Category Archives: psychology

Link: “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup”

Briefly resurrecting this blog in order to post a link to I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup by Scott Alexander. It’s long but the whole thing’s worth reading.

I think after that, anything else I’d post here would just be needlessly repetitive.

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America’s history of tribalism

A Tiny Revolution has a collection of quotes that demonstrate the way white Americans have dehumanised others to justify imperialism, conquest, and slavery.

The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.

[T]he Iraqis don’t on the whole say “darn it, you shouldn’t have blown up all of our houses.” They sort of accept that.

[Sheikhs]… do not seem to resent… that women and children are accidentally killed by bombs.

Marine major Julian Smith testified that the “racial psychology” of the “poorer class of Nicaraguans” made them “densely ignorant… A state of war to them is a normal condition.”

Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them.

The third quote there was actually from a British commander. Any cursory glance at history will tell you that my country is also among the experts at “othering” foreigners to the point of redefining them as entirely separate species.

And that last one? Thomas Jefferson, talking about black slaves.

Holy crap people are good at hating other people.

And we’re not over it yet. Not by a long shot.

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Nazis

In 1961, in the wake of the recent horrors and atrocities of the Second World War, a researcher at Yale University proposed a scientific experiment.

He wanted to investigate how the appalling and inhumane actions performed and ordered by Adolf Hitler and members of the Third Reich could have been possible, in anyone not severely impaired by some kind of sociopathic personality disorder.

He ended up demonstrating that, under certain circumstances, ordinary people can be persuaded into acts of barbaric cruelty. Specifically, he created a situation in which two-thirds of participants administered what they believed to be a massive, potentially fatal electric shock to an innocent person, simply because they were instructed to do so by an authority figure.

This has become known, after the psychologist who conducted it, as the Milgram experiment. Today, it’s considered a landmark in its field, and provided genuinely shocking and revolutionary insight into mankind’s capacity to perform unconscionable acts.

It’s not hard to understand why people might have sought some kind of explanation based in errant psychology as to how something as evil as the Holocaust could take place. Six million Jews were killed, as part of a systematic genocide that included many other “inferior” minority groups.

The regime of the Third Reich was filled with dehumanising tactics, not least in propaganda films such as The Eternal Jew, commissioned by Joseph Goebbels. The cartoonish depictions of Jewish people that the Nazis attempted to popularise all served to place these millions of people in the category of an “other”, of a comical stereotype, of someone not really the same as a proper human, of someone who the rest of us might be better off without, and whose suffering certainly needn’t concern us.

By the time Jews were having their property confiscated as a matter of official policy, they had been successfully othered in the minds of enough Europeans that the Nazis could proceed with their “Final Solution” without any significant uproar.

It was this sort of euphemistic jargon, coupled with all the dehumanising psychological techniques brilliantly employed before and throughout the War, by which people could avoid having to directly address – or even think about – the murder of millions of individuals to which it referred.

Nobody involved in the Third Reich needs to have been an inhuman monster to achieve this. They only made clever use of a number of aspects of human behaviour, of the shameful ways in which we are naturally inclined to act if the circumstances are right.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Milgram’s research was, not the original experiment, but the variations on the same theme which followed it. For they suggested, not simply that man has an inherent tendency toward atrocities, but that certain particular facts of the situation can strongly influence our capacity or likelihood to act with either compassion or indifference. A closer physical connection to their “victim” lessened the subjects’ tendencies to act cruelly toward them. A greater distance between themselves and the authority figure urging them on had a similar effect. The presence of a stooge, ostensibly in the same role as them, and either refusing to administer the electric shocks or pressing on with it to the bitter end, also greatly influenced people’s decisions about how to behave. Seeing someone else defy their instructions gave them the courage to do the same; but they were even less likely to resist committing a terrible act if their peer had already gone through with it.

The Nazis who committed the worst atrocities of the war provided themselves with circumstances which allowed them to justify their actions, and let them avoid any negative mental repercussions. Their propaganda discouraged any thought in others which saw their enemies as fully realised humans. Their goals required the deliberate clouding of rational thought and the silencing of compassion.

