Is life better when we are together?
Issue 39: The unstoppable propensity to clump ourselves together into groups; racial bias on email; and the impact of social identity on addictions
As the holidays dawn, people are faced with a deep human dilemma: should we get together with family and friends or stay home and avoid the risks of catching COVID-19? After nearly two straight years of navigating this difficult choice, the situation has recently been made worse by the rapid rise of the Omicron variant. For many people, this decision hinges on the tradeoff between potential health risks and the value they place on social connection.
We recently did an interview with Jon Mooallem for the New York Times Magazine on our “almost unstoppable propensity to clump ourselves together into groups”. This was part of a special issue dedicated to answer 41 big debates from the past year, including big picture questions like: Is America no longer governable? Can psychedelics cure us? What’s in a Subway tuna fish sandwich?
The big question relevant to our book was simple: Is life better when we are together? Jon read out book, described our research, and met with Dom to dig deeper into the material. We have posted the subsection from the column in the newsletter, but we strongly encourage you to check out the entire article since it’s fantastic.
Humans have an almost unstoppable propensity to clump ourselves together into groups. We tend to understand this rationally and in flattering terms: It’s our capacity to form a community and feel invested in that community that allows us to work cooperatively and succeed. We tell ourselves that we choose to identify with a particular group because that group is meaningful, productive and right. But fundamentally, banding together may be more of a compulsion than a strategy. There’s something intoxicating about solidarity itself.
In the early 1970s, the psychologist Henri Tajfel lead a series of studies at the University of Bristol that would become known as “the minimal group experiments.” Dr. Tajfel recruited 64 teenagers from a local school and divided them into groups. In one version, he asked the subjects to estimate how many dots were flashing on a screen, then classified them as either overestimators or underestimators; in another, he showed them two sets of paintings, asked which they preferred, then assigned them to either the Paul Klee group or the Wassily Kandinsky group.
These are sample images participants would see in these studies.
With these groups established, Dr. Tajfel instructed each person, working in isolation, to allocate money to members of their own group and to members of the other. He was curious whether these “flimsy and unimportant” collective identities, as he called them, would come into play. It seemed unlikely they would.
Dr. Tajfel was born in 1919 as Hersz Mordche, a Polish Jew, and grew up as antisemitism crusted over the country in the run-up to World War II. (He remembered walking home from school one afternoon as a boy and watching two kids attack two Jewish men on the street, ripping their beards from their faces, drawing blood.) Studying at the Sorbonne when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Dr. Tajfel volunteered to fight for France. When the French surrendered, he was captured and forced to march north alongside other prisoners of war. While he walked, he destroyed his Polish passport and other documents identifying him as a Jew the only way he could: He ate them very slowly.
Ultimately, Dr. Tajfel learned that his immediate family had perished; almost no one he knew before the war was alive by the end. He was troubled by how readily divisions had sprung up in society and compelled by survivors’ varied emotional responses to the atrocities that followed. He saw some become writers and artists and try to “express and reflect what had happened to them and to others,” he explained at the end of his life. But he knew he didn’t have that talent. He became a psychologist instead.
With the minimal group experiments, Dr. Tajfel was setting out to investigate the mechanics of intergroup conflict but strove, first, to create a kind of scientific vacuum, untainted by history, stereotypes or prejudices of any kind, so that he could slowly add in variables later and see what happened. That is, these first experiments, with the dots and paintings, weren’t his real experiment. He was just setting up a baseline to get started: groups that were barely even groups, that had been assembled on the spot, based on nothing.
In fact, Dr. Tajfel’s meaningless, minimal groups were even more meaningless than they appeared. He and his collaborators had actually ignored the kids’ responses to the dots and paintings. Instead, as the social psychologists Dominic J. Packer and Jay J. Van Bavel note, describing these experiments in their new book, “The Power of Us,” “in each case, the researchers had essentially flipped a coin and assigned people to groups based on chance.”
Still, biases locked in right away. Overwhelmingly, people in Dr. Tajfel’s experiment gave more of the money he put at their disposal to members of their own group than the other. Moreover, they were bent on creating as large a disparity as possible, even when offered the option of maximizing the amount of money for everyone, at no cost. Their behavior seemed vindictive, “a clear case of gratuitous discrimination,” Dr. Tajfel wrote.
Since then, other researchers have run their own minimal group experiments, pushing those findings further. Dr. Packer and Dr. Van Bavel have split people into leopards and tigers, for example. Others have gone maximally minimal and divided people into group A and group B. Still, the pride — the readiness to connect — is always there. When you tell people they’re in group A, Dr. Packer says, those people are reliably psyched to be in group A. Stick leopard people in a brain imaging machine and show them a picture of a stranger, and their brain activity changes if they know that the stranger is a leopard person, too. Their positivity toward other leopard people increases and even supersedes racial biases that cut the other way.
Dr. Packer and Dr. Van Bavel call the minimal group studies “among the most important studies in the history of psychology.” They demonstrate that “the human sense of self — your gravitational center — does not stay in the same place. With a flip of a coin, people constructed entirely new identities in a matter of minutes.”
The rewards of this kind of connectedness wind up driving all kinds of wonderful human behavior, sometimes less obviously than we’d assume.
This is only a sliver from a long and nuanced article about the value of social connection. Click here to read the full article by Mr. Mooallem. In our view, we are better together.
Research round up
Emily Kubin wrote a great blog post on how people can use their social media account for good, or at least to reduce partisan hatred (although we think this advice would likely be effective in all kinds of intergroup conflicts). She suggests the following three steps:
Marginalize the Caricature Artists
Reward Good Faith Disagreement
Ditch the Persuasion Mindset & Adopt Dialogue Skills
In a new paper, Ray Block and colleagues sent 250,000 emails to members of the public and found clear evidence of racial discrimination in the response rate. The odds that the White sender received a response were 15.5% higher than the odds of receiving a response from the Black sender.
We also wanted to share a rare null effect, where efforts to present pro-diversity messages did not impact feelings of belonging, interview performance, or physiological arousal and instead led minority participants to rate themselves as less competent or deserving. This reveals the value of testing different interventions since they can often send the wrong message or even backfire.
A new paper from Ana Gantman and Betsy Paluck explains how “good” people can commit assault and how individuals can and will refrain from assault within institutions with a “bad” record. Specifically, they describe the role that the social environment plays in perpetuating sexual assault.
ana gantman @ana_gram_New paper in press at perspectives on psych science w the inimitable @betsylevyp that takes a behavioral science approach to understanding sexual assault on college campuses. https://t.co/ihRFkX037E (1/9)
The Power of Us in the news
Jay was recently interviewed on NYC radio about the rise in COVID cases and what people can do to reduce the risks over the holidays despite pandemic fatigue.
Jay also discussed the science of social psychology for the Flourishing After Addiction podcast with Psychiatrist Carl Erik Fisher. We discussed how addictions themselves often move as fads, and the need to understand and treat addiction from a more holistic perspective.
Dom recorded a podcast with Eric Singler, the President of Nudge France, as past of the B.E.Good Podcast—you can catch it next month.
If you have any thoughts or questions, please leave it below. We might include it in a future newsletter. And in case you missed the last newsletter, you can read it here: