Separating Yourself from the Pack

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.

Additional Resources

Research:

Scarcity Disrupts the Neural Encoding of Black Faces: A Socioperceptual Pathway to Discrimination, by Amy R. Krosch and David M. Amodio, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, 2019.

Positivity bias in judging ingroup members’ emotional expressions by Talya Lazerus, Zachary A Ingbretsen, Ryan M Stolier, Jonathan B Freeman, Mina Cikara, Emotion, 2016.

The “angry = black” effect across the lifespan by Yarrow C. Dunham; Mahzarin R. Banaji, Journal of Vision, 2006.

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

A comparison of human aggression committed by groups and individuals: An interindividual–intergroup discontinuity by Brian P Meier and Verlin B Hinsz, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2004.

Causes and Consequences of Coalitional Cognition by Mina Cikara, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 2021.

Minding the Gap: Narrative Descriptions about Mental States Attenuate Parochial Empathy by Emile G. Bruneau, Mina Cikara, Rebecca Saxe,  PLoS ONE, 2015.

Peace Through Friendship, by By Juliana Schroeder and Jane L. Risen, the New York Times, 2014.

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. In June 2011, the Stanley Cup finals were underway in Vancouver. The city's beloved home hockey team, the Canucks, were playing against the Boston Bruins. It was game seven. The team that won would take home the cup.

News clip:

Return the cup to Canada, or add to a legacy built decades ago?

Shankar Vedantam:

In the last seconds of the game, Tim Thomas of the Bruins defended the goal and secured the championship for Boston.

Speaker 2:

For the first time in 39 years, the Boston Bruins have won the Stanley Cup.

Shankar Vedantam:

Meanwhile, crowds began forming outside of the stadium in downtown Vancouver. They were upset. Just a few blocks from the stadium, fans decked out in Canucks jerseys began destroying the city. They smashed windows and looted local businesses. Cars were overturned and set on fire. Jim Chu was police chief at the time. He was working crowd control just blocks away from the center of the chaos that day. Ten years later, he reflected on what happened that evening.

Jim Chu:

It's hard to explain what happens when people get into a crowd mentality. And some of these rioters told us I got caught up in the moment. One of the reasons I want to talk about [inaudible 00:01:32]

Shankar Vedantam:

What could lead people to wreak havoc on their own city? How could ordinary fans so easily turn into violent rioters? This week on Hidden Brain, the psychological transformation that overcomes people when they become part of a group.

You have certainly had moments in your life when you were swept up by the fervor of the people around you. Maybe you broke into dance for the first time at a boisterous party and forgot your inhibitions. Perhaps you felt moved during an emotional wedding to make a revealing personal speech. Or maybe you felt your blood pressure rising at a political rally and found yourself sucked in by the mood of the crowd around you. Mina Cikara is a psychologist at Harvard University. She studies what happens to us in these moments. She explores how being part of a group can be powerfully transformative, and how we can learn to keep our heads when everyone around us is losing theirs. Mina Cikara, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Mina Cikara:

Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Shankar Vedantam:

Mina, I understand that you are not a sports fan, but some years ago you attended a baseball game at Yankee Stadium with a date who was a baseball fan. Can you paint a picture for me of what it felt like on that day, walking into the stadium?

Mina Cikara:

Sure. So as you say, I'm not a baseball fan. I'm not a sports fan more generally, but I really, really liked this guy. This guy who ended up being my husband eventually. And so, he's a big Red Sox fan and he was doing his postdoc at Princeton where I was a graduate student. And he said, "Hey, the Red Sox are coming to Yankee stadium. Would you like to go to the game with me in New York city?"

So, I kind of jumped at any chance to ride the train with him for an hour and a half, get out to the city, hang out at the game. And so, we went up and he was kitted out in all of his Red Sox gear, his hat. And again, not really being a fan of any team, I had my regular outfit on and it was really exciting. I mean, it's a fun environment going to a sporting event. People are really boisterous. They're really excited. There's the sort of frisson of competition in the air. And I was really charmed by all of that. And I was also very charmed by spending time with him.

Shankar Vedantam:

Now, the Yankees and Red Sox of course are storied rivals, and the rivalry goes back many, many decades. And I understand that as the game began, there was sort of lighthearted banter between your date and the Yankees fans seated around you?

Mina Cikara:

That's exactly right. So I'm wildly ignorant of this history as I'm coming into this game, but it becomes pretty quickly evident to me that there's a history there. And the way that this becomes evident is that, as the innings kind of go on, first, second inning, the game is tight. Everyone's playing well. We are sitting in Yankees stadium, surrounded by Yankees fans. And my date is wearing his Red Sox gear. And if there's some good natured heckling going on in the early parts of the game, kind of people poking fun at the hat or saying that the team is going to lose, but it's again, good natured.

Shankar Vedantam:

And the game eventually gets a little tense. Walk me through what happens at that point.