Here’s a lesson to be learnt: Let’s try not to have goals like that.

That the Nazis acted with appalling cruelty is no revelation. What matters is what we can learn about how not to behave like that. We don’t just need to do anything easy like not hate a particular racial or religious demographic. We have to learn how “the enemy” has often been stereotyped as a uniformly antagonistic mass of “others”, and be able to recognise any hint of such thinking in our own interactions with the world. Such tribalism is, without exception, destructive and harmful.

Not even the Nazis were less than human. There are no “others”.

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Othering 101: What Is “Othering”?

By “othering”, we mean any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us”. Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it’s sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.

This psychological tactic may have had its uses in our tribal past. Group cohesion was crucially important in the early days of human civilisation, and required strong demarcation between our allies and our enemies. To thrive, we needed to be part of a close-knit tribe who’d look out for us, in exchange for knowing that we’d help to look out for them in kind. People in your tribe, who live in the same community as you, are more likely to be closely related to you and consequently share your genes.

As a result, there’s a powerful evolutionary drive to identify in some way with a tribe of people who are “like you”, and to feel a stronger connection and allegiance to them than to anyone else. Today, this tribe might not be a local and insular community you grew up with, but can be, for instance, fellow supporters of a sports team or political party.

It’s probably not quite as simple as the just-so story we’re describing here. But there’s no doubt that grouping people into certain stereotyped classes, who we then treat differently based on the classes we’ve sorted them into, is a deeply rooted aspect of human nature. Intergroup bias is a well established psychological trait.

“If you’re not with us, you’re against us” is a simple heuristic people often use to decide whether someone is part of their tribe or not. If you are, then you can be expected to toe the line in certain ways if you don’t want to be ejected; if you’re not, you can be dismissed and hated as an “other”, the enemy.

A number of psychological experiments, such as the Asch Conformity Experiment, demonstrate the extent to which we feel compelled to make sure we fit in, as part of the tribe, in some situations.

Other research into, for instance, the Benjamin Franklin effect, shows that we have a startling tendency to come to hate people who we treat badly. If we’re experiencing guilt about our treatment of some person, or group, or class, and having trouble reconciling that guilt with our notion of ourselves as good people, our brains are extremely adept at resolving the situation by othering the people we feel that we’ve wronged. If we dehumanise someone, and distance our empathy with them, then we won’t have to feel bad about the shabby way we’ve treated them.

Political partisanship is a common area for othering to be found, and will likely be a prominent focus on this site. Any American readers will surely have noticed a tendency in many of their countryfolk to speak of “Democrats” or “Republicans” with derision, imagining this “other” to be a homogeneous group. The desire to associate with one party or the other is so strong that people will even support the other party’s policies, when they believe they’re identifying with their own group. To some extent, one’s political allegiances seem to have more to do with the label somebody has adopted than their actual opinions. (This has also been noted by Howard Stern, although he seemed to miss the point that this is something we’re all capable of, not just Obama supporters in Harlem.)

Furthermore, experiments such as the Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes exercise demonstrate just how readily we can be swept up in a group identity, learning to embrace only those of our tribe and reject the “others”, even when the difference is entirely arbitrary and meaningless.

The concept behind this site, then, is that a) humans have an undeniable and insidious inclination to engage in “othering” thought patterns for the purpose of self-preservation, and b) learning to avoid and counteract these thought patterns is integral to greatly reducing the world’s hatred and suffering. Our intent is to raise people’s consciousness about othering behaviour, to make them more alert to these thought patterns, and to encourage alternative ways of addressing the problems that we often seek to avoid by dehumanising any one group.

This site is still in the early stages of its development, and is not created or maintained by any experts in psychology, or anything else for that matter. We will be as science-based as possible, but if you want to read some more about the relevant psychological subjects by browsing around on Wikipedia for a while, this might be a good place to start.

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