"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 M. Sapolsky holds degrees from Harvard and Rockefeller Universities and is currently a Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University and a Research Associate with the Institute of Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya. His most recent book is Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
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.
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- As the material that makes all living things what/who we are, DNA is the key to understanding and changing the world. British geneticist Bryan Sykes and Francis Collins (director of the Human Genome Project) explain how, through gene editing, scientists can better treat illnesses, eradicate diseases, and revolutionize personalized medicine.
- But existing and developing gene editing technologies are not without controversies. A major point of debate deals with the idea that gene editing is overstepping natural and ethical boundaries. Just because they can, does that mean that scientists should be edit DNA?
- Harvard professor Glenn Cohen introduces another subcategory of gene experiments: mixing human and animal DNA. "The question is which are okay, which are not okay, why can we generate some principles," Cohen says of human-animal chimeras and arguments concerning improving human life versus morality.
New studies stretch the boundaries of physics, achieving quantum entanglement in larger systems.
- New experiments with vibrating drums push the boundaries of quantum mechanics.
- Two teams of physicists create quantum entanglement in larger systems.
- Critics question whether the study gets around the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
Recently published research pushes the boundaries of key concepts in quantum mechanics. Studies from two different teams used tiny drums to show that quantum entanglement, an effect generally linked to subatomic particles, can also be applied to much larger macroscopic systems. One of the teams also claims to have found a way to evade the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
One question that the scientists were hoping to answer pertained to whether larger systems can exhibit quantum entanglement in the same way as microscopic ones. Quantum mechanics proposes that two objects can become "entangled," whereby the properties of one object, such as position or velocity, can become connected to those of the other.
An experiment performed at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, led by physicist Shlomi Kotler and his colleagues, showed that a pair of vibrating aluminum membranes, each about 10 micrometers long, can be made to vibrate in sync, in such a way that they can be described to be quantum entangled. Kotler's team amplified the signal from their devices to "see" the entanglement much more clearly. Measuring their position and velocities returned the same numbers, indicating that they were indeed entangled.
Tiny aluminium membranes used by Kotler's team.Credit: Florent Lecoq and Shlomi Kotler/NIST
Evading the Heisenberg uncertainty principle?
Another experiment with quantum drums — each one-fifth the width of a human hair — by a team led by Prof. Mika Sillanpää at Aalto University in Finland, attempted to find what happens in the area between quantum and non-quantum behavior. Like the other researchers, they also achieved quantum entanglement for larger objects, but they also made a fascinating inquiry into getting around the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
The team's theoretical model was developed by Dr. Matt Woolley of the University of New South Wales. Photons in the microwave frequency were employed to create a synchronized vibrating pattern as well as to gauge the positions of the drums. The scientists managed to make the drums vibrate in opposite phases to each other, achieving "collective quantum motion."
The study's lead author, Dr. Laure Mercier de Lepinay, said: "In this situation, the quantum uncertainty of the drums' motion is canceled if the two drums are treated as one quantum-mechanical entity."
This effect allowed the team to measure both the positions and the momentum of the virtual drumheads at the same time. "One of the drums responds to all the forces of the other drum in the opposing way, kind of with a negative mass," Sillanpää explained.
Theoretically, this should not be possible under the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, one of the most well-known tenets of quantum mechanics. Proposed in the 1920s by Werner Heisenberg, the principle generally says that when dealing with the quantum world, where particles also act like waves, there's an inherent uncertainty in measuring both the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time. The more precisely you measure one variable, the more uncertainty in the measurement of the other. In other words, it is not possible to simultaneously pinpoint the exact values of the particle's position and momentum.
Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle Explained. Credit: Veritasium / Youtube.com
Big Think contributor astrophysicist Adam Frank, known for the 13.8 podcast, called this "a really fascinating paper as it shows that it's possible to make larger entangled systems which behave like a single quantum object. But because we're looking at a single quantum object, the measurement doesn't really seem to me to be 'getting around' the uncertainty principle, as we know that in entangled systems an observation of one part constrains the behavior of other parts."
Ethan Siegel, also an astrophysicist, commented, "The main achievement of this latest work is that they have created a macroscopic system where two components are successfully quantum mechanically entangled across large length scales and with large masses. But there is no fundamental evasion of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle here; each individual component is exactly as uncertain as the rules of quantum physics predicts. While it's important to explore the relationship between quantum entanglement and the different components of the systems, including what happens when you treat both components together as a single system, nothing that's been demonstrated in this research negates Heisenberg's most important contribution to physics."The papers, published in the journal Science, could help create new generations of ultra-sensitive measuring devices and quantum computers.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- The only stretch of time more egalitarian than today was the period between 1350 to approximately the year 1700.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Economic inequality is a constant topic. No matter the cycle — boom or bust — somebody is making a lot of money, and the question of fairness is never far behind.