Mina Cikara:

Well, we get further and further into the game and the game is still tight and I'm not really paying too much attention to the game. But what I am starting to get an acute sense of, is a bit of threat in the air. And the way that this is manifesting is the folks who are sitting around us who are Yankees fans, that good natured ribbing that was going on early starts to get a little bit more aggressive here. And I find that my date is also starting to get a little bit more aggressive in his responses. People are sort of chin jutting and puffing their chests. And I'm a little surprised, because I'm thinking this is just a sporting event, but there's real sort of group power it seems to be going on here. And because the game is tight and because the scores are very close, there's a lot of tension. And this is where I start to get worried. I worry that my date is going to get into a fight with a Yankees fan.

Shankar Vedantam:

Now, was your date the kind of person who would get into fights with people?

Mina Cikara:

Not to my knowledge, but what I was seeing in this moment suggested otherwise. And so, I'm thinking, I know how to deal with this situation. I'm going to defuse it. I will take his Red Sox hat from him, and I didn't bring a bag with me or anything, so I didn't really have anywhere to put it. And I thought I was very clever by putting it on my own head, thinking, well, I'm not really a fan of either team. And it doesn't matter to me if anybody says anything to me, I'm not going to take it personally. I want to get the two of us out of Yankees Stadium in one piece.

Shankar Vedantam:

So you were trying to transform the hat in some ways back into just a hat. So sitting on your head, it wasn't a symbol of anything. It would just be a hat?

Mina Cikara:

That's right. But of course, nobody around me actually knows that. And so, now I start to draw the ire of all the Yankees fans who are sitting around us and they start saying things to be me about my mother and making comments about what my SAT scores must have been, really nasty and rude language. And I withstood it, I think I maybe took it for 10 minutes. I can't claim any longer than that. But then I started getting aggressive back. I started yelling at people's faces and telling them to mind their own business or whatever. And that really surprised me.

Shankar Vedantam:

And did you have the sense at this point that now there were two of you against the rest of them? I mean, so you and your date now were on the same side being attacked by all these people and fighting back?

Mina Cikara:

Yes. There's definitely a closeness there. And there's also weirdly a growing allegiance to the Red Sox out of nowhere, by virtue of being victimized for being an ostensible Red Sox, despite the fact that I'm not actually a Red Sox fan. So it's sort of creating the sense of loyalty to the team in me, by being treated by Yankees fans this way.

Shankar Vedantam:

Yeah. Now it's hard to believe, but at a certain point, it almost got to the point where you felt like you would get into a physical altercation with some of the people around you?

Mina Cikara:

I mean, at some point this guy started getting up into my face and you can only withstand so much talk about your mother, people just saying disparaging things about you and your kin. And so, it came out of nowhere. I found myself sort of leaning into him and he leaned back into me. And it didn't much matter that he was a man and I was a woman. And I felt like I wanted to shove him. And my date saw this, sort of stood up between us and kind of calmed me down and said, "I think it may be time for us to go."

Shankar Vedantam:

How soon was it after you left Yankees Stadium, Mina, did you start to ponder on your own behavior and the astonishing nature of the change that had come over you?

Mina Cikara:

It was pretty soon thereafter that I thought, wait a second, that was really weird. I don't normally act like that in the course of my day-to-day life. I don't know that I've ever acted like that. I mean, maybe when I've played tennis in high school or something, I get competitive, but never to the point of sort of wanting to fight somebody over something I don't even care about. That was very bizarre.

Shankar Vedantam:

Yeah. I mean, you were not just not a Red Sox fan, you were not even a baseball fan or a sports fan. And the idea that within 10 minutes, you are trying to defend the honor of Red Sox nation. It's kind of insane.

Mina Cikara:

The Red Sox nation and my mother.

Shankar Vedantam:

Let me take you back to another time earlier in your life, Mina, that foreshadowed this unexpected transformation and arguably this earlier situation had much higher stakes than a baseball game. Your parents are from the war-torn region that was once known as Yugoslavia. Your mother is Bostonian. Your father is Serbian. You grew up in the United States, but you had some exposure to the events happening in your parents' homeland. How did you hear about those events?

Mina Cikara:

Well, once tension started escalating in the Balkans, there was quite a bit of news coverage. And so, because we still have many family members at that point in the former, what was then called Yugoslavia, the news was on all the time. My parents were in contact with various relatives who were still over there. We were trying to figure out whether or not there was anything to be done. Did people want to stay, did people want to leave? But what we were seeing was that the situations were getting worse. And I remember one particular day, my mom noting, they're putting logs across the major highways that connect the different regions to one another. And I didn't understand what that meant. And she said, "They're trying to build the borders. They're making passage between them impossible." And she said, "Now it's time to get worried."

Shankar Vedantam:

Hmm. I understand there were times when you would have relatives essentially fleeing Yugoslavia who would stay with you for periods of time?

Mina Cikara:

That's right. So the first family members who came over were actually my mother's sister, my aunt, her husband, and their three sons, my cousins. And the reason that they left was because our family is, I mean, it's mixed in the same way that Bosnia itself is mixed. So my mom and her sister were born in Macedonia, but they grew up in Bosnia their whole lives. Their father was born in Montenegro. And so, they have Serbian names. Later on in her life, my aunt married a Muslim man and all three of their children have Muslim names. And so her last name now is Muslim. And so, at that time, you have Bosnia and sort of from both sides, Serbian forces and Croatian powers, encroaching seeking to sort of control the region to claim more power. And the people who are sort of left in the middle in particular, who have no power, are the Muslim population.

