastards are back again." And we don't know if Adi was referring to the allied war planes who were coming to bomb them but Rudi apparently interpreted this as an insult intended for himself and his family. And so it triggered this decades long feud between these two brothers. They ended up breaking up their company and creating two shoe companies in the same town. And that might have been the end of it, but what happened is it infected the psychology of all the townspeople. And so people on one side of the river of the town identified with Adi and the other side identified with the shoe company run by Rudi. And it became known as the town of bent necks because people would walk around town, looking down at the ground to see what shoes people were wearing. And if you were wearing the shoes from the other company, you wouldn't date them, you wouldn't be able to go in their stores, marriage was discouraged with people with the wrong shoes. In fact, this feud went right to the grave. So these two brothers are literally buried at opposite ends of the town cemetery. And this might seem like this is a small story, it's just a little town in Germany, but these companies, the two shoe companies that were launched by them are now known as Adidas, which was founded by Adi and Puma, which is founded by Rudi. These are two of the biggest companies in the world. And this feud affected the psychology of everybody because these shoes became a signal about group membership and led to discrimination.

Shankar Vedantam: So, when I look out at the United States or other countries, I feel there are endless examples of how our group loyalties divide us. The conflict between the Dassler brothers, to me, it seems absurd. They're both German, they're both cobblers, they both make sports shoes for heaven's sake. Surely they have so much in common. But of course, when we find ourselves in the grip of deep divisions, they don't seem absurd. What explains this gap?

Jay Van Bavel: The Dassler brothers demonstrate something really deep about human nature, how easily we form groups and coalitions. And this has been observed in every culture on earth that's ever been studied. And to these people in this town, this doesn't seem absurd. This seems deeply important and central to their life and who they are. And I think that's the thing psychologically is whatever conflicts are driving your own life seem real and the conflicts of other people halfway around the world might seem absurd, but it's very much the same psychology that seems to be at play in all of these types of situations.

Shankar Vedantam: So, many Americans increasingly believe that they don't just disagree with people on the other side, but that people on the other side are inherently evil or untrustworthy. As a social scientist who studies group identity, where are we on the spectrum between healthy disagreement and civil war?

Jay Van Bavel: What I've noticed is there's an increasing trend towards polarization that's linked to outgroup hate more than ingroup love. And this is where politics in the US and many places around the world looks much more like sectarianism because it's connected to our morality. And what happens then is people in the ingroup are good, but the outgroup really is evil. And you'll do anything you can to stop them. You'll even support an ingroup member or vote for a leader who you don't like or don't respect or don't trust, simply because you can't let this evil outgroup take control. And so this is now a driving factor, behind many people in their decisions to vote, volunteer, donate money.

Shankar Vedantam: You've conducted studies into how these group level disagreements spill over into our personal lives. How do these political loyalties divide families at holiday gatherings like Thanksgiving?

Jay Van Bavel: Research suggests that our Thanksgiving dinners are getting shorter by roughly half an hour over time. If you're interacting with family members in a place where there's going to be disagreement, politically, it becomes intolerable and people just don't stick around for dessert, basically. It's affected dating. So I ran a study with radio station in New York City at Trump's inauguration and we found the biggest form of discrimination we observed to simply that people refuse to date somebody who voted for the other party. And so now there's in fact, dating websites dedicated specifically to your political preferences.

Shankar Vedantam: Are you serious? There's blue Tinder and red Tinder now?

Jay Van Bavel: I don't know if it's called that. There's one that's if you're for Trump fans only and stuff like this. Yeah.

Shankar Vedantam: So we talked earlier about how our group loyalties and identity shape our very perceptions of reality. I want to talk about this idea in the context of group conflicts. You've conducted some interesting studies. Looking at Yankees fans, what do you find in terms of their perceptions when it comes to their enemies, the Red Sox?

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah. So one of the greatest sports rivalries in the country is between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. And we've been able to run some studies up at Yankee Stadium with Red Sox and Yankees fans and what we found is that Yankees fans had distorted judgments of how close Fenway Park in Boston was. So we gave them a map and asked them to draw where they thought Boston was, and they thought it was much closer to New York than it actually was. If you asked non-fans, they were pretty accurate in estimating how far away Fenway Park was, but they're not threatened by this group in the same way that Yankees fans are. And so they're not ordering their perceptions in the same way. And so this is something that is adaptive to people, is if there's a threat in the environment, you got to get ready to act and seeing it as closer can sometimes trigger that reaction, but we see it with groups as well.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand there's also been similar work finding that people who perceive immigrants to be a greater threat can sometimes perceive them to be physically closer or perceive their home countries to be physically closer than they actually are.

