From the beginning of time, humanity has survived by separating into groups and protecting those who are “in” against those who are “out.” In the days of living in caves, this learned behavior enabled tribes to protect themselves from external threats like wild animals and unfamiliar people who may have been perceived as threats. Today, we have continued separating into groups – or social categories – despite the fact that the threats of early evolution are no longer inherently relevant.
Most social categories and stereotypes are propagated by society, tradition, and culture. The group to which we belong serves to create and enhance our sense of self. When our group succeeds and another fails, we experience an increase in our status as individuals. Consider the last sporting event you attended. Did your team win? How did you feel?
In-group: a social group to which a person psychologically identifies as being a member.
The sense of identity and personal worth we gain from our group defines who we are. It empowers us to protect, celebrate, and serve others because they are, for all intents and purposes, an extension of ourselves. Conversely, identifying with a group makes it possible for us to objectify those perceived to be outside our group – and in our worst moments, as documented by history, act out violently against them.
Working in groups has contributed to the creation and development of entire civilizations. However, it has also contributed to violence, war, and genocide. Genocide is only possible when the objectification of other human beings occurs on a mass scale, which is made possible through propaganda. Consider the propaganda of the Nazi regime: its themes focused on dehumanizing Jews and implanting a perceived threat. “The crucial factor in creating a cohesive group is to define who is excluded from membership.” When worse came to worse in World War II, the population was prepared to take horrific measures against the group they had come to perceive as “out.”
Out-group: by contrast to an in-group, an out-group is a social group with which an individual does not identify.
The mistreatment of perceived out-groups is an almost daily human experience. From race to religion to age to gender, we constantly see collectives come together and set themselves apart from other groups. The identity that we gain from feeling a sense of belonging is not just a social or psychological behavior; it is also a deeply neurological one. According to research, individuals experience a reduction in brain activity when thinking about someone they perceive as a member of an out-group. Therefore, when they see that individual suffering, they do not react the same way they would for someone in their in-group. What this means is that we do not actively protect people outside our group. We do not feel their pain. We lack empathy. And as a result, we abuse, we neglect, and we objectify.
One can always count on Mean Girls for true insight.
Thankfully, the evolution of our species is layered and complicated. Beyond our instinct to survive, we are equipped as highly adaptable, emotional creatures. The boundaries around our groups are not impenetrable. In fact, the brain’s synaptic pathways are easily rerouted when we are simply given a reason to identify with an individual who belongs to an out-group. The brain of a study subject will show decreased activity when he or she looks at a homeless person – unless that same individual personally knows a homeless person or has had an experience with homelessness. In that case, his or her brain activity will spike, recognizing that person as someone who belongs. Contact and understanding between in-groups and out-groups enables new neurological reactions, ultimately increasing empathy – and reducing our tendency to objectify fellow human beings.
In nonthreatening contact with out-groups, previously formed conclusions are challenged by interactions, which soon line up with faces and then names.
Volunteering is not just volunteering. Rather, it has the potential to be a nonthreatening space to enable contact between in-groups and out-groups. When volunteer opportunities are provided appropriately and with respect for the sensitive backgrounds and situations of all involved, it becomes possible to eliminate the historically dangerous mindset of us vs. them. In nonthreatening contact with out-groups, previously formed conclusions are challenged by interactions, which soon line up with faces followed by names. Research states that similar, repeat experiences will realign the brain’s synaptic pathways and enable in-groups to expand. Ultimately, experiences with out-groups make them part of our stories. They became an extension of our identities and as such, our empathy circles grow wider, decreasing our ability to assign value based on the group to which a person belongs.
The research referenced above comes from the PBS special The Brain with David Eagleman. Please download to learn more about empathy and the brain.
Realized Worth designs and implements corporate volunteer programs for companies around the world. Want to discuss your program with us? We’ll be happy to hear from you! Find us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.