And so my aunt has three Muslim children and her husband is Muslim and she has a Serbian name, and it's a really complicated situation. And one of the things that shocked her and shocked my mother was that she started to talk to neighbors of hers who had either sort of Serbian heritage or Croatian heritage, but also identified as Bosnian up until this point saying, "What are we going to do? Things seem to be getting worse. We aren't sure we're safe here." And much to her surprise rather than rallying around them. These friends of hers who she'd known since before high school, who had raised her children with her, said, "Yeah, you need to leave. There isn't room for you here anymore."

Shankar Vedantam:

Now, they were not saying, you need to leave with a view of saying, we are looking out for your safety, we think it would be wiser if you left. This was more than that?

Mina Cikara:

This was, you no longer have a home here.

Shankar Vedantam:

And how did your aunt react to this? I mean, what did it feel like to have people who had, she had broken bread with who, they'd raised children together with, the kids played together in the neighborhood streets. What did it feel like to have neighbor turn on neighbor?

Mina Cikara:

I think she was terrified. I think that most of us don't expect that the people who we would count as our closest and dearest friends, almost family, could say to us following political events that they don't want us around anymore because we are not part of them. We don't belong to their group. We're no longer welcome here.

Shankar Vedantam:

Now, I know this has very different stakes from what happened at the baseball game, but it is interesting to see some of the same dynamics at play. It's almost as if in a moment people were being swept up in the fervor of those around them and were getting transformed?

Mina Cikara:

That's exactly right. And that's one of the things that I find most terrifying, but also most interesting about group dynamics is how quickly they shift.

Shankar Vedantam:

Have you given, I mean, I think you've talked in the past about this idea that people have explored, which is that the line between who we think we are most of the time and who we can become, that line is actually much thinner than many of us imagine.

Mina Cikara:

It's funny you say that because often when I speak with folks and I tell them a little bit about what it is that I do, what my research is about, I'll ask them questions like, "When was the last time you punched someone?" And most of the time, the answer is, "Well never." "And when was the last time you saw someone punch someone else that wasn't part of a sporting event?" For example. And most of the time, the answer is, "Well never." And it reveals that in our day-to-day lives, we have these strong moral prohibitions against harm that guide most of our behaviors most of the time. But all of that seems to go out the window when the gravitational pull of groups exerts its force, when it starts to align people within groups and align against each other, between, groups that behavior changes.

Shankar Vedantam:

When we think of ourselves, we usually think of ourselves as individuals. We say, "I'm a cautious person," or "I'm a bold person." Few of us stop to ask whether we are still the same person when we are in the grip of a crowd. We imagine we will always be the same people we always were. This is why when we hear accounts of decent people being swept up into mobs, we tell ourselves, "That would never happen to me. I don't have it in me to become a looter, a vandal, to hurt someone." When we come back, what happens in the brain when "me" and "you" get transformed into "us" and "them." You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Mina Cikara studies how the groups around us shape our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Growing up, Mina heard stories of how in her parents' former Homeland of Yugoslavia, neighbors turned on neighbors, friends on friends. Mina herself, in situations with much smaller stakes, has been surprised at the effects that groups have on her. Mina, all of us recognize that we are simultaneously individuals and members of groups. You are the individual Mina Cikara, but you're also part of the group of people who work at Harvard University. You're part of the group of people who identify as psychologists. So we carry around these different identities inside us. Why do different situations activate different aspects of our identity?

Mina Cikara:

That's a really interesting question. And what's actually fascinating to me about this is that it's highly context dependent. So who your most salient self is can change as you walk from one room into another one. And so, thinking about folks who might be listening to this as they drop off their kids at school, and that's when they're parents, but that car door closes, or they walk away from the school and suddenly they're in work mode and they're part of their organization. And they get into the organization and then maybe they're part of a more specific team within that organization, and so on and so forth. And so, what's so interesting about it is that it starts to speak to the dynamism that we were talking about before. It's really, really flexible process, which pieces of us get highlighted within any given context.

Shankar Vedantam:

Hmm. So one of the ways in which aspects of our identity are made salient is when we find ourselves among the few people in a group who have that identity. So New Yorkers might not look twice at other New Yorkers in New York, but put two New Yorkers together in Zimbabwe and all of a sudden they realize they have a lot in common. I understand there have been times you've been to scientific conferences where you've realized that you're one of the few women around, and that changes how you're thinking about gender in the context of the scientific meeting?

Mina Cikara:

That's exactly right. And there are a couple things that happen here. One is that your own identity becomes salient to you. Another possibility is that the other folks in the room start to treat you in line with that identity more than they might have had you not been the minority in that case. So just coming back to the Yankees, Red Sox, part of what makes your identity salient as a Red Sox fan in Yankees Stadium, is that you're in the minority, but the other part is how other Yankees fans treat you.