Jay Van Bavel: We've run a number of studies in New York and around the rest of the country. And what we find is that people who are threatened by illegal immigration from Mexico, see Mexico City as much closer to the border than it is, but also how many people they think are coming over the border. They tend to overestimate the size of the group.

Shankar Vedantam: So the idea that group identity is like a lens through which we see the world, I think this might explain why some things that we feel should provide objective answers to complex social problems, sometimes fail to do so. There's been controversy in recent years about police shootings of civilians, and both protestors and police have assumed that the body cameras being worn by police officers can provide an objective answer as to who's in the right. What are these protestors and the police officials getting wrong, Jay?

Jay Van Bavel: Well, the body cams have operated under the assumption that if we just captured all in the cameras. That it's going to dramatically reduce police violence because it's going to keep people honest. And the problem with that is that people when they look at these videos in a court, the jury for example, is biased in how they interpret them. So there's research from NYU showing that if you identify with the police and you watch one of these videos of a conflict between a police officer and a suspect, you see the suspect at fault. And you're looking more at the suspect and therefore you're getting the information, they're doing something wrong. If you actually don't identify with the police, you are looking at the police officer to see what they're doing wrong and coming to a very different conclusion. So simply having the video is not going to be enough to solve these problems and necessarily reduce conflict with the police.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to ask you what all this means for the COVID 19 pandemic. At the time you and I are having this conversation, Jay, a significant number of Americans are resistant to getting vaccinated against COVID 19. And the data seems to suggest that the death rate rates and infection rates are rising primarily among the unvaccinated. And I think the response of many public health officials is to say, let's present people with the data, but of course, that doesn't seem to change people's mind. And as I'm hearing what you are saying about group identities and the ways in which conversations about the pandemic have become politicized, I think I'm starting to see that a rational fact based approach often is ineffective.

Jay Van Bavel: If there was ever a moment where we would want to test a hypothesis about whether facts and risks actually make people rational, we have tested it during the pandemic. And what we've seen since the very beginning, since January 2020 in the US, is that Republicans have seen the pandemic unfolding very differently than Democrats. And the leaders of the Republicans, this was Donald Trump, have downplayed it. And this affected people's judgments of risk. It affected willingness to engage in spatial and social distancing. And we've studied that in my own lab and found that over time, the partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans in their willingness to engage in distancing actually increased as the pandemic spread. You might expect the opposite, which is that as people learn more about the risks, as people dying get in the hospital in your local state or city, you would actually follow the guidelines more. You wouldn't be guided by partisanship. If anything, we found the exact opposite. And now you're seeing that with vaccines. The big single biggest predictor of vaccine hesitancy continues to be identification with the Republican party. 32% of Republicans don't plan to get the vaccine while only 3% of Democrats don't plan to. So that's 10 times as many people are vaccine hesitant on that side of the political aisle.

Shankar Vedantam: I mean, the other way to describe what you just said is that our commitment to our groups and our group identities in some ways can be stronger than our commitments to our own safety.

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah. Group identities don't seem that important when you're talking about a baseball game, but they matter a great deal in a pandemic. And if they are stronger than our commitment to reality and preserving the safety of not only ourselves, but our family, our friends, our co-workers, that tells you precisely how powerful these things are. And if you're willing to continue to tune into TV stations or social media that's affirming your identity, it can lead you to have a very bad misunderstanding of the risks that are presented to you in the world around.

Shankar Vedantam: Jay and his colleagues have looked at how social media in particular, exacerbates tribal loyalties and group divisions. We explored some of this research in an earlier episode. It was titled Screaming Into the Void.

Jay Van Bavel: The important thing to understand about social media is that nearly four billion people are on social media now and the average social media user scrolls through 300 feet of news feed a day.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow.

Jay Van Bavel: So it means if you have a six inch iPhone or Android, that means you're scrolling down 600 times. It's the height of the Statue of Liberty.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow.

Jay Van Bavel: That's how much you're reading each day. And so you're not reading things very deeply, you're just kind of scrolling through and seeing what catches your attention. That's why they call it "the attention economy." We've run a number of studies with hundreds of thousands of people and we've found that the language people are using seems to break through in this attention economy. So when people use powerful, moral, emotional language around political topics, it seems to go more viral, people are 15% to 20% more likely to share it. But what happens is who's sharing it. It's people who are part of your own political ingroup. It doesn't cross over to the other side when you use that language. And we have a new study out where we found that the biggest single predictor of making something go viral is dunking on the outgroup, saying something negative about the other side. And that's 67% more likely to get shared. And so people learn this by getting reinforced and they realize this is the language that wins on social media.

