The following originally appeared on my Psychology Today blog, “Our Social Brains”:
Many times when I tune into a major news channel, whether it be CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, or the like, I am constantly struck by a glaring psychological phenomenon as the talking heads spew invective at each other: constant attacks against a vaguely defined outgroup. For modern liberals, the outgroup usually consists of big corporations who, according to the pundits’ rhetoric, are driven by greed, corruption, and power and have little to no regard for “the little guy.” For conservatives, the enemy is usually big government perpetually and menacingly encroaching on the freedoms of individuals.
In both of these cases, the underlying psychological thread is extreme demonization and distancing of a big, completely irredeemable outgroup. Since liberals and conservatives share this tendency, I can’t help but think that it’s an undeniable feature of human beings’ cognitive machinery, and it might provide keen insight into how our social brains evolved over time.
Tens of thousands of years ago, when our ancestors lived in relatively small tribal communities, outgroup thinking probably served them well as tribes competed for limited resources. Back then, outgroups were smaller and easier to define. Now, in our 21st century world of complete interconnectedness, ingroup/outgroup boundaries have become so fluid and context-dependent. A major weakness of current US politics is the deeply-entrenched partisanship. This creates a perfect opportunity for “us-versus-them” thinking at the largest possible scale, in order to secure a catch-all conception of an outgroup. Consequently, liberals and conservatives have seized the low-hanging fruit of big business and big government, respectively. And ironically, an underlying assumption that both parties have is that the bigger their outgroup gets, the more dangerous it becomes. For liberals, the engine of that process is corporate welfare and lobbying by big business, and for conservatives, the engine is legislation that grants the federal government more powers over various spheres of life.
It’s hard to say what will alter both parties’ pervasive (and not very constructive) outgroup centered modus operandi. One suggestion, albeit a very idealistic one and a shot in the dark, is to take advantage of the fact that our brains have evolved the capacity to constantly identify and protect against threats from an outgroup. Pushing our cognitive boundaries of who or what constitutes an outgroup would be a good place to start. For example, maybe taking a problem that’s plaguing society (e.g. climate change, human trafficking and modern day slavery) and turning it into an “outgroup” would begin to unite folks from diverse backgrounds and political affiliations.
Or, on the other hand, maybe humans will one day evolve a more helpful and productive capacity that will transcend simplistic dualistic thinking. Until then, we’ll make our outgroups as big and bad as cognitively possible.