So when there's a clear power differential or dynamic at play, that really sort of heightens the stakes and makes these kinds of identities more salient. So in my day to day life, my identity as a woman is not particularly salient to me, but when at a scientific conference, for example, if I'm one of two or three people in the room who happen to share that identity, suddenly it becomes a bit activated for me, because I recognize that I'm in the minority and there are all sorts of inferences that start to pop up. Am I recognized as a legitimate member of the community in this room, are my contributions equally valued? It starts to raise questions that wouldn't otherwise come up if I didn't feel that sort of minority status.

Shankar Vedantam:

And with the example that you gave me about your family history in Yugoslavia, presumably one of the other markers has to do with access to resources, who gets what, and especially in a situation of competition, our group identities can become especially salient to us.

Mina Cikara:

Yes, absolutely. When there's a zero sum situation, when there's some resource at stake and there's overt competition between two sets of people, two collectives, then identity is incredibly important, because that is a boundary along which competition arises. And people will start to potentially engage in less than pro-social or outright anti-social behavior towards one another, because there's some resource at stake.

Shankar Vedantam:

In competitive situations, people don't just become watchful about other groups. They start to police the boundaries of their own groups. They start making ever finer distinctions between who should be a member and who should not.

Mina Cikara:

Many people have studied something called the over-exclusion bias, which is when people will sort of draw tighter boundaries around who counts as "us" when things get competitive or heated. And so, one particularly remarkable example of this work to me is work that's been done by Amy Crush, who's a faculty member at Cornell and a collaborator. She's found that when you prime participants, white participants, with economic scarcity, they actually see faces as blacker relative to when they've not been primed with that kind of scarcity. So basically the threshold at which someone is deemed white gets higher and higher and higher. It's less likely for them to categorize somebody as white when they've been primed with economic scarcity.

Shankar Vedantam:

It's worth pausing for a moment on this finding: white volunteers who were reminded of economic scarcity were less likely to see a face as white than they were when they were not primed to think about scarce economic resources. Their brains instinctively narrowed the definition of who they considered "one of us." Competitive group situations can lead to other dramatic responses in our brains. Mina says they can affect how we perceive the emotional states of in-group and out-group members.

Mina Cikara:

This was some work that we did with just teams here with green shirts and blue shirts. And we were interested in whether or not people perceived the emotions in faces in static images of faces differently, depending on whether it was an in-group or an out-group member. And what was really interesting to us was, we thought that people would just be sort of more accurate in their judgments of in-group faces relative to out-group faces. So when an in-group face was happy that you would be more likely to say that that face is happy relative to not. And when it was angry that you would be more likely to say that it's angry relative to not. And what we found was that there was actually a generalized positivity bias, which is to say that when people saw in-group faces, it didn't matter if they were happy or angry. People just said they were more positive than when they were looking at out-group faces.

Shankar Vedantam:

And what's remarkable about studies like this, but this is not the only example of it, is that these groups are in some ways artificially constructed, these are not preexisting groups that the volunteers had coming into the lab, right?

Mina Cikara:

That's exactly right. We show them a picture of 24 people, 12 are on the blue shirt team. They too are on the blue shirt team. The other 12 are on the green team. We give them a little memory test to make sure they remember which team each person is on. And then we just start to show them pictures of those folks expressing either angry or joyful emotions.

Shankar Vedantam:

I mean, it's remarkable that if a simple manipulation like that in the lab can have measurable effects, obviously if we spend years or decades being inculcated with all of the norms and attitudes and beliefs of our groups, we learn about their histories and cultures and uniqueness. It's hardly surprising in some ways that the groups can have really powerful effects on us, on our behavior and the way we think.

Mina Cikara:

That's exactly right. And as an extension, a real world and more consequential extension, I have colleagues like Yarrow Dunham at Yale who found that for example, white participants rate black faces as angrier than white faces, for example. Now, that could be stereotype driven with specifically stereotypes associated with Black Americans within the United States, but it could also be a manifestation of this more general positivity bias, which is that we just see out-group members in general as expressing more negative emotions.

Shankar Vedantam:

There's been work by the researcher Jay Van Bavel, whom we've previously had on Hidden Brain, looking at how we perceive the distance that opponents or enemies have to us. And some of this work actually looks at Yankees and Red Sox fans and looks how closely people perceive their enemies are. Can you tell me about that work? The ways in which our brains might misperceive the distance between us and our opponents under situations of stress or enmity?

Mina Cikara:

The finding is that people will judge the distance of sort of competitor or threatening out-group members, institutions, as closer than they actually are. So for example, if you're a Yankees fan, you judge Fenway as being much closer than it actually is. That's the Red Sox stadium in Boston, relative to how far away you judge the Orioles in Maryland, in Baltimore. And so, the idea is that one possibility is that when you start to have these really competitive inter-group contexts, we're sort of primed with the notion of, well, this side represents a threat. We have to be prepared for it. We need to engage. And so, we may trick ourselves into thinking that they're actually nearer than they are.