Shankar Vedantam: You've also conducted a study, looking at the effectiveness of fact checking, partisan beliefs. What do you find, Jay?

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah, we've been trying to study what works in terms of fact checking. There is some evidence that if you give people nudges to focus on accuracy, they'll pause and reflect and be more accurate and be less likely to believe or share misinformation. We have new data suggesting that that doesn't really work for people at the political extremes. Their identity is overpowering these nudges for accuracy. So we're going to have to think about addressing those people in different ways if we're going to want to reduce misinformation.

Shankar Vedantam: Across so many dimensions of our lives, our group identities shape our perceptions, our choices, and our behavior. They can cause us to act with cruelty and aggression. They can also prompt us to show compassion and generosity toward others. When we come back, how we can harness and redirect the power of groups to improve our health, our communities and the wellbeing of the planet. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Our social worlds shape what we see. They offer us comfort in the face of threat. They give us a sense of camaraderie. They're also the prism through which we see and understand the world. In their book, "The Power of Us," the psychologist, Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer, explore how we can harness our group identities to solve important challenges in our lives. Jay, one of the themes that has surfaced repeatedly in this conversation is that our group identities change the way we see the world. Now, most of the time, the forces that create group identities are random or accidental, but understanding how group identities are created can give us clues to how to reinvent those identities to change the outcomes we'd like to see in the world. I'd like to start with a personal story. When you were in grad school, you were assigned an office mate, Dominic Packer. He would of course go on to become your collaborator and your co-author on this book. But you had something of a rocky start when you first met and it had to do with some smelly gym clothes that you brought to your shared office?

Jay Van Bavel: And I was a big hockey player. And I picked a desk in the sub-basement of our building in the same room as Dominic who had been there for a year and I had such a small apartment that I had no room for my hockey equipment. So I brought it in and I said, I'm just going to store this here. And this basically chilled our relationship. For the next several months, Dominic barely turned around to talk to me. He was pretty burned about the idea of me storing my stinky hockey equipment in our shared office.

Shankar Vedantam: So tell me the story of how the bond between the two of you got established. I understand a cube of cheese was involved.

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah. So one of the rituals of being a graduate student at most universities is they bring in guest speakers. As a grad student, you're at the bottom of the pecking order, but you get to meet the speakers, take them for lunch, and then they often have a nice wine and cheese reception. And so at the wine and cheese reception, I was a poor student, I was eating as much cheese as I could, drinking as much free beer as I could. And I wasn't paying attention to what I was eating and I dropped this cheese cube , about the size of a dice, into my throat, and it got plugged in my throat and I started choking. And I tried to rinse it down with some beer, but that just made the situation worse. At that point I had zero oxygen going to my brain. And I thought back to the times I used to work in the oil field of Alberta. I had to watch all these safety videos. And the first thing I learned was that if you're choking, most people can save you as long as you don't leave the room, but it's so embarrassing to choke that most people who die do so because they just want to be alone and not have other people see them. So I went to the bartender and I couldn't speak, but I made the universal choking signature and then I twisted back into him with my back but he didn't really know what was going on and it didn't help me that much. So I grabbed Dominic's hand and pulled him into the men's room and he didn't know what was going on either at that point. But I communicated to him that I need him to do the Heimlich look on me, or I would die. And he looked white, like he had seen a ghost. But eventually he got in the position I kind of like started moving his, his hands towards my diaphragm. And he gave me the Heimlich, it came out. And I remember at the end of this, there were professors coming in to use the washroom and out, and they were looking at us like, "What are you guys doing in here?" But it bonded us together. This weird near death experience, me almost dying at the wine and cheese and him having to save my life created a bridge. And from that point on, we became close friends and then we became collaborators and now we're still working together.

Shankar Vedantam: It's a remarkable story and I'm glad that both you and he had the presence of mind to solve the problem. But talk about this idea a little more, Jay. Stressful situations and dramatic situations have a capacity to bond people together. I'm reminded of those studies involving dating couples. And when the couples are having a date on a rickety bridge where they feel like their lives might be in danger, they feel more drawn to one another. They feel like they have a bigger bond than if they're having a very safe date. And there have been stories about airplane hijackings where passengers feel like they're thrown in together in the same situations, this cauldron, if you will. And out of that cauldron comes this very intense bond.

