People like to divide themselves


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.


Author’s note:

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. 




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18 Responses to People like to divide themselves

  1. S says:

    Dear Saaar,

    What happened to your ‘freedom of Speech’, liberalism etc etc??

    Shows that you couldn’t digest even a ‘very very very small pin prick’. This is in spite of you posing as a ‘godless’ atheist.

    Can you do some ‘soul-searching’ why you got ‘irritated’ by that ‘X’ remark. {you must be knowing X stands for many other things too}
    It would be still better if you would show some guts to publicise that post.

    Very sincerely yours.

  2. Sir, we live in a democracy and are not suppressed by some communism or dictatorship. What you write are your thoughts and nobody can tag it blasphemous, let alone issue some fatwa. I think I’ll be safe in speaking for all the student community, I know of, who sat in the same class I sat in, that we support your writing and your thoughts. For us, they have added a new dimension to our thinking and have been a breath of fresh air from what conventionally we are fed at our schools/colleges/workplace.
    Screw the extremists; screw the anti-democrats.

    • matheikal says:

      Sid, I’m fully aware that no individual who knows me personally will regard me a threat to any organisation or party. I question, no doubt, a lot of things. But I do it out of my convictions about what is right and wrong. Anyone is welcome to question me. But when it comes to threats and fatwas [the recent comment came from a reader who regards me as enemical to Hindu interests!], they remain beneath me to answer.

      Thank you for the nice words.

      • matheikal says:

        Sid, I must also add that I’ve just found out that the recent comment mentioned above came from an IP address in Oman. The name is fictitious. So you can guess the motives behind the writer.

      • Sir I’ll firstly suggest that you can filter the people who have subscribed to your posts. Secondly, you can inform the police regarding the same. Oman and Hindu do make a lot of sense for all the wrong reasons. Thinking independently and objectively is what freedom of speech actually is. Sir, don’t at all let clowns hamper your thought process.

  3. aativas says:

    The process of dividing people in ‘us’ and ‘them’ keeps on changing. In US you meet an ‘Indian’ but in India the same person has other identities like from which state, speaking which language etc. All such divisions either can be temporary or for a longer duration!

  4. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    I do not know, and perhaps do not care to know the history of this post Matheikal.

    The post made interesting introduction to group dynamics. But, I have a couple of points to make. What about the prejudices of the elite groups? What sustains them? And, what about universal thinking of at least some of the hoi polloi? These cannot be treated as exceptions to the rule, I assert; without any proof, of course :))

    And, this is not directed at you. It would be nearly impossible to locate a self-proclaimed “Godless atheist”. That is redundant and atheists hate redundancy and that is why they have doubts about God, a redundant concept.


    • matheikal says:

      Raghuram, taking your last point first, the comment about “godless atheist” immediately evoked in me the kind of revulsion I feel towards frivolousness and puerilism and that’s why I decided not to pursue it.

      I wanted to keep this post as short as possible. Otherwise, there is much more to say about group dynamics, many interesting points including prejudice. In very simple words, it can be said that people – elite or ordinary – may acquire certain prejudices simply because other people belong to the out-group. There’s a concept called ‘moern racism’ in psychology which refers to more subtle beliefs than blatant feelings of superiority. It consists primarily of thinking minorities are seeking and receiving more benefits than they deserve and a denial that discrimination affects their outcomes. At any rate, the topic is too extensive to be covered in a few blog pieces.

  5. Hello Sir 🙂
    IndiBlogger led me here, and I found the title to be interesting 🙂
    Plus, you’re from Kerala aren’t you? (Not that it would’ve accepted my decision, just glad to see another keralite 🙂 )

    We are divided. Unity has become a utopian concept now. I mean, the very fact that there’s a linguistic division of States is a clear testament to divide-and-rule. We’re not perfect though. And I think we need dramatic instances to shock us back together. If you’ve read Dan Brown’s rather disappointing novel The Lost Symbol, he states that after 9/11, the unity of the world through sympathy towards America generated such strong brain waves (or something in the same lines) that even the Bermuda Triangle’s anomalies were suppressed!!! Maybe unity has hidden powers too eh? 🙂
    Loved the post Sir 🙂

    After reading your thoughts, I have a request of sorts. Could you take a few minutes off to read a post of mine, and give it a vote if you like it? I’d be honoured, if not grateful 😀

  6. very interesting study and the fact that trivial things like favorite color can divide us & provoke us into violence against each other is a telling remark

    and hilter killing jews…when i saw the movie “The boy is striped pajamas” i was so moved i couldn’t even cry. i kept asking how could he?!! burning them all, in slots, and by targets to be met in terms of # of jews burnt by month/year end!

    • matheikal says:

      Sujatha, I studied these and many other interesting things about group dynamics when I joined for a psychology course last year. Another such interesting thing I learnt is: The more handsome/beautiful you are, the more acceptable what you say is! That’s proved by many studies! I mean to say, triviality is an integral part of human interaction.

  7. hmmm that’s interesting – the beauty v/s acceptability of what you say thing.
    Doesn’t it matter “HOW” it is said? i mean, the tone of voice/meekness/authority/position of the ‘beautiful’ person etc? does it have any bearing at all on the acceptability factor?
    this is in the light of “its not what you say but how you say it that matters” cliche

    • matheikal says:

      The cliche is true to some extent. But today’s world is taking us far away from that. The very physical appearance matters a lot more than the HOW. For example, why do corporate people always promote beautiful female models for any item including men’s shaving paraphernalia? Beauty matters much today.

  8. Sunil Deepak says:

    At one level I see your point that we often tend to be part of some groups – but most of the time we don’t feel such strong feelings of rivalery or aggression. May be insecurity, or feeling threatened in some way, specially when our beliefs are fragile, makes us more aggressive?
    At another level, I think that all the different sciences show us so many different things, depending upon the way we decide the direction of our enquiry. Rather than looking at group rivaleries, if we look at how people of different groups see and feel their commonalities and come together to help each other, there will be other scientific explanations. 🙂
    I agree that abusive and violent comments can be very upsetting, but I think that they are saying much more about the person who wrote them and not about what you had or had not written. At least when it happens to me, I try to justify it that way.

    • matheikal says:

      I agree with you about the narrowness of scientific approaches. Nevertheless, they also help us to understand certain aspects of human behaviour (as far as psychological experiments are concerned) in a specific perspective. Cooperation and other positive aspects of group dynamics are also studied by psychology. But even there the element of selfishness is quite obvious! In other words, fulfilling one’s emotional needs.

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