Shankar Vedantam:

And in another version of that same study, I understand that Jay and his colleagues found that people who were concerned about Mexican immigration to the United States, for example, perceived the Mexican border as being physically closer to them than it actually was, which I think is another variation of the Yankees-Red Sox example you just gave me.

Mina Cikara:

That's right. I mean, and certainly a much more consequential one.

Shankar Vedantam:

Mina has found that competitive situations accentuate our group identities. But she's also identified another intriguing aspect of the relationship between competition and groups. Sometimes, simply putting people into groups increases their perception of competition.

Mina Cikara:

This is something that always blows my mind when I think about it. The second you sort people into groups, they already perceive competition. Even when you haven't put competition on the table as the nature of the relationship between those two groups. So you just put three people in this room, three people in that room. And just by virtue of being split up into those two sets of people, people are sort of, they're more generous with the folks in their room than they are with the folks who are across the hallway, even though you could very well have ended up in the opposite room. People are more likely to assign innocent others to drink more painfully hot hot sauce when they make that judgment together as a group relative to when they make that judgment alone. Being a member of a group seems to prime competition and the perception that there is some sort of threat on the horizon that then engenders these kinds of behaviors.

Shankar Vedantam:

I mean, this almost takes me back to my days in middle school and high school where you get divided into teams on the sports field and you have the red team or the blue team. And suddenly these divisions are really random, but within minutes they start to feel consequential and you have all these allegiances to the red team and all these antagonisms towards the blue team. And not none of that existed 30 seconds ago.

Mina Cikara:

And I think that's part of what this schema is that gets activated when you start to cleave people into groups, even when those groups have no meaning, is that there's just a template in your head that says, well, when we break up into groups, it's usually because we're going to compete with one another. There's a whole bunch of associations that come with that that may not actually make any sense for the current context.

Shankar Vedantam:

So the ways in which we think are clearly changing when we identify as members of the group, or we identify other people who are members of other groups, but our feelings also undergo a transformation too. And one of the feelings that undergoes a transformation is a feeling of empathy. Can you describe for us what's meant by the term parochial empathy?

Mina Cikara:

Sure. So, I mean, it might be worth describing what we even mean by empathy, because it's kind of a loaded term. But when we think about it, we sort of mean it to be the feeling part of connecting with another person. So either feeling for them or feeling bad about something that happened to them, for example. So parochial empathy refers to the phenomenon where we don't feel quite as bad for those folks who lie outside of our own groups. And so, in some cases we may even feel nothing at all, we feel apathy.

Shankar Vedantam:

Of course, it's a short step from feeling apathy at another group's misfortune to actively taking pleasure in it. We often frown upon open expressions of Schadenfreude, but Mina says there are domains where Schadenfreude is socially acceptable.

Mina Cikara:

What's interesting about these competitive situations is that when a bad thing happens to another person and you feel pleasure, it's solely through the channel of your group identities. I only feel good about this bad thing happening to you because you represent this other team. And most people don't like expressing this, and from very young ages, we're told you're not supposed to laugh at other people when they get hurt. You're not supposed to feel good when bad things happen to other people.

Shankar Vedantam:

So what are the scenarios where it can be socially acceptable to express pleasure at someone else's pain? Bitter political battles and intense sports competitions

Mina Cikara:

In sports, I think it's a safe place to express competitive and sort of hostile beliefs and feelings. It's sanctioned. It's explicit that it's a competition, so it's not so taboo. And because politics has become more like a competition or more like a war. And so, now that sort of opened it up, the norms have shifted so that it's okay, even encouraged by some people, that you should express overt pleasure when the other side suffers or when the other side loses or on the other side makes an error.

Shankar Vedantam:

Mina has found that in domains where it is not socially acceptable to openly display Schadenfreude to an opposing groups, people still engage in it secretly. In one experiment, she presented volunteers with accounts of negative things happening to groups that they admired or respected, like firefighters, or groups that they envied or disliked like investment bankers.

Mina Cikara:

And what we did was we actually measured how much they smiled by something called facial electromyography. And this is where we put sensors all over the face to try to pick up on tiny muscle movements that are happening within the face, that track with reported and experienced emotion. And so, what we found is that people's cheeks got pulled into a smile more when negative events befell folks like investment bankers, relative to when they befell folks like an elderly man or a firefighter.

Shankar Vedantam:

So researchers have also found that some people identify so strongly with their groups that they experienced Schadenfreude in situations that are not only bad for the out-group, but potentially bad for members of the in-group. So Richard Smith and his colleagues have conducted studies looking at political partisans in the United States who heard bad news about an overseas war or the economy. Are you familiar with this work, Mina? Can you tell me what they found?

Mina Cikara:

Yes. I love this paper. And so, say I'm a Democrat. If I hear that the Republicans have made a political decision that affects the economy and it tanks the economy for everybody, I still experience pleasure despite the fact that there are bad material outcomes for me. Or if, as a Republican, I hear that Democrats have made a choice to engage in a war or to hurt another country. And what we find is that we lose our own troops, I still report feeling some pleasure despite the fact that people have died for that choice. And I think it starts to speak to one of the greatest challenges that are facing our political system today, which is that what used to be framed as a game of coordination has now been framed as a war.

