Guest Post By: Mina Chikara, Mina Cikara is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. (Full bio below)
The human brain is specialized for group living. People who accurately identify, value, and cooperate with in-group members enjoy numerous material and psychological benefits (e.g., protection, belonging, emotional support). However, group life is also a source of social strife and destruction. Conflict between groups, in particular, has been described as one of the greatest problems facing the world today. For example, it has been estimated that over 200 million people were killed in the last century in acts of genocide, war, and other forms of group conflict.
What my lab finds fascinating is how easily people form groups. Sometimes when we’re interested in studying group dynamics and we want to control for factors such as stereotypes or a history of rivalry, we’ll assign people to new groups. For example, we have run studies online with thousands of people and randomly assigned them to either the Eagles team or the Rattlers team. We tell people that they are going to play against each other in a problem solving challenge in order to get them in a competitive mindset. In the end they never actually compete, they just tell us how they feel about teammates’ and competitors’ experiences (which are, by design, irrelevant to the competition they think will happen later on).
Even though they’ve only just been assigned to these teams and they never lay eyes on teammates or competitors, the majority of people say they feel worse about negative events when they befall teammates rather than competitors. Moreover, people also say they feel better about negative events when they befall competitors rather than teammates. Some people even leave messages such as, “This was an awesome study! F*#! EAGLES, GO RATTLERS!”
On another occasion, I asked a participant to come back to the lab after she was assigned to a team a few weeks prior. When I asked her if she remembered which team she was on she replied, “Of course!” This was puzzling to me because she had been randomly assigned to the Eagles. When I asked her why she said “of course,” she replied, “My family is a military family so the Eagle is a very important totem to us.”
Groups are important. Even when we haven’t been members for long we make meaning out of them so that they become important. Groups change the way we see the world and ourselves. This why I will never grow tired of studying how people change when they move from thinking about “me and you” to “us and them.”
Mina Cikara is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology and Social Policy from Princeton University and completed a National Institutes of Health Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. Professor Cikara studies how the mind, brain, and behavior change when the social context shifts from “me and you” to “us and them.” She focuses primarily on how group membership, competition, and prejudice disrupt the processes that allow people to see others as human and to empathize with others. She uses a wide range of tools—standard laboratory experiments, implicit and explicit behavioral measures, fMRI and psychophysiology—to examine failures of empathy, dehumanization, and misunderstanding between groups. She is equally interested in the behavioral consequences of these processes: discrimination, conflict, and harm. Most recently, the Society for Experimental Social Psychology selected her as a Dissertation Award Finalist. She has published articles in Psychological Science, Perspectives on Psychological Science, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, and NeuroImage. She tweets about psychology and neuroscience @profcikara.