Us vs Them


How do we think about people whom we either consider friends and non-friends? There have been many studies recently on the neurological basis of intergroup dynamics, shedding more and more light on what goes on in the black box that is the human mind. As it turns out our discrimination can manifest themselves in (or rather realized by) the structure and the activities of different brain areas. All other things being equal, areas such as the ACC & SMA & AI & the corticospinal pathways are more responsive to the pain of those we consider our in-group relative to out-group targets (Hein et al, 2010; Aveneti et al, 2010; Han, 2018). On the other hand our brains treat out-groups differently, such as having the amygdala fire more when viewing our antagonists (Rule et al, 2010), to have the NAcc (pleasure area) active when deciding not to help them (Hein et al, 2010), or to selectively exert no corticospinal reactivity when viewing out-groups being harmed (Aveneti et al, 2010). These tendencies can correlate to our genetics (Luo et al, 2015) or even to the contrasting sizes of certain brain areas (Kanai et al, 2011).

Although these findings infer that being divisive is innate for human cognition, closer looks also imply a different view. Intergroup cognition may simply be valence-dependent, essentially functional relations. We maybe are just self-serving when it comes to group boundaries and discrimination. This is showcased by how mere priming that the viewed racial outgroups are on your side can remarkably reduce “racist” brain activities (Han, 2018:12).


In fact, being divisive proves to be more shallower and shallower the deeper we examine it. Once our tendency to assume angry faces are more likely to belong to the those of the different race was considered to be a symptom of racism. However, we would still ascribe angry faces to belong to a group different from ours even if it was not racial (Dunham, 2001). In this line of study the configuration is called MGP: minimal group paradigm. In MGP, differences between groups are randomly and frivolously created and it would still making us act discriminatingly towards outgroups. In other words, even without a history of conflict or any real competition, MGP can still promote unfair treatment to the other group (Tajfel, 1970). The result of MGP can be called “mere membership” (Dunham, 2018). Mere membership affords us a new way to see what in-group vs out-group sensemaking is: an essentially artificial construct. This means justifying discrimination due to “god-given” differences is fundamentally silly.

Works Cited

Avenanti, Alessio, Angela Sirigu, and Salvatore M. Aglioti. 2010. “Racial Bias Reduces Empathic Sensorimotor Resonance with Other-Race Pain.” Current Biology 20 (11): 1018–22.

Decety, Jean, and Kalina J. Michalska. 2010. “Neurodevelopmental Changes in the Circuits Underlying Empathy and Sympathy from Childhood to Adulthood.” Developmental Science 13 (6): 886–99.

Duckitt, John, and Kirstin Fisher. 2003. “The Impact of Social Threat on Worldview and Ideological Attitudes.” Political Psychology 24 (1): 199–222.

Dunham, Yarrow. 2011. “An Angry = Outgroup Effect.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47 (3): 668–71.

Dunham, Yarrow. 2018. “Mere Membership.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 22 (9): 780–93.

Gelfand, M., G. Shteynberg, T. Lee, J. Lun, S. Lyons, C. Bell, J. Y. Chiao, et al. 2012. “The Cultural Contagion of Conflict.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 367 (1589): 692–703.

Han, Shihui. 2018. “Neurocognitive Basis of Racial Ingroup Bias in Empathy.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 22 (5): 400–421.

Hein, Grit, Giorgia Silani, Kerstin Preuschoff, C. Daniel Batson, and Tania Singer. 2010. “Neural Responses to Ingroup and Outgroup Members’ Suffering Predict Individual Differences in Costly Helping.” Neuron 68 (1): 149–60.

Kanai, Ryota, Tom Feilden, Colin Firth, and Geraint Rees. 2011. “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults.” Current Biology 21 (8): 677–80.

Luo, Siyang, Bingfeng Li, Yina Ma, Wenxia Zhang, Yi Rao, and Shihui Han. 2015. “Oxytocin Receptor Gene and Racial Ingroup Bias in Empathy-Related Brain Activity.” NeuroImage 110 (April): 22–31.

Matthew, Dayna, Richard Reeves, and Edward Rodrigue. 2016. “Time for Justices: Tackling Race Inequality in Health and Housing.” In Brookings Big Ideas. Brookings Institution Press.

Meyer, Meghan L., Carrie L. Masten, Yina Ma, Chenbo Wang, Zhenhao Shi, Naomi I. Eisenberger, and Shihui Han. 2013. “Empathy for the Social Suffering of Friends and Strangers Recruits Distinct Patterns of Brain Activation.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 8 (4): 446–54.

Tajfel, Henri. 1970. “Experiments in Intergroup Discrimination.” Scientific American 223 (5): 96–102.

Wang, Chenbo, Bing Wu, Yi Liu, Xinhuai Wu, and Shihui Han. 2015. “Challenging Emotional Prejudice by Changing Self-Concept: Priming Independent Self-Construal Reduces Racial in-Group Bias in Neural Responses to Other’s Pain.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 10 (9): 1195–1201.


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