Shankar Vedantam:

When groups think of themselves as locked in battle, it gives them license to do almost anything to harm their opponents. This may be one reason why, across the political spectrum in many countries, people describe the policy disagreements they have with their opponents using the language of war.

Mina Cikara:

One of the things that's so challenging about politics is that each side has sets of marginalized people that they seek to protect. Whether it's babies on our border who are being kept in cages, whether it's the children that they're worried about being groomed, everybody is certain that the other side is on the attack. That again, that we're in this war situation. And what makes that so powerful and so dangerous is that there is very little that is not morally acceptable in self-defense. So nobody will fault you if all you're doing is protecting yourself and these people. Anything is on the table now. And so, it's not surprising then that you see, for example, in polling data, that you're seeing increased support over time for democratic backsliding, that people are more likely to support candidates who would bend the rules in order to be able to win and so on and so forth. So it's a very, very complicated and dangerous situation, because everybody feels like they're doing it for other people and they're doing it for self-defense.

Shankar Vedantam:

I mean, the interesting thing that you're raising here is in some ways, when we look at the behavior of people, especially people from other groups, and we say, "How in the world could they be doing something that is so wrong?" I think what we're failing to see is that they're not seeing what they're doing as wrong. They're seeing what they're doing as morally righteous. That they're basically believing they're standing up for something, they're actually acting in the service of morality, as opposed to acting in the service of immorality. It's a positive thing, it's not a negative thing. Even in the minds of our opponents.

Mina Cikara:

Often we are at our most violent when we are doing it for a cause. Or when we are supporting an in-group ritual, or when we are trying to increase loyalty to the group, and so on and so forth. People do some of the worst things they do because they think they're being righteous in doing it.

Shankar Vedantam:

There have been times that you yourself have felt this intoxicating sense of righteousness. When you were a new mom, you became very upset about the separation of parents and children carried out at the southern border by the Trump administration. Tell me what your rage prompted you to do Mina on social media.

Mina Cikara:

Oh, well this is not my proudest moment. What happened was we were hearing coverage about this. I had a six-month-old at the time, I think. And there was a lot of footage that was coming out of the US-Mexican border, sort of showing what it was that was happening to these children who were being separated from their parents, and who were having to stay in these camps in abominable conditions. And in frustration, I tweeted, "I hope that Stephen Miller and everybody else who's responsible for these outcomes is woken from every time they fall asleep with the screams of these children." And because that's how I felt. That's how I felt as a new mom. That's how I felt about listening to these babies crying for their parents. It's how I felt about this humanitarian travesty at our border.

And a couple people sort of agreed and liked it. And then maybe early the next morning, somebody replied to it to say, "Wow, this is a healthy response." And it made me realize that, no matter how enraged I was by the situation, that I didn't need to pile on in this manner, that this was not particularly constructive, that what I was doing was sort of looking for other people to tell me that they were this upset too. And that we were going to do something about it, that it would animate some collective action, that the sort of force of the rage was going to be the catalyst for change. But that's not what that was. That was me venting. But there are a lot of other ways to register your outrage that are more constructive than tweeting, "I hope this person is tortured for the rest of their life."

Shankar Vedantam:

When we come back, how to be part of groups without allowing them to hijack our hearts and our minds. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Mina Cikara is a psychologist at Harvard University. Her research has found that when we identify deeply with a group, we can get swept up by emotions sweeping through the group. This in turn changes the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we behave. Mina, some years ago, you ran a study where volunteers were told a story about a man named Brian, but you gave different groups of volunteers, different accounts of Brian's story. Can you describe those stories for me?

Mina Cikara:

So for one subset of participants, we gave them a story about Brian and the story was pretty simple. His computer crashed, and he lost a full week of work. The other set of participants, however, received a bunch of individuating information about Brian. So first we say, Brian was recently married. He's expecting the birth of his child. He's been working really hard at his brand-new job, and oh, he worked furiously, and then just before his baby is born, his computer crashed and he lost a full week of work. Now, critically Brian can either be an in-group member or an out-group member. And so, our question was, when the only thing you know about Brian is that his computer crashed, do we see that people feel more empathy when Brian's an in-group member than the out-group member? But the other more interesting question was, well, when you know all these other things about Brian, does group membership matter less?

Shankar Vedantam:

And what did you find?

Mina Cikara:

The answer was, yes. So. when we gave people these background stories about folks, what we found was that the gap between how much empathy people felt for an in-group versus an out-group member was significantly smaller. And the other thing that we wanted to know was, well, why is this happening? And so, we gave participants a surprise memory test at the end of the experiment, where we asked people you learned about Brian, you learned about all these other people throughout the course of this study, which team was Brian on? And what we found was that those folks who had gotten those rich narratives about these characters had poor memory for what team they were on. Suggesting that when we gave them these narratives, it sort of dug away at how deeply they had encoded the team membership. It just weighed less in their mind when it was mixed in with all this other information.

