Jun. 6th, 2008


22. Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind by David Berreby

Us and Them discusses how humans divide people up into various groups, how we see people as fitting into such categories as, say, White, Black, Christian, Jewish, rich, poor, gay, straight, American, French, mother, father, etc., and the effects of these categorizations. He discusses experiments that show how easy it is to create a sense of "Usness" in a random group of people, and the methods used by rulers through the ages to shape the Us/Them distinction, for example, attempts to make a group of people permanently "them", to prevent their subjects from empathizing with an oppressed group, and, likewise, the attempts by stigmatized groups to break out of those limitations. He also discusses how perceptions of group identity can shape behavior. For example, one experiment found that Asian-American women asked questions relating to race did better on a math test than those asked questions relating to gender! Their performance was influenced by the stereotypes relating to, respectively, Asians (good at math) and women (bad at math).

His thesis is that this human-kind perception has both good and bad aspects. On the one hand, a sense of being part of a group can encourage one to live up to the ideals of that group. You can try to be a good mother, a good father, a good citizen, a good Christian, etc. On the other hand, it can also create hostility to those seen as Them. It also, as he points out, was probably a crucial development in human evolution, allowing us to form groupings that were too large for personal knowledge of fellow members to work. By allowing symbols to define groups, by allowing groups to be formed by other than personal experience, it allowed humans to create tribes and cities and nations and the like, groups who contain far too many members for anyone to know more than a small portion of.