"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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A study looks at the ingredients of a good scare.
Catching fear in a bottle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYyNzg1Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTQwMTcyMn0.WtpJ1E_dhK2o09fBpKARynj4_p5NXeklgsXsbd7xr9w/img.jpg?width=980" id="8ff51" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f10dd9188b173f4a36e85e9325507c6b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Photo Boards/Unsplash<p>Previous studies have tracked physiological signs of fear arousal, but none have established a one-to-one correlation between that arousal and specific, actual fear events.</p><p>Andersen says that much of the research has been conducted in lab settings with weak fear stimuli, observing subjects as they experience things like scary videos. Scares in these situations tend to be weak and difficult to measure. Even harder to track in these situations is the link between enjoyment and fear. </p>
Eyes everywhere<iframe src="https://player.vimeo.com/video/109695164" width="100%" height="480" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="267ba87cfb8591ed5830499574d2272a"></iframe><p>Andersen and his colleagues conducted their experiments at <a href="https://dystopia.dk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dystopia</a> Haunted House, a commercial attraction in Vejle, Denmark constructed in an old, run-down factory. The Recreational Fear Lab has a long-standing partnership with the spook shack.</p><p>They outfitted 100 volunteers with heart monitors and sent them on their terrifying way through the 50-room horror mansion. The facility incorporates a number of fright mechanisms including frequent jump scares in which a sudden threat takes a visitor by surprise.</p><p>Researchers surreptitiously observed their participants on closed-circuit video as they made their way through the attraction. They tracked each individual's scares, scoring them for intensity according to their visible reactions. After exiting the attraction, individuals self-reported their experiences in the haunted house.</p><p>Combining these self-reports with observer notes and each participant's heart-rate data gave the researchers subjective, behavioral, and physiological insights into the ways in which fear is experienced, and when it's a good thing or not.</p>
A pair of inverted U-shapes<p>In analyzing their data, the researchers saw two separate inverted u-shape curves. One depicted participants' enjoyment based on their self-reports and observed behavior. A similar u-curve was detected in their heart rates showing that just the right amount of heartbeat acceleration is associated with fun, but too much is too much. It's the terror Goldilocks zone.</p><p>Says Andersen, "If people are not very scared, they do not enjoy the attraction as much, and the same happens if they are too scared. Instead, it seems to be the case that a 'just-right' amount of fear is central for maximizing enjoyment."</p><p>The research suggests that being scared is enjoyable when it represents just a quick minor physiological deviation from one's normal state. When it goes on too long, however, or triggers too severe a physiological change, it becomes disturbing. Game over.</p><p>Andersen notes that this is not dissimilar to the factors known to make interpersonal play enjoyable: just the right amount of uncertainty and surprise. These are, maybe not coincidentally, also the ingredients of a successful joke.</p>
A meteorite that smashed into a frozen lake in Michigan may explain the origins of life on Earth, finds study.
- 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.
Meteor streaks through Michigan sky<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="80b7f30820153b35fc515592d7475f53"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/EPu2qnqMYBo?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The meteorite that smashed into Strawberry Lake carried pristine extraterrestrial organic compounds.
Credit: Field Museum
A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.
- 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.
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.
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.
A heated debate is occurring at the University of Miami.
- 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.
Arthur Holland Michel: The Future of Surveillance Technology<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8c330ab8c4df396f5313be796c0d96da"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/hIC-kaYcq34?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Americans don't always agree with that assessment, especially on college campuses. Over 60 universities—Harvard, MIT, and UCLA are on the list—have banned facial recognition. Of the few schools that utilize it, USC lets students enter their rooms via face scans; the software also ensures intruders cannot access buildings.</p><p>These are great uses of this technology. You could argue it's how any progress with our devices should work: in service of people. The problem, of course, is that those in power don't tend to stop when they have a little taste of the possibilities.</p><p>University of Miami is the <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelsandler/2020/10/27/human-rights-groups-call-on-the-university-of-miami-to-ban-facial-recognition/#a11c8bf2965a" target="_blank">latest school</a> to be embroiled in a battle over facial recognition. The ACLU of Florida was joined by 21 other groups when requesting that the university hold an open forum so that students can express their concerns. A piece of their letter is below. </p><p>This call for action was inspired after a September incident in which students <a href="https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/university-of-miami-tracked-protesters-with-video-surveillance-11712139" target="_blank">protested</a> returning for in-person classes during the pandemic. The students, concerned about their health, predominantly wore face masks. Still, a number of them were identified, leading to concerns that facial recognition was used. Campus police denied it—the chief even claimed the tech "doesn't work," though that notion <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/12/tech/face-recognition-masks/index.html" target="_blank">has been refuted</a>—yet civil liberties groups are worried that an invasion of privacy occurred.</p><p>Lia Holland, a member of the digital rights nonprofit <a href="https://www.fightforthefuture.org/news/2020-10-27-20-human-rights-organizations-call-on-university-of-miami-to-ban-facial-recognition-and-meet-f6f2119fd41b/" target="_blank">Fight for the Future</a>, wants answers from school administrators. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"UMiami is struggling to answer to their creepy surveillance practices, and clarify whether they are using their own facial recognition system, or Florida's state facial recognition database."</p>
Credit: Pixel Shot / Adobe Stock<p>The police chief in question, David Rivero, claims overhead surveillance cameras provided identification at the protest. Yet speaking of another case involving facial-recognition software, he's <a href="https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/university-of-miami-tracked-protesters-with-video-surveillance-11712139" target="_blank">on the record stating</a>, "We were able to [easily] identify and arrest him. We've [detected] a few bad guys that way."</p><p>The letter sent to the Board of Administrators <a href="https://www.fightforthefuture.org/news/2020-10-27-20-human-rights-organizations-call-on-university-of-miami-to-ban-facial-recognition-and-meet-f6f2119fd41b/" target="_blank">includes the following demands</a>: </p><ol><li>Issue a campus-wide policy banning non-personal use of facial recognition technology, and issue a statement that you have done so.</li><li>Immediately schedule an open forum with students and faculty/staff to discuss community concerns and clarify how student activists who participated in First Amendment protected protest activities were identified by campus police.</li><li>Immediately schedule a meeting with the UMiami Employee Student Alliance (UMESA) to address their COVID-19 safety concerns, the subject of the original protest.</li></ol><p>There's no doubt facial-recognition technology has a place in law enforcement. Victims of unsolved crimes are relieved when the perpetrators are brought to justice, regardless of the means. As Michel writes, some police forces are already surveilling large regions of their districts using the Gorgon Stare, a camera used from airplanes. Cameras are ubiquitous, and that's not going to change. </p>As a society, we need honest discussions regarding the application of surveillance. Nearly every citizen in China has <a href="https://www.cnet.com/news/in-china-facial-recognition-public-shaming-and-control-go-hand-in-hand/" target="_blank">already been logged</a> by facial recognition software, which has led to human rights abuses. While the stated intention of this tech by American police is pure, good intentions are known to pave the way...well, we know how that ends. <p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His new book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>