Shankar Vedantam:

Hmm. I'm wondering if one way in which this works is by complicating how we think about group identification and membership. So maybe I'm a Red Sox fan and you're a Yankees fan, but if I draw your attention to the fact that we are both parents or we are both interested in psychology, this provides a new group identity that acts as a sort of counterweight to the sports group identity. Do you think that might be at play here?

Mina Cikara:

Absolutely. I mean, crosscutting identities have been used for several decades within social psychology. And I think also practitioners to try to bridge divides between people. The problem is how quickly if the game clicks on in the background we could revert to those other identities that again put us at odds.

Shankar Vedantam:

I'm wondering, Mina, is the insight from this paper applicable in the real world? Are there ways in which we can actually communicate to people in the real world to think about their group identities differently?

Mina Cikara:

So there have been many efforts that have sort of unfolded over different group contexts. So I'm thinking, for example, there's this amazing program called Seeds of Peace. And my colleagues, Juliana Schroeder and Jane Risen have done some work with them. And they find that if you bring Israeli and Palestinian Arab children together -- teens -- together for summer camp for several weeks, and you can get them to build their relationships, it can have long-lasting effects on how they feel about the other side, not just each other, but the other side more generally. And there are lots and lots of programs that are doing that right now, particularly within the political divide. And so, basically just trying to get people to have face to face conversations where they get to know one another in a more individuated way than just their party membership.

Shankar Vedantam:

There is a common theme that runs through much of this work. If the gravitational pull of groups causes us to see people in terms of their group identities, the solution is to seek out ways to see people as individuals. The more we can see the details of people's lives, the less they are just Red Sox fans or Yankees fans. They become individuals who happen to support those sports teams, individuals with a great many aspects to their identity. Sometimes it's helpful to even just imagine the details of other people's lives in order to stop seeing them purely in terms of their group identity. Mina says she was reminded about the power of doing this one time at work when she got an urgent text from her sister.

Mina Cikara:

I'm sitting in a faculty meeting and I get a text and I look down and it's from my sister. So I opened it. And in the text, she describes that she's just come back to her home in Florida, where she had just moved, and she's come home to three feet of water in her apartment. And that everything she has is destroyed. And in that moment, I so quickly and vividly envisioned her in this apartment. I'd never even been to the apartment, but my brain filled it in. And I just saw her standing in three feet of water just beside herself.

Shankar Vedantam:

Now, Mina vividly imagined her sister standing in three feet of water because she cared deeply about her sister. But the moment produced an important insight. What would happen if you asked people to vividly imagine something bad happening to a stranger? If love can make us automatically put ourselves in the shoes of the people we care about, could deliberately trying to put ourselves in the shoes of strangers boost our emotional connection with them?

Mina Cikara:

What if we instruct people to vividly imagine a scene in which they have to help another person -- somebody's fallen off their motorcycle by the side of the road and you're about to get out. And that person is either an in-group member, a political partisan, or an out-party person. And what we found was that when we told people to vividly simulate the scenario, they said that they expressed more empathy. But what was even more interesting to us was that the gap between in-group and out-group disappeared when we told them to vividly simulate the scenario, as opposed to just like rewrite the scenario in their heads, or think about a different way of phrasing the scenario.

And more interesting than that was that we saw just how vividly they said they were able to simulate it, was related to how much more empathy they had. So people who told us, "Ah, I simulated, but I had trouble putting it in my mind's eye." Those folks had lower empathy ratings for in-group and out-group members than those folks who said, "No, I could see it. I could see it clear as day in my head." And that really moved the needle for them.

Shankar Vedantam:

So we've talked a lot about how we can recognize moments when we are getting swept up by our groups and what we can do about it. And of course, it's one thing to have insights about what's happening and what to do. And another thing to actually put those insights into practice. I want you to tell me about a time when you once experienced a shift in regard to how you thought about an office mate. On first encounter, you felt like you had nothing in common with her. Can you tell me why, Mina?

Mina Cikara:

Yes. So I was assigned to an office with a partner in a particular job. And the day that we met, she revealed several things about herself that made me feel like she, and I would probably never be close friends. So she told me, for example, that she identified as politically conservative. She also shared with me that she was a religious person and she had never lived outside of the state that we were currently in. We just felt so opposite. So diametrically opposed on so many different dimensions. I just thought, gosh, I don't know how long this is going to work. And I guess we should just kind of keep it civil and keep chit chat to a minimum. And I couldn't have been more wrong about her. She was an amazing person. She wasn't nearly as closed-minded as my closed-minded prejudices made me think she might be.

I mean, she was among the most caring people of the people we worked with. She was always going out of her way to pick up medicine for people when they got sick, she baked people things on their birthdays, but more importantly, above and beyond just being a very good person and a very good friend, she was also open. She was supportive of our friends who live lifestyles that didn't really comport with her beliefs. She'd never judged people for the choices that they made. If they needed her, she was there. It just revealed to me how much it was actually me, who was the close-minded person in the situation, much more than her.

Shankar Vedantam:

And what made the difference really was, as you got to know her better, the details of who she was as a person essentially subsumed your stereotypes of who she was at a very broad level?

Mina Cikara:

That's right. I had this model in my head and she just wasn't anything like that model. And the more time that I spent with her, the more I realized just how wrong that model was.

