People like to divide themselves into groups and then fight among those groups. When Hitler exterminated about 6 million Jews in order to secure the future of a particular group of people, Henri Tajfel was faced with a question: How is genocide possible? How can anybody think of killing thousands and thousands of people for a cause that seems quite disconnected and absolutely disproportionate with such a massacre?
Tajfel was a Jew who had lived through the Nazi Holocaust. He believed that mere categorisation of people into us and them can create strong emotional responses which can even be murderous. Along with three other academicians, Tajfel created a paradigm for studying intergroup behaviour. The participants were categorised into groups on some trivial basis like their preference for a particular painting. In other words, the groups thus formed had no specific purpose, no history, no previous contact among the members, and no leader. The groups were then given certain tasks. The study led to stunning revelations. “People could be divided into distinct categories on almost any basis,” concluded the study, “even seemingly trivial ones, and doing so could result in different perceptions of, and actions toward, us (members of the in-group) versus them (members of the out-group)” [Social Psychology, Baron, Byrne & Bhardwaj, 2010].
It is important to understand what the words in-group and out-group mean in psychology. In-group is “a select group in which all members feel a strong sense of identity with the group, foster a sense of elitism about the group and tend to act so as to exclude others (the out-group). Note that the term connotes strong positive feelings towards the group as an abstraction and not necessarily any such affection toward the individual members of the group, who, in fact, may heartily dislike each other” [Penguin Dictionary of Psychology]. The dictionary defines the out-group as “a group comprised of any and all persons not in one’s in-group.”
People do not like to live as islands. They are by nature social animals and they love to be in groups. If there are no groups, they form them. Bring hundred people together for a few hours and observe how groups are formed among them within minutes. Observe also how rivalry develops among the groups sooner than one would expect. That is the basic psychology of human behaviour in society. We like to make groups and be a part of such groups in order to fulfil certain psychological needs such as self-esteem. That is why, groups have so much emotional significance.
Rivalry and competition are all essential elements of inter-group activities. Such elements enable individuals to assume certain psychologically rewarding roles in the group. For example, one may become a leader, another a follower, another a stooge, yet another a fighter, and so on.
Not only rivalry and competition, tolerance also is an important element of inter-group activities. Social psychologists say that when we feel secure with respect to our own group identity (e.g., its superiority), we develop more positive attitudes towards members of the out-groups. Prejudices become less and less as our feelings of security increase. On the other hand, when our group’s distinctiveness (e.g., culture) is threatened we will react most negatively. These negative reactions will be intensified by perceived similarity between the in-group and the out-group, because such similarity threatens our distinctiveness.
If we study the background of the people who fight in the name of certain groups, one of the first things that strikes us will be the backwardness of the fighters: economic or academic backwardness. Or may be some other form of backwardness which leaves them with a gaping psychological need for enhancing their self-esteem. Many intergroup fights, communal riots, and other such conflicts are fuelled more by the psychological needs of the individual fighters than by any great ideology.
Baron et al conclude: “Our tendency to divide the social world into opposing categories seems to serve important esteem-boosting functions for us; if these motives are overlooked, efforts to reduce prejudice by urging distinct cultural or ethnic groups to view themselves as one, and not distinct, could backfire.” In other words, one solution that psychology offers for social conflicts is to bring in more opportunities for enhancing the self-esteem of the belligerent people.
I wrote this in response to a recent comment which I decided, after much thought, to consign to the trash bin. That is the only comment which has merited such an action from me so far at WordPress, apart from a fatwa. This blog is an attempt to explain to those two commentators my view about aggression of the kind he perpetrated on me, or in general aggression arising from group affiliation – whether in words of deeds.