Understanding Identity Formation
Why We Create an "Us" and "Them" and How We Might Stop
We Are Doing It All Wrong
A leader of a well-known nonprofit made a highly unusual public admission. So out of character, in fact, that there was a long awkward pause in the packed meeting room after she said it. A knowing gasp.
Her organization works in 30 countries helping people overcome differences of various stripes. So what did she admit?
MIT’s famed social and cognitive scientist Emile Bruneau had just finished giving the keynote presentation on major neuroscience insights for ending intergroup conflicts. As the first panelist up to respond, she sighed, “After having just watched Emile on how we form identity and how our emotional and rational selves interact with one another, I have come to the painful conclusion that just about everything we are trying to do in our programs at my organization may be wrong … counter-intuitive even.” She wasn’t alone in her honest, unsettled feeling. The collective cognitive dissonance in the room was palpable.
How Neuroscience and Psychology Come In
In the spring of 2015, in cooperation with the Alliance for Peacebuilding and Beyond Conflict, El-Hibri Foundation’s Lynn Kunkle helped bring into conversation top experts in neuroscience who work on identity formation and activists who advance peacebuilding and interfaith cooperation. The idea was that neuroscientists would shape their research more to “real world” needs that make a difference and, in turn, activists would sharpen their “change” work so that it actually matched the way humans are hardwired. In the end, everyone would help develop better techniques to change hearts and minds for the better – to widen the circle. The initiative was an encouraging start. If you want the wonkish details, a summary of the findings is available here.
So why do so many of our nonprofits trust mere intuitions about which methods of change might work, rather than leaning more squarely on research and science that might suggest better methods, ones based on how people actually tick?
Skeptical people abound outside of the interfaith movement. They don’t believe efforts to advance interfaith cooperation actually work. Unfortunately, most of what we have to disprove them is anecdotal, or narrative storytelling, not measurable impacts and outcomes.
With recent leaps in brain science research, however, we are now able to understand much better how people shape both self and group identity, to see how and why they do “othering.” We are also able to begin to map the human tendencies towards cooperation or conflict. Being able to better see problems helps us in eventually overcoming them and demonstrating impact.
Put more simply, we are getting closer to understanding what causes humans to create an “us” and “them,” and therefore closer to being able to engineer ourselves out of the hate that can be born from such “othering.”
This has implications for those who care about overcoming a wide variety of differences, whether based on religion, politics, gender, race, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation.
Our Common Operating System – the Human Brain
Humans are largely driven by emotions and behave rationally only when they feel secure and validated. This point is underappreciated and forgotten. This point also shows why appealing to opponents with rational facts first is a recipe for failure. We have to understand the underlying needs for security and validation first, because this is the place where empathy can take seedling.
Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), talks about our having system 1 and system 2 thinking. System 1 is quick and intuitive and effectively on autopilot. We all both benefit and suffer from its developed biases. The higher order of thinking is system 2. It is deliberate and reflective and can override the system 1 thinking. Our capacity to overcome interreligious biases is largely dependent upon our ability to respect system 1 functions and engage repeatedly in this system 2 thinking.
Bruneau borrows an analogy of a human rider (our conscious rational self) on an elephant (our unconscious, irrational self), and notes that while we may think that we can control what the elephant does and why, we actually are most often unaware of most things related to the elephant. The rest of us, we might surmise, are likely the other analogy of the blind men holding different parts of the same elephant, describing it all differently. Putting together these realities is becoming easier, but still is miserably imperfect.
Humans have a basic tendency to socialize and associate with like others. The phenomenon labeled homophilly is only exacerbated by the silos and echo chambers we can fashion for ourselves by our use of social media, consumption of media, and choices in lifestyle. (See an interesting post-election media self-analysis of the exacerbating and damaging role of our “filter bubbles” here.)
It is important to realize and to allow to soak in the fact that fear, prejudice, stereotyping, and dehumanization emanate from unconscious brain processes. We are largely unaware of how our brains respond to the surrounding environment. It, therefore, pays for us to be patient with one another, because we all share the same operating system – the human brain, regardless of any labels put upon any of us.
Manufacturing Hate and Growing Empathy
How we quickly shape and reinforce the idea of an “out” group has more to do with “hidden” emotional processes than rational thinking. But safely drawing out awareness of these hidden emotional processes, especially when coupled with the process of illuminating other more widely shared values, can allow space to introduce positive counter examples/narratives and eventually reshape a prejudice. The process takes time and lots of persistence and patience.
Humans can empathize with and think about the feelings and beliefs of others, but we experience our own thoughts and emotions as the most real and salient. Recognizing this and checking this fact in our engagements with others is a step in the right direction.
We are all highly social, and social norms strongly affect thoughts and behaviors. We might alter behavior with messaging which is relevant to the identity of the target persons and which evidences the relationship between a widely practiced social norm and a desired behavior.
Group identities are lasting and yet also malleable. Strangely, neuroscientists can quickly create artificial lab situations in which people align to and against concocted “in” and “out” groups, respectively. We have tendencies to find comfort in identity groups. It is a security reflex. But we also can widen our sense of “in” groups by developing more inclusive identities. A bigger “we” results.
Using the Brain’s Value Cards
A specific example may help. If our brain’s amygdalae fire off a negative emotional response to imaging someone as a “Muslim,” and assuming we have been wrongly conditioned to do so, this negative can be trumped in value by a positive response that portrays the same person as, say, solidly “American” and contributing to the common good.
Identities are layered and appeals to one with a higher value can induce a positive response, even creating a “halo effect” that allows other negative responses to be ignored. Learning how to trigger strong and more commonly shared values that trump other problematic ones can help us reframe negative ones.