Jay Van Bavel: One of the most interesting studies I've ever read was written by a woman in the '70s who was part of a hijacking by a terrorist group. She survived the ordeal and wrote this paper about what it was like psychologically among the passengers as they were held hostage for several days in this hijacked plane in the middle of the desert. And what we learned by reading this and going back through the story was that when you're all in this crisis together, it creates a sense of shared purpose. And so what happened over the course of these days was this first started creating subgroups of people, depending on what passport they had and what their nationality was. And eventually they all started to bond and ration food and work together to support one another and people who had small children. And so it became a shared identity as people going through this crisis together. And this is often what crises can do if we handle them well, that it allows humans to form a sense of solidarity with complete strangers.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to look at one last example of how our behavior can be modified when our group identities change. When Mohamed Salah or Mo Salah, as he's known, joined the Liverpool football club in Britain, he often celebrated goals by dropping to the pitch and touching his forehead to the grass. Mo is Muslim and this was his way of giving thanks. Now, Liverpool fans have the same anti-Muslim biases seen in many Western countries, but here's how they reacted as Mo scored goals.

Fans Singing: Mo Salah la-la-la la-ahh, If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me. If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too. If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me. Sitting in the mosque, that’s where I wanna be! Mo Salah-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la-la-la.

Shankar Vedantam: Jay, what do you hear when you hear these fans singing about wanting to become Muslims themselves?

Jay Van Bavel: This is a really powerful demonstration of the way that we rethink our identities when someone is part of us. And so even though there's a lot of anti-Muslim attitudes in the UK, having a representative of this religious group on your team and especially real superstar, made them feel a connection to him and in this case it sounds like even their religion. And so there was this great study by Salma Mousa and her colleagues and they found that among these Liverpool fans, they observed that hate crimes in that area dropped by 16% and that even public expressions on Twitter, so anti-Muslim tweets, dropped by nearly half among Liverpool fans compared to fans from other groups. And so this was a really powerful way of changing the norms of a group to be more inclusive and tolerant and embracing of people who were normally considered outsiders.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, of course, Liverpool didn't recruit Mo Salah because he was a Muslim, they were doing it because he's a great athlete who was going to score a lot of goals for them. But Mo's effect on the attitudes of Liverpool fans raises the question of whether we can deliberately create group identities that override prejudice and tribalism. You just cited the researcher Salma Mousa, who's tested this idea, I understand, by trying to get Christians and Muslims to play on the same soccer teams in Northern Iraq. Can you tell me about this idea of the soccer cure?

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah, she did this amazing study, really mind blowing in how she pulled it off. She did this study in Northern Iraq and it was at a period of time where ISIS had caused chaos. People had been forced to flee their homes and live in refugee camps. And eventually they were liberated in 2016. And she went into these neighborhoods and created a summer soccer league. And she got a sample of Muslims and Christians, and she had them play on these summer soccer teams. And they generated a sense of connection with people from these other religions who were on their teams. Even though they didn't want to play with people from other religions, having them on their team increased their connection with them and she measured all of these positive outcomes as a consequence of this. And it's hard to imagine a more divisive situation to walk into other than religious differences after a period of religious terrorism and people being forced to go to refugee camps. But what this showed is that being part of the same team, working towards a common shared goal, and especially I think what she found was also that teams that won, that were successful at doing this, had even tighter bonds. That shows how sports and just any type of connection, we can build with people working towards common purpose can bridge gaps that we might have thought were completely unbridgeable.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, I suppose you could say that people cheering a soccer star or people cheering fellow members of the team, that's a cheap form of group identity. It's not as real as religion or something that is much more long standing, but in a way, all of our group loyalties are probably shaped by similar forces, small accidental events that over time become the pillars of our lives.

Jay Van Bavel: Yes. When we think of identities, it's probably best to just start small. Find any common ground you can with somebody, and then you need to build on that, by having them work together for something bigger and maybe competing against other groups in a way that's not harmful or dangerous, or at least having a common sense of purpose. If you want to see the most racially harmonious environments in our society, they're in professional sports teams that are completely racially integrated and work together as brothers or sisters towards achieving common goals together.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. And I've seen this at sports games as well. When your team wins people are not paying attention at this point, am I hugging somebody who's black or am I hugging someone who's white or someone who's older or from a different religion. The group identity to the team now supersedes all of those other previous group identities.

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah. This is one of the most important things for people to know. You can create division between groups, but those same groups who are at each other's throats, if you create a subordinate goal that they're working towards something together, whether it's in sports or at work, that can pull people together and get people committed and making sacrifices and building friendships among all members of their group in a way that can overcome those animosities. And so this seems to be something deep about human nature is not just that we form groups and conflict, but that we can form even broader groups that are more inclusive.

