Human beings seem to have an innate ability to divide the world into “us” and “them”. We’re hardwired to have different hormonal and neurotransmitter responses to the people that we consider to be part of our in-group, than to those that we consider to be part of the out-group. Oxytocin, a hormone that is vital for in-group bonding and prosocial behavior, also has the less desirable tendency of making people more xenophobic towards people that a person does not consider to be part of their in-group.
Put simply, what helps us to develop stronger relationships with “us” can also push us further from relationships with “them”. Research from Dr. Robert Sapolsky, documented in his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017), has shown that people have stronger fear-based responses from the amygdala, and a subsequent release of neurotransmitters that increase heart rate, while decreasing cognitive resources when exposed to a member of the out-group. A perfect storm for escalated conflict.
So what makes someone an “us” and not a “them”? This typically has to do with shared history, or similar compelling ideologies. According to Sapolsky, we do have some choice in this process, and one of the most effective ways to turn a “them” into an “us” is to see them as an individual, rather than just focusing on the group that we associate the person with. We can also practice empathy, and try to feel what it might be like to see the world through that person’s eyes.
It’s important to analyze our work environments and consider if we are falling into “us and them” thinking. Ultimately, our workplace cultures will improve if we expand our concept of who fits in with “us”. The darkest realms of the human psyche come to the surface when an individual is isolated. Humans are a social species, and need healthy relationships and acceptance. When it comes to aggression, inclusion has a far more de-escalating effect than exclusion.
John Windsor – Mandt Faculty