Some Helpful Insights
We may not be able to eliminate stereotypes, but we can better manage stereotypes by using counterintuitive exemplars and developing more heterogeneous images of an “out” group. Philanthropist John W. Kiser champions the contrarian narrative and exemplars in all of his work, for example. His book The Monks of Tibhirine (2002), which influenced a major motion picture by Sony called “Of Gods and Men,” and his award-winning book on Emir Abdelelkader, The Commander of the Faithful (2010), have each inspired thousands to think about what it means to cross lines of faith in solidarity. Each shows people of a familiar “in” group acting in a way that defies social norms towards an “out” group. These narratives draw you in, push at preconceived notions, and build empathy.
But caution is warranted, because folks can dig their heels in when presented with counter-images and evidence. For instance, offering only unqualified positive images of an “othered” group may actually reinforce rather than counter prejudices against them, without other trusted anchors presented alongside to allow their presentation to be digested properly.
We need to pinpoint the underlying biases and heuristics that are drivers to any problem we are seeking to overcome. Our efforts can have unintended consequences if failing to calculate how unconscious brain processes interact with conscious awareness to shape our behaviors. Addressing power aysmmetries, creating space for hearing grievances, reducing humiliation, and identifying competing messages are all helpful approaches.
Prescriptive norms are critical to how the unconscious development of behaviors works. Flipping the script on prescriptive norms can be critical. Strangely, saying we have a widespread problem with how Muslims are treated, for example, can unintentionally reinforce the behavior of discrimination, because the behavior is received as being widely-accepted. Give people the impression that everybody is doing something and, unconsciously at least, they often want to do it too. Think about the public shift with drunk driving, public smoking, and reuse of towels in hotels as examples.
A real barrier in trying to use neuroscience is that self-reported assessments are not a reliable indicator. This gives cause for suspicion for responses offered in surveys or focus groups. Yes, wording and quality of questions are critical, but people simply say what they think that they are supposed to say in responding. This is why scientists have introduced using MRI brain imaging to see what is happening in the brain when people respond to various stimuli.
Our Brain’s Hate Circuit
In October of 2008, University College London researchers Semir Zeki and John Paul Romaya used fMRI scans to try to “see” hate in the brain. Thanks to their somewhat controversial research we now can talk about a possible “hate circuit” in our brain. This circuit shows our “true colors,” even when we try to disguise them. It is made up of indicators evident in the medial frontal gyrus, right putamen, medial insula, and premotor cortex.
The putamen is particularly interesting because it is also the place where romance and love is seen on an fMRI, not just revulsion and disgust. So Zeki and Romaya may have identified the parts in our brain that fire when we see someone important, rather than have opened a door into where hate/love begin/end. The research is still developing.
Some scientists are now saying that our concept of “hate” is in fact a form of discriminatory love. It is a survival mechanism and part of the quick sorting decisions that go on in the amygdalae. This explains why white supremacists, for example, will say “it’s not racist to love your people,” as a KKK billboard in Arkansas read, because loving whites precedes hating others for them. Obviously, the public challenge comes when that “discriminatory love” then manifests as hate that seeks to discriminate or eliminate other peoples, as it does.
To be clear, we are not born with hardwiring that makes us hate a particular group. We are predisposed based on our protectionary hardwiring to create “in” and “out” grouping. But this is something that quickly gets formed and fixed as we have increasing intergroup actions. Our amgydalae appear to govern quick decision-making based on values, a process fed by cues or triggers.
This “in” and “out” grouping is so strong that scientists have been able to recreate it even when the subject of a study is arbitrarily grouped with others and fed completely manufactured information about the distinctions between their group and another. That is right. One can effectively “manufacture” the seeds for hate in a matter of minutes out of utterly bogus distinctions.
How to Stop Hating
Worried that you have the seedlings of hate in you? There’s an app … er, test for that. Yes, there are actually tests – even do-it-yourself ones available on the internet – that can show you your implicit biases. Try this one for a spin. It takes 10 minutes. You could select the test for Arab Muslims, for example, and see whether you have implicit preferences or not. Efforts like Harvard’s Project Implicit can help us understand how various unconscious factors might affect our thoughts or feelings about a wide variety of human differences, even when we think they don’t.
So how can we counter these various affects? Here are few suggestions to get you started:
- Relationships. Yes, the old go-to. Introducing nonjudgmental “out” group points of contact to a person until they are forced through the narrowing shivers of cognitive dissonance to shed their former negative views. Outs become ins in relationships.
- Exposure to diversity. Hate grows and festers in isolation like bacteria with access to moisture, warm air, and nutrients. Today, we are increasingly likely to cocoon ourselves into bubbles or echo chambers, even when diversity may come to our very doorstep through the internet, travel, migration, or some of our social environments.
- Acknowledging implicit bias. Identifying, talking about, and publicly acknowledging our biases can help us cope with and counter them. Speaking from a vulnerable place of genuine emotion about the impact of it in everyday life is a good starting point. Diversifying sources of information and exposure is another.
- Reshaping social norms. Openly and repeatedly challenging problematic and engrained social norms by providing counter narratives and exemplars is essential. To avoid hate from becoming socially acceptable, we can’t be silent when we see signs of it. Speak up, speak out, and get help.
To Learn More
Nerding out on this stuff? Want more? For starters check out the Harvard Intergroup Research Lab, the Yale Intergroup Relations Lab, or read a research-dense single-angle article on finding and measuring de-biasing by Emile Bruneau.
Your own thoughts and experiences are appreciated. Please comment below.