Shankar Vedantam: We talk earlier in the conversation, Jay, about some of the conflicts that police were having with civilian communities especially when it came to concerns about racial profiling. There have been studies looking at how diversifying the police force in some ways can have the effect of reducing some of these biases. Can you talk about some of that work, the idea that in some ways by reshaping the groups you're reshaping group identities, and you're also then reshaping perception and behavior.

Jay Van Bavel: Yes. So there's fascinating research in Chicago where they've tried to understand what you can do to improve policing. And one of the most impressive studies on this, it was a massive large-scale study, they found that increasingly the diversity of police officers made a significant difference in police behavior. And so Black and Hispanic officers in particular made fewer stops in arrest and used force far less often than white officers. And this was especially true when they interacted with Black civilians. And so this is one of the reasons why representation, having a diverse group of people who are in charge of whether it's policing or her running other organizations, is incredibly essential.

Shankar Vedantam: So many Americans, I think, remember the days after the 9/11 attacks when obviously the country was going through a very somber period, but one of the things that happened is that many of the partisan divisions in the country melted away for a few weeks. People thought of themselves as Americans first, not as Republicans or Democrats. So I think that's another example of how, in some ways, a crisis or some kind of a threat can cause people to look beyond a narrow group identity to something larger. What ideas would you have to essentially, from the science of group identity, to overcome some of the partisan divisions we're seeing in the United States, but also in many other countries.

Jay Van Bavel: Some really, truly great leaders are capable of rallying people around a common identity. And so this can happen in the face of threat from other countries but can also happen when you have a shared purpose about something that's bigger than everybody. And so this is part of the space race.

John F. Kennedy: The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not. And it is one of the great adventures of all time.

Jay Van Bavel: And that was during the cold war, but what Kennedy tried to do was get people around a common, visionary purpose. Can we put somebody on the moon? And that generated an enormous amount of excitement. And so this is something that is often missing from the way that our politics normally unfolds, which is really about partisan gain. We really need to think about what is going to animate and excite and motivate people to feel a common sense of purpose, to make sacrifices and help one another and move away from trolling one another online or in other forms of media.

Shankar Vedantam: You mentioned the space race a second ago. The astronaut William Anders took a famous photograph in 1968. It's called Earthrise, and it shows a delicate blue planet suspended in the vast blackness of space. Here's how William Anders described what it felt like to see the earth over the horizon of the moon. "Coming upon the lunar horizon, I was immediately almost overcome with this thought. Here we came all this way to the moon, and yet the most significant thing we're seeing is our own home planet, the earth." Jay, what do you think this astronaut's experience tells us about the potential? We have to rethink our group identities to overcome problems, not just at the local level or the national level, but global problems like the threat of climate change?

Jay Van Bavel: To address a problem like climate change, we need a level of international cooperation we've never seen before. And the experience of these astronauts suggest it's possible. Many interviews with astronauts who've ever seen the earth from above, have this experience of awe and connectedness with all of humanity, and many say they're changed by it permanently.

Bill Anders: We are now blocking the lunar sunrise. And for all the people back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send you. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form...

Jay Van Bavel: It's not feasible for us to get everybody up to the moon, but what it suggests is that if we can get people to see themselves as connected to all of humanity, we might be able to change the way they think about themselves. They suddenly see themselves as part of something bigger, part of something bigger than their nation. And it might be the trigger that we need to motivate people to work towards common purpose, to fight off the threats that are going to affect all of us and the biggest one on the horizon. The moment we're done with the pandemic, the biggest threat is climate change. It's going to be a tsunami. We're already seeing the effects of it. And so it really does require a sense of common purpose among everyone, among every country because if we lose this earth, we don't have anywhere to go.

Shankar Vedantam: Psychologists, Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer are the authors of "The Power of Us: Harnessing our shared identities to improve performance, increase cooperation and promote social harmony." Jay, thank you so much for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Jay Van Bavel: Thanks for having me.

Frank Borman: And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with goodnight, good luck and merry Christmas and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes, Ryan Katz, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I am Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero today is Anna Nguyen. Anna works at Apple and over the past few months, she's helped us with all kinds of things, from technical questions about the Apple podcast app to ideas about how to connect better with new listeners. Thank you, Anna, for all your help and for your dedication and endless patience. If you enjoy today's show and you like our work, please consider supporting us. You can do so by going to Again, that's I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you soon.


Subscribe to the Hidden Brain Podcast on your favorite podcast player so you never miss an episode.


Go behind the scenes, see what Shankar is reading and find more useful resources and links.