Shankar Vedantam:

And have you stayed friends with her? Is she still someone you were in touch with? If she got in touch tomorrow, would you be glad to hear from her?

Mina Cikara:

Oh, I would drop everything to do anything she asked me to.

Shankar Vedantam:

It's worth noting that we've talked about the many ways in which groups can lead us astray. But there's also, in some ways, a deep paradox in the way that groups shape us. And you've talked about this paradox, which is that groups can serve us in really bad ways, but they can also serve us in really good ways. Can you talk about that for a moment, Mina? I feel like we've spent a lot of time discussing the ways in which groups can lead us astray, but that's not the only role they play in our lives.

Mina Cikara:

That's right. And I really appreciate the opportunity to articulate this, because I do spend so much of my time about conflict and all of the pain and suffering that intergroup dynamics have wrought on humanity, but it's so clear, of course, that groups are also the source of our greatest triumphs. The things that we can accomplish together as collectives are so much more than anything we could do by ourselves. And groups serve really important functions for taking care of one another, feeling a sense of belonging, giving people a sense of meaning, purpose and shared reality. They keep us from feeling unmoored in a really complicated world with a lot of really complicated circumstances and so much uncertainty.

And so, I do think it's incredibly important also to highlight all of the good that groups do for us, the way that they help organize our feelings and our thoughts and our values and our priorities. How they make clear for us what it is that we care about and where we want to devote our time and our energy. So if you were to ask me, would you, with a wave of your hand abolish the notion of groups from humanity forever and ever, if you could? And the answer is of course not, because they carry with them so much potential for good. For me, the goal is to try to mitigate, where we can, when it is that groups turn against each other and all of the fall out from those kinds of circumstances.

Shankar Vedantam:

Mina Cikara is a psychologist at Harvard University. Mina, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Mina Cikara:

Thank you so much for having me.

Shankar Vedantam:

Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Today, we end the show with a story from our sister podcast, My Unsung Hero. It comes from a woman named Jennifer. We're only using her first name to protect her privacy. As a kid, Jennifer felt like she never quite fit in. Her classmates made fun of her for being socially awkward and wearing unfashionable clothes. Going to school felt like torture. But the bullying escalated to a whole new level in seventh grade.

Jennifer::

There was a gang of girls, these days we'd call them the mean girls, who made it their special hobby to torment me all year. And they would wait for me in the hallway at the end of class, so that they could start picking on me right away. And they would corner me in this area of the school called the draw off, where they would kind of form a ring around me and insult me. And I had no defense against any of this. Whatever insult they said to me, I just said right back to them. So they would say, "You're stupid." And I'd say, "No, you're stupid." "You're ugly." And I'd say, "No, you're ugly." The school year was terrible. I was miserable. My grades were terrible. I cried most days on the way home from school, trying to get myself together so my mother wouldn't know what was going on. In the summer between seventh and eighth grade, the ring leader of this gang of girls was tragically killed in a car accident.

And although I had never wished anything like that on any of them, I really just had wanted them to stop picking on me. I did hold out some hope that this might mean that eighth grade could be different. And that hope lasted about two days into the new school year, when I discovered that the gang of girls was still together. They had a new ring leader, some girl who had come from out of town or another school district, I have no idea. And whenever they could get free, they would come find me, as always, and torment me, as always. And I was miserable again. Until about six weeks into the school year, when I was changing after gym class. I'd waited till all the other kids were gone so that I could change in private, when I hear a voice. And I look up and there was the new ringleader standing there looking angry.

And she said, "I want to talk to you." And I was terrified. And she said, "My girls tell me that you've been insulting them." And I was just so surprised at the injustice of it. And I just began to cry. And she said, "What are you crying about?" And I just remembered thinking I was dead. I'm dead. I'm crying in front of this girl. And that just made it worse. And when it got that bad, the whole story just tumbled out of me. And I talked to her about how these girls had tormented me all the way through seventh grade and how no insult I had ever thrown at them was anything they hadn't said to me 10 seconds before. And the whole story pours out of me. And I can remember sitting on the gym bench. I'm staring down at the bench, watching my big tears splatting on the lacquer of the bench and the long silence followed.

And then I hear her say, "I'm sorry. I didn't know that. I'll tell them to stop." And when I looked up, she was gone. And those girls never spoke to me again. She removed herself and her friends from my life completely. And after that, I was able to go to school and to concentrate and to flourish and to make friends and to build a good future. I approach the world very differently than I would've had this not happened. I give people the benefit of the doubt more than I would've. I open myself up in intimidating situations more than I would've. All things that I did because my unsung hero gave me a view of humanity I had never had before. I don't know what kind of strength of character it must take to do the right thing in middle school when nobody does the right thing, but she did. And if I could tell her about that today, I would tell her that she didn't just change my life, though she did. She changed the whole world. So thank you.

Shankar Vedantam:

Jennifer now lives and works in Maryland. If our show speaks to you, please consider making a financial gift to support us. You can do so at support.hiddenbrain.org. That site again is support.hiddenbrain.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.


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