The Situationist

“Us” and “Them”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 21, 2008

Us versus them t-shirtSam Sommers wrote a terrific situationist post, titled “The Power of Us,” on the Psychology Today blog.  Here are some excerpts.

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Customers who insist on paying with a personal check at the grocery store. Waitresses who don’t write down your order. People who sit right in front of you at the movies when there are other free seats in their row. . . . Drivers who insist on backing into spaces in wide-open parking lots. Squirrels.

All of the above would make my list of Top 10 pet peeves. But at the top, without question, would have to be people who charge into elevators, head down, without waiting to see if anyone is getting off. Same with subway cars, for that matter. It’s just common courtesy, people. Which is what made the following interaction such a dissonance-inducing moment for me.

I was at the doctor’s office for a regular appointment and had to head up to the 7th floor. As the elevator doors opened and I began to exit, a middle-aged gentleman barreled in a clear hurry, like a Muscovite rushing into a bread store in the perestroika 1990s. I literally turned sideways to avoid a collision, feeling a bit like a torero sans cape. Clearly, this guy was worthy of Public Enemy #1 status.

But then a funny thing happened. He took a look at me, made a sudden U-turn, and followed me out of the elevator, all the while wheeling behind him his cart with several boxes on it. He pointed at my chest and asked, “did you go to school there?” Realizing that he was referring to the college name emblazoned on my t-shirt, I answered that, yes, indeed, this was my alma mater. “Me too,” he exclaimed. “What year did you graduate?”

And so began a 10-minute conversation that I wasn’t particularly thrilled to be having, what with my own dispositional aversion to small talk with strangers combined with the desire to check in on time for my appointment. But my fellow alum proved himself to be a pleasant enough fellow. And it’s always enjoyable to reminisce about familiar people and places from your past, especially when you went to a small school that doesn’t afford such opportunities that often. So we parted ways and I continued on to my doctor’s office in relatively good spirits.

And this is when it hit me–I had mentally pardoned my newfound friend from his otherwise capital offense. Now, I’m not saying I was wrong to do this. Why go around life bearing resentments and grudges against strangers for transgressions that are, objectively speaking, trivial? But were not for the common link established by my t-shirt, I never would have left this interaction in a positive mood, much less a somewhat favorable impression of this guy.

That’s the power of “us.” Sharing group membership with other people has dramatic effects on how we see and interact with them. Whether it’s a common alma mater or favorite sports team, whether it’s a more central aspect of identity such as race or religion, we’re more generous in our perceptions of fellow members of our own ingroups.

As written about by persuasively by social psychologist Marilynn Brewer, some of the disparities and prejudices that persist in our society likely have just as much to do with ingroup favoritism as they do outgroup derogation or dislike. Distinguishing between these different causes of intergroup disparity is clearly important, especially for efforts to remedy differential outcomes in any domain.

At the same time, from a practical perspective, differential outcomes are differential outcomes. It matters little to the job applicant who is passed over for a position whether the job went to someone else because of ingroup favoritism towards the competition or because of outgroup prejudice directed towards her. It is of little solace to the Black defendant hit with felony charges for a borderline offense that the relative leniency shown towards a comparable White defendant resulted from the desire to “give a good kid a second chance” as opposed to any type of disparity based on racial animus. In this sense, the power of us can be just as dangerous as the dislike of them. . . .

. . . .

I’d maintain that one of the unsung obstacles faced by many minority and female professionals is that they’re simply less likely to benefit from such “usness,” in terms of hiring as well as promotion decisions. The White male entering the workplace simply has a greater chance of effortless bonding with his White male colleagues and superiors, whether over past affiliations or shared cultural interests. It’s an often overlooked benefit of majority group membership that can be hard to quantify.

Because usness is powerful. It leads us to bond quickly with some people, but not others. It prompts us to be far less stingy with the benefit of the doubt for similar individuals. And it can even get you off the hook when you violate cardinal rules of elevator etiquette, and I must tell you, that’s no small feat.

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To read his entire post (with links and a postscript) including a section examining the low number of African American coaches in Division I football, click here.  For some related Situationist posts, see”March Madness,” Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” “The Origins of Sports Team Fandom,” “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” and “Situationist Theories of Hate – Part II.”

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2 Responses to ““Us” and “Them””

  1. […] “Us” and “Them” « The Situationist […]

  2. Great post. Adding blog to my Flock browser favorites.

    One of the most effective techniques to divide otherwise United people is the US vs THEM technique.

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