A Surprising Cause of Prejudice

The real problem might be how we relate to people like us

By Ron B. Aviram, Ph.D.

Prejudice waxes and wanes in society, often for reasons about which people disagree. Regardless, the more we experience social and political tension, the more we are drawn to our “own kind,” also known as an “ingroup” and become more hostile and suspicious towards those who are “different,” or what is termed in psychology as an “outgroup.”

The more anxious we feel, the more we identify with our ingroup and limit our interactions with folks we perceive as not like us. If we suffer from personal insecurities, this phenomenon may be intensified and lead to destructive bias against those we perceive as “other.”

Safety and Overidentification

Being social by nature, we find safety in groups – among others like us.  First, with our parents and siblings, and then with groups outside the family, like our countrymen, religious cohort, etc. When there is tension between groups, our ingroup helps us to feel safe.  Think of an isolated animal in the wild.  It is more vulnerable than peers who remain part of the herd of buffalo, pride of lions or school of fish.

Like animals, we look to our ingroups for security during anxious times.  When anxiety between groups is heightened, a psychological shift occurs – we begin to experience ourselves as members of an ingroup more than as separate individuals. We also increasingly perceive members of the outgroup as simply members of the outgroup, rather than appreciating them for their individuality.

The experience of being intensely invested in one’s ingroup is depicted by a General on the brink of war in the film “Letters from Iwo Jima.”  When he is asked, “How would you feel if America and Japan were to enter the war?” he responds, “If this were to happen, I would have to serve my duty to my country…I’d have to follow my convictions.”  His questioner then asks, “Do you mean you’d have to follow your convictions or your country’s convictions?” He replies, “Are they not the same?”

Current attitudes between citizens of “Blue” and “Red” States demonstrates how polarized we can become. If political tension causes us to be unquestioningly zealous about our party affiliation, we can feel momentarily justified not empathizing with members of the opposing party – we dismiss them as other.

And yet when we get together with family members who belong to the opposing political party, we can enjoy a meal together, as long as we focus on how we are members of the same family group, if not not the same political group.

How Ingroup Identification Leads to Destructive Prejudice

A chronic sense of vulnerability and insecurity can us to identify powerfully with our ingroup, even when there is no clear tension between our ingroups and anyone else. Our personal insecurity is perceived as a lack of safety for our entire ingroup – and we perceive an attack on our group as a personal attack on us.

This perception of being endangered as a group leads us maintain an alliance with members of our ingroup and reject members of the outgroup – they are perceived as the enemy.

How we can reduce prejudice?

As social animals we require a healthy balance between our sense of individuality and our sense of belonging; prejudice is the loss of that healthy balance. Some ways to promote this healthy balance are:

  • Educating ourselves about identity development and the dangers of us vs. them thinking, which is a sign that we have lost perspective.
  • Alerting young people about the dangers of perceiving individuals as simply members of a group rather than as distinct individuals, as well as teaching them to appreciate the benefits of a diverse society.
  • Understanding how personal relationships can contribute to our satisfaction in living and play a significant role in helping us strengthen our self-esteem and feelings of personal security.
  • Calming fears regarding anxiety producing conditions in society (e.g. economic loss or increased tensions between ethnic groups), political and community leaders can proactively reassure constituents that they are safe.

When we think of prejudice, we tend to focus on how an individual or group perceives members of a different group. But prejudice might be more influenced by the extent to which we identify with our ingroup, rather than by our perceptions of the other.

Maintaining a healthy balance between our autonomy as individuals and our identification with groups is important.  If we can notice when this balance shifts, we can be curious about what we are feeling. This may allow us to tolerate differences in a diverse society and world.

Ron B. Aviram, Ph.D., is author of Relational Origins of Prejudice: A Convergence of Psychoanalytic and Social Cognitive Perspectives. He is Associate Adjunct Professor at Ferkauf Graduate Institute at Yeshiva University. His postgraduate training in psychoanalysis was completed at the William Alanson White Institute. Dr. Aviram has a private practice in New York.

 

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