A recently published essay in the Journal of Economic Literature by Professor Guido Alfani adds an intriguing perspective to the discussion by showing the evolution of income inequality in Europe over the last several hundred years. As it turns out, we currently live in a comparatively egalitarian epoch.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
This graph shows the amount of wealth controlled by the top ten percent in certain parts of Europe over the last seven hundred years. Archival documentation similar to — and often of a similar quality as — modern economic data allows researchers to get a glimpse of what economic conditions were like centuries ago. Sources like property tax records and documents listing the rental value of homes can be used to determine how much a person's estate was worth. (While these methods leave out those without property, the data is not particularly distorted.)
The first part of the line, shown in black, represents work by Prof. Alfani and represents the average inequality level of the Sabaudian State in Northern Italy, The Florentine State, The Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Venice. The latter part, in gray, is based on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and represents an average of inequality in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden during that time period.
Despite the shift in location, the level of inequality and rate of increase are very similar between the two data sets.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Note that there are two substantial declines in inequality. Both are tied to truly apocalyptic events. The first is the Black Death, the common name for the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, which killed off anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of Europe. The second, at the dawn of the 20th century, was the result of World War I and the many major events in its aftermath.
The 20th century as a whole was a time of tremendous economic change, and the periods not featuring major wars are notable for having large experiments in distributive economic policies, particularly in the countries Piketty considers.
The slight stall in the rise of inequality during the 17th century is the result of the Thirty Years' War, a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Europe and left eight million people dead, and of major plagues that affected South Europe. However, the recurrent outbreaks of the plague after the Black Death no longer had much effect on inequality. This was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the adaptation of European institutions to handle pandemics without causing such a shift in wealth.
In 2010, the last year covered by the essay, inequality levels were similar to those of 1340, with 66 percent of the wealth of society being held by the top ten percent. Also, inequality levels were continuing to rise, and the trends have not ended since. As Prof. Alfani explained in an email to BigThink:
"During the decade preceding the Covid pandemic, economic inequality has shown a slow tendency towards further inequality growth. The Great Recession that began in 2008 possibly contributed to slow down inequality growth, especially in Europe, but it did not stop it. However, the expectation is that Covid-19 will tend to increase inequality and poverty. This, because it tends to create a relatively greater economic damage to those having unstable occupations, or who need physical strength to work (think of the effects of the so-called "long-Covid," which can prove physically invalidating for a long time). Additionally, and thankfully, Covid is not lethal enough to force major leveling dynamics upon society."
Can only disasters change inequality?
That is the subject of some debate. While inequality can occur in any economy, even one that doesn't grow all that much, some things appear to make it more likely to rise or fall.
Thomas Piketty suggested that the cause of changes in inequality levels is the difference in the rate of return on capital and the overall growth rate of the economy. Since the return on capital is typically higher than the overall growth rate, this means that those who have capital to invest tend to get richer faster than everybody else.
While this does explain a great deal of the graph after 1800, his model fails to explain why inequality fell after the Black Death. Indeed, since the plague destroyed human capital and left material goods alone, we would expect the ratio of wealth over income to increase and for inequality to rise. His model can provide explanations for the decline in inequality in the decades after the pandemic, however- it is possible that the abundance of capital could have lowered returns over a longer time span.
The catastrophe theory put forth by Walter Scheidel suggests that the only force strong enough to wrest economic power from those who have it is a world-shattering event like the Black Death, the fall of the Roman Empire, or World War I. While each event changed the world in a different way, they all had a tremendous leveling effect on society.
But not even this explains everything in the above graph. Pandemics subsequent to the Black Death had little effect on inequality, and inequality continued to fall for decades after World War II ended. Prof. Alfani suggests that we remember the importance of human agency through institutional change. He attributes much of the post-WWII decline in inequality to "the redistributive policies and the development of the welfare states from the 1950s to the early 1970s."
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
"[H]istory does not necessarily teach us whether we should consider the current trend toward growth in economic inequality as an undesirable outcome or a problem per se (although I personally believe that there is some ground to argue for that). Nor does it teach us that high inequality is destiny. What it does teach us, is that if we do not act, we have no reason whatsoever to expect that inequality will, one day, decline on its own. History also offers abundant evidence that past trends in inequality have been deeply influenced by our collective decisions, as they shaped the institutional framework across time. So, it is really up to us to decide whether we want to live in a more, or a less unequal society."