Social Psychology and Political Groupishness
“It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.” Terry Pratchett, Jingo
Many observers of the political scene have noted the polarization that characterizes our public debates and conflicts. There seems to be little room for complex thought; instead we are told to pick a team and advance that team’s agenda (for our team is good), taking up the fight against the other team (for the other team is evil). To say that the other team might occasionally have a point, or that some on our team are doing it wrong, is to admit weakness, and weakness never wins wars. In this blog post, I wish to take a moment and dip a toe into the waters of social psychology, see how we might use some of the insights of that field to understand our political situation, and offer a few suggestions.
We are created as deeply relational beings, flourishing in community and family and friendship, and suffering when excluded, or in dysfunctional relationships. This has the effect of making us groupish creatures, intensely emotionally invested in whatever groups we belong to (referred to by psychologists as “ingroups”). British social psychologist Henri Tajfel found this tendency to be so powerful that people demonstrate biases in favour of the ingroup even when they are assigned to groups completely at random. It does not matter what kind of group we are talking about… my group is better than yours. My group is more intelligent, more moral, and more attractive. When good things happen to my group it is because we deserve it; when good things happen to your group it is because you cheated. When a member of my group engages in immoral behaviour, there was a good reason for it, or it wasn’t that bad, or the evidence is dubious, or the accusation is more slander cooked up by our enemies. When a member of your group engages in immoral behaviour, it simply proves what a collection of scoundrels you all are. All the evidence that supports my group’s positions is pure golden science; all the evidence that supports your group’s positions is questionable at best. And so on. And by the way, all this research on social cognitive biases only applies to your group; my group deals in perfect reason and is beautifully free of bias (some psychologists call this belief that biases are things that happen to other people the “not me fallacy”). To see these ingroup biases in action, one need only look at media coverage of politically-significant events, or blog posts about them, or the comments that people post in discussion threads about them (for the sake of your mental health, I do not recommend more than three minutes of exposure to internet discussion threads, and exposure should be immediately followed up by therapeutic activities such as listening to music or going for a walk or watching videos of puppies).
As Christians, we know that the world is not divided into purely good people and purely evil people. There is only one purely good person, and it’s not me (or you). Referring back to the quote from Terry Pratchett that we started with, we need to maintain the mindset that “Its Us that do the bad things.” Christian social psychologist Angela Sabates connects these selfish/groupish biases to our fallen condition, and reminds us that, as we are all fallen, none of us are immune. When we consider the current political situation, and are tempted to dismiss the other team as nothing but a collection of stupid evil people, we need to remember that we are explicitly commanded to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27-36), that we are also sinners (1 John 1:8), and that we need to be careful that our own sin does not cloud our judgment (Matthew 7:1-5).
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.