Humans Are Awfully Good at Splitting Ourselves Into Teams & Kicking Up a Giant Fuss About It

trailhead in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma
Image by Thomas & Dianne Jones / CC BY

“If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” some folks like to say.

Ah, the old Us and Them. That age old story of human conflict. We’re awfully good at splitting ourselves into teams based on perceived similarity and difference and then kicking up a giant fuss about it.

Really, really good.

Human beings are predisposed to identify strongly with folks that they feel are like them — or their¬†ingroup. With this heightened sense of identity comes a tendency for us to view and treat members of our ingroup more favorably than we would outsiders and individuals who belong to groups we aren’t a part of — or outgroups.

You can see this tendency just about everywhere you look. It can happen on a relatively small scale with fairly benign consequences: When the hometown team wins the big championship, even a lot of people who aren’t that into sports will often celebrate. Because they’ll perceive that win as being partly their own, because it was achieved by members of their ingroup. The home team. This will even happen with professional sports, never mind that the athletes often didn’t grow up there and only moved there to work.

They’re still the “home team.”

And during the championship playoffs, it’s all too easy for locals to cheer on the home team at the bar and boo the folks from away.

This phenomenon isn’t just confined to exhibitional conflicts like sports. No, it can often be writ large and literally carry life and death consequences. Belief in the inherent superiority of one’s ingroup and negative bias towards an outgroup can result in prejudice, violence, war.

Intergroup hostility can be deadly.

One classic psychological experiment demonstrated what factors could thrum up intergroup conflict and the worst of its effects.

The Robbers Cave Experiment

In 1954 researchers Muzafer and Carolyn Wood Sherif put a psychological concept called realistic conflict theory to the test. For the study, they took 22 boys who were aged 11 to 12 years old to a summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The boys were set up into two equal-sized groups. Initially, each group did not know of the other group’s existence. They named themselves The Rattlers and The Eagles and put those names on shirts they wore and flags they flew at their campsites.

After the first week of camp, the researchers put them into competition with one another. They had to contend against one another in a variety of sports, and the winning teams would receive cool prizes (nothing was given to the losers).

What happened next was eye opening. Both teams began to express verbal prejudice against the other, basically trash talking. But as time wore on, a number of more unsettling things happened. For example, The Eagles lit The Rattlers’ flag on fire. And in retaliation, the very next day, the Rattlers raided the The Eagles’ cabin, vandalizing it, overturning their beds, and stealing personal items from them.

By the end of the experiment, the researchers actually had to physically separate the boys since they became so aggressive with one another.

In the few days following this that the participants were allowed to cool down, they exhibited a similar pattern in their interviews: They tended to talk about their ingroup in extremely favorable terms and about their outgroup in equally unfavorable ones.

Finally, the groups were brought back together and given tasks that required the two groups to cooperate with one another, ones in which they would all receive a reward for completion, what the Sherifs called “a superordinate goal.” Following this, tensions between the groups were reduced, and less of an ingroup/outgroup effect was noted.

Zero Sum Thinking Versus Superordinate Goals

This 1954 study demonstrated a few things that followup studies have confirmed again and again: When resources are perceived as zero sum (i.e., a situation in which whenever to gain something, someone else must lose it), groups will fight bitterly against one another to achieve them. And when it comes to dissolving preexisting biases, it isn’t just enough to be exposed to a member of another group. Instead, the most powerful change in biased attitudes seems to take place when we have to work with someone from the outgroup to achieve something and do so successfully.

Indeed, it would seem that working towards a superordinate goal in effect brings someone from an outgroup psychologically into our ingroup. And in doing so erodes the concept of that particular outrgoup as being “other.”

That’s how it works in theory anyway, in studies.

It can be difficult in any situation where resources are scarce, or at least widely perceived to be (true of a lot of real life economies), to escape the zero sum us vs them mechanisms than can end so badly for both sides.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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