Your Brain on Groups

Ezra Klein in Why We’re Polarized

The most important principle of the subjective social order we construct for ourselves is the classification of groups as ‘we’ and ‘they’. Once someone has become a ‘they’ we are used to dismissing them, competing against them, discriminating against them even if there is no reason for it in terms of our own interests (Tajfel)

Historically, people have nurtured their prejudices as they believed they reflected reality — we disliked those we disliked because we had reason to dislike them

Tajfel’s Experiement

  • 64 boys between the age of 14 and 15 all from the same school knowing one another already
  • Sorted into two groups arbitrarily based off some previous shared experience (in this case, ‘performance’ on a dot estimation test)
  • Tajfel expected no intergroup behaviour as he wanted a baseline yet, even this test showed group identity taking hold and mutating into bias
  • In fact, far from behaviour showing a pure desire to maximize their group’s gains, they often gave their group less to increase the difference between them and the out-group

Human beings evolved to exist in groups. To be part of a group and to see that group thrive meant survival. To be exiled from a group, or to see your group crushed by its enemies, could mean death. Is it really so strange that we evolved to feel the life-and-death stakes of group belonging and status?

Politics is a team sport

  • ”the behaviour of partisans resembles that of sports team members acting to preserve the status of their teams rather than thoughtful citizens participating in the political process for the broader good”
  • When people spend endless hours volunteering, planting yard signs, writing checks, what is likely foremost in their minds is that they are furious with the opposing party and want intensely to avoid losing to it — not a specific issue agenda
  • In Open versus Closed
    • The least-engaged voters tend to look at politics through the lens of material self-interest “what will this policy do for me?”
    • The most-engaged look at politics through the lens of identity “what does support for this policy position say about me?”
  • Our political identities are not our only identities: polarization is about which identities get activated
    • The problem with increasing polarization is that a single vote can now “indicate a person’s partisan perference as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighbourhood, and favourite grocery story.” This is no longer a single social identity, partisanship is now a mega-identity
  • Iyengar: “Political identity is fair game for hatred. Racial identity is not. Gender identity is not.”
  • Bipartisan cooperation is often necessary for governance but irrational for the minority party to offer