"Us vs. Them" Thinking Is Hardwired—But There’s Hope for Us Yet

Our implicit biases are rooted in biology, but they can be easily manipulated. That's both really good and really bad.

Robert Sapolsky: So when you look at us—us as humans, as apes, as primates, as mammals—when you look at some of the most appalling realms of our behavior, much of it has to do with the fact that social organisms are really, really hardwired to make a basic dichotomy about the social world, which is those organisms who count as Us’s and those who count as Thems.

And this is virtually universal among humans and this is virtually universal among all sorts of social primates that have aspects of social structures built around separate social groupings. Us’s and Thems: we turn the world into Us’s and Thems and we don’t like the Thems very much and are often really awful to them. And the Us’s, we exaggerate how wonderful and how generous and how affiliative and how just like siblings they are to us. We divide the world into Us and Them.

And one of the greatest ways of seeing just biologically how real this fault line is, is there’s this hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is officially the coolest, grooviest hormone on earth, because what everybody knows is it enhances mother-infant bonding and it enhances pair bonding in couples. And it makes you more trusting and empathic and emotionally expressive and better at reading expressions and more charitable. And it’s obvious that if you just, like, spritzed oxytocin up everyone’s noses on this planet it would be the Garden of Eden the next day.

Oxytocin promotes prosocial behavior. Until people look closely. And it turns out oxytocin does all those wondrous things only for people who you think of as an “Us”, as an in-group member. It improves in-group favoritism, in-group parochialism.

What does it do to individuals who you consider a Them? It makes you crappier to them, more preemptively aggressive, less cooperative in an economic game. What oxytocin does is enhance this Us/Them divide. So that, along with other findings—the classic lines of Us versus Them along the lines of race, of sex, of age, of socioeconomic class: your brain processes these Us/Them differences on the scale of milliseconds, a twentieth of a second, your brain is already responding differently to an Us versus Them.

Okay, so collectively this is depressing as hell. Oh my god, we are hardwired to inevitably be awful to Thems, and Thems along all sorts of disturbing lines of: "Oh, if only we could overcome these Us and Them dichotomies! Oh no, are we hardwired to divide the world along lines of race and ethnicity and nationality and all those disturbing things?" And what becomes clear is, when you look closely is: it is virtually inevitable that we divide the world into Us’s and Thems and don’t like Thems very much and don’t treat them well.

But we are incredibly easily manipulated as to who counts as an Us and who counts as a Them. And those fault lines that we view as, “Oh my god, how ancient can you get?” that say, somebody of another race evokes limbic responses in us, commensurate with they are a Them, they respond, they motivate automatic responses—"Oh my god, is that just the basic fault line?"
And then you do something like have faces of the same race versus other race, and either they are or aren’t wearing a baseball cap with your favorite team’s logo on it, and you completely redefine who's an Us. Us is people who like the Yankees and Them are Red Sox fans. And suddenly you’re processing, within milliseconds, what damn baseball cap they have, and race is being completely ignored.

“Oh my god, we are inevitably hardwired to make really distressing Us/Them...” We’re manipulated within seconds as to who counts as an Us and a Them.

Good news with that: we can manipulate us out of some of our worst Us/Them dichotomies and re-categorize people. Bad news: we could be manipulated by all sorts of ideologues out there as to deciding that people who seem just like us "really aren’t. They’re really so different that they count as a Them.”

Okay, so a fabulous study showing this, this double-edged quality to oxytocin, and this was a study done by a group in the Netherlands. And what they did was they took Dutch university student volunteers and they gave them a classic philosophy problem, the runaway trolley problem: “Is it okay to sacrifice one person to save five?” Runaway trolley: can you push this big, beefy guy onto the track who gets squashed by the trolley but that slows it down so that five people tied to the track don’t... Standard problem in philosophy, utilitarianism, ends justifies means—all of that. So you give people the scenario and people have varying opinions, and now you give them the scenario where the person you push onto the track has a name. And either it’s a standard name from the Netherlands, Dirk I think, this is like a meat-and-potatoes Netherlandish name. Or a name from either of two groups that evoke lots of xenophobic hostility among people from the Netherlands: someone with a typically German name—oh yeah, World War II, that’s right, that was a problem—or someone with a typically Muslim name.

So now they’re choosing whether to save five by pushing Dirk onto the track or Otto or Mahmoud and, in general, give them those names and there’s no difference in how people would rate them if they were anonymous.

Give people oxytocin, where they don’t know that they’ve gotten it—control group has just placebo spritzed up their nose—give people oxytocin and, kumbaya, you are far less likely to push Dirk onto the track, and you are now far more likely to push good old Otto or good old Mahmoud onto the rails there.

And you are more likely to sacrifice an out-group member to save five, and you are less likely to sacrifice an in-group member. All you’ve done there is exaggerate the Us/Them divide with that.

Robert Sapolsky has a bone to pick with oxytocin, or rather the public's perception of oxytocin. It is the love hormone, we've surely all read by now. It helps us bond to our parents, then to our lovers and later to our own children. An extra dose can increase empathy, goodwill, and understanding. But it's not all sunshine and rainbows, here's the catch: those warm fuzzy feelings are only generated for people you already favor. Oxytocin, represented more honestly, is the hormone of love and violence. Its effect in the presence of people you consider "others" is preemptive aggression, and less social cooperation. It creates distance as often as it bonds love, and we are hardwired for those social dichotomies.


Humans invent "Us" and "Them" groups wherever they look, whether it's on the basis of sex, race, nationality, class, age, religion, hair color—there's nothing we won't discriminate against, and we do it within a twentieth of a second of seeing someone. Are they an "Us" or are they a "Them"? The flaw in this hardwired thinking reflex is also its silver lining: it is ridiculously easy to manipulate. A racial bias can be duped by something so simple as putting a cap with your favorite sports team's logo on someone's head, for example. You can overthrow your brain's most primal reactions in this way but, as history shows, other people can also get in your head and manipulate the Us versus Them reflex to tragic and catastrophic results.

Robert Sapolsky is the author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

What we want from horror is a cardiac jump-start, study suggests

A study looks at the ingredients of a good scare.

Credit: Nathan Wright/Unsplash
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers from a Danish Recreational Fear Lab investigate fear's Goldilocks zone.
  • People love a good fright that stops short of being genuinely worrisome.
  • The study tracks the heart rates of haunted-house visitors.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Fireball meteorite offers clues to origins of life

    A meteorite that smashed into a frozen lake in Michigan may explain the origins of life on Earth, finds study.

    Credit: T. Masterson and the American Meteor Society | Robert Ward
    Surprising Science
    • A new paper reveals a meteorite that crashed in Michigan in 2018 contained organic matter.
    • The findings support the panspermia theory and could explain the origins of life on Earth.
    • The organic compounds on the meteorite were well-preserved.
    Keep reading Show less

    This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

    A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

    Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
    Surprising Science
    • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
    • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
    • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

    First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

    Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

    All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

    BepiColombo

    Image source: European Space Agency

    The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

    Into and out of Earth's shadow

    In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

    The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

    In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

    When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

    Magentosphere melody

    The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

    BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

    MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

    Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

    Should facial recognition software be banned on college campuses?

    A heated debate is occurring at the University of Miami.

    Credit: asiandelight / Adobe Stock
    Technology & Innovation
    • Students say they were identified with facial recognition technology after a protest at the University of Miami; campus police claim this isn't true.
    • Over 60 universities nationwide have banned facial recognition; a few colleges, such as USC, regularly use it.
    • Civil rights groups in Miami have called for the University of Miami to have talks on this topic.

    Keep reading Show less
    Quantcast