The Differences Arise In Group Psychology

The behaviour of the group is enigmatic and group psychology has long been studied to understand certain behaviours. A group acts in our minds as a corporate person in as much as we imagine what the norm is and normalize behaviour to what this imagined person embodies. This gives rise to worrying outcomes in many situations. Throughout history, the madness of crowds has been known to overtake the individual responsibility of thinking and acting according to personal responsibility.

group psychology

Most famously, Adolf Hitler dehumanized the Jews by creating an ‘in-group’ and other ‘out-groups’. The creation of a political myth of the Aryan race placed at the top of a hierarchy, thus denigrating and belittling any type of other so that the idea of just power coursed through the minds of the people urged to take power to unspeakable cost. The atrocities came about for many clever manipulations, but central to this was the development of the idea of a distinct group.


More recently in human history, Hutu extremists dehumanized the Tutsis in Rwanda, calling them cockroaches before killing half a million of them in a bloody mass slaughter and genocide of 1994. This differentiation of identity fuelled the development of the situation where one group of human beings turned violently on another group.


The creation of in-groups is worryingly common, and almost a fundamental element of human behaviour. It might arise from herding behaviour and necessity, where the basic idea of collaboration enabled homo sapiens to collectively transcend the physical and environmental problems which they faced such as feeding and tool making. Flipped on its head, this collaborative behaviour, when taken to an extreme can be a powerful poison to the collaborative gains of open networks.


Sexism, racism, homophobia, and impoverishing activities seem to climb on top of the propensity for a group of people to create a corporate identity – an identity which is composite and adoptive; one which creates a family of types and one which has the potential to repeal the inclusion of others from gaining the benefits from being a part of the network. Can this be the dark and possessive side of social capital which looms in the recesses of selfish, competitive and morally corrupt behaviour ?


To deny people their humanity is one of the most powerfully negative things we can do; to deny an individual inclusion in a social activity is in part a component of dehumanization. We can extend this line of thought further, and think beyond our particular species. By our imagining a line between ourselves and the rest of nature – birds, bees, trees, earthworms, ants, cockroaches, fish – we can then build a pretense that we are in fact separate from all these similarly living things.


By doing so, we can much more easily plunder, destroy and consume the natural environment in a devastating way. Think of the proximity of the groupings we have made, say between the canine and the bovine. Dogs many consider closer to our beings than cows, for in our western cultural context it is alright to eat beef but not dog meat – we have related more to dogs than cows, and that makes it easier to rear, kill and eat one animal and not another.


At the moment, the pesticides we are using to chemically denude the agricultural lands of insects which might eat some of our crops are obliterating the bee populations. We have chosen to see the insect populations as pests and not as part of a biosphere – a hugely interrelated series of dependent species that ultimately enrich our world. Again; this comes on the back of thinking about the world and environment in terms of self and other; same and different; human and alien….



With our increased perception of time, we imagine ourselves to be more enlightened. Surely with silicon technology and the ability to use complex tools, we exist in an enlightened state. This leads to a type of ‘golden age’ thinking which blinds us also to our capacity for inherent failure. Suggesting to ourselves that we are incapable of the horrendous mistakes and behaviours witnessed in the second world war, the Rowandan genocide, or the genocides committed by Alexander the Great etc, is a disconcerting daydream, for then we open ourselves to those very behaviours.


In the past decade psychologists have come to realise that the tendency to consider others to be less human than ourselves is universal. This ability for prejudice does not only occur in large obvious ways such as judgement along ethnic lines, it extends to anyone we fail to relate to, from people with disabilities to social, sexual and religious minorities. Otherness sets something off in us which can engender dehumanising behaviours.


“It’s as if we have a little humanness gauge in our heads that twitches whenever we see another person,” says Jeroen Vaes, Assistant Professor at the University of Padova, Italy. He researches humanness as a dimension of social judgment in intergroup relations, and the area of sexual and medical objectification.


In a study on Dehumanization as a Denial of Human Potentials a team developed a measure of human potentials covering three areas: cognitive potentials, self-potentials, and potentials for higher needs. These strongly interconnected, prototypical characteristics of human beings appear to be importantly related to the notion of the in-group.


There is considerable evidence for the idea that people might use a naïve theory of humanity to differentiate between “us” and “them”. Identification with the in-group is associated with a tendency to dehumanize out-group members on human potentials, although this relationship was quite modest. The question was asked if the in-group identification increases the perceived humanity of the in-group, thus augmenting the contrast between “us” and “them” on human potentials. As expected, dehumanization of out-group members was correlated with in-group favouritism.


Dehumanisation of people

To briefly summarize, this study replicated the dehumanization effect on specifically human potentials, and revealed systematic relations between in-group favouritism and lowered ascription of these potentials to out-group members than to in-group members. It also showed that the effect of social categorization on their ascription is not due to generalized in-group favouritism.


The study suggests that the dehumanisation effect on human potentials is highly dependent on the context of intergroup comparisons and, consists of an enhanced humanization of the in-group. An analysis of the interrelations between different measures revealed that dehumanization on human potentials was unrelated to infrahumanization but was related to the dementalization index (referring to a wholesale denial of mind in the out-group).


[Dehumanization as a Denial of Human Potentials: The Naive Theory of Humanity Perspective, Miroslaw Kofta, Tomasz Baran, and Monika Tarnowska, Page 256 – 276, Humanness and Dehumanization, Edited by Paul G. Bain, Jeroen Vaes, and Jacques-Philippe Leyens, Copyright Taylor and Francis 2014, Psychology Press]


This idea of ‘dementalization’ is an important one to grapple with. The denial of mind in others can lead to the denial of opportunities and structural prejudices in society. The dementalization of individuals based on their social situation can be pervasive and prevent people from ever being given the chance to develop their true human capabilities. The problem with creating an elite is obviously that it reinforces its own theory of itself whilst diminishing its estimation of others. The idea of dementalization was developed in a paper on Action Identification and Mind Attribution:


Children are initially unable to represent others’ thoughts and intentions but become able to do so as they mature. Certain populations of adults remain impaired in understanding others’ internal states; such an inability is a hallmark of serious psychological disorders such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome.


As a rule, the extent to which a perceiver imbues a target person with intentions, thoughts, and emotions has been thought to reflect the abilities of the perceiver. Studies suggest that representing others’ internal states, specifically those of intention and cognition, may not only be influenced by the mental capacities of the perceiver. Rather, the process of mentalization may also be influenced by the perceiver’s feelings toward the target and as such may be flexible across time and situation.


Even an adult fully capable of mentalizing other individuals might fail to do so in certain instances, such as if the target is disliked. Disliked targets are dementalized, and this manifests itself in both low-level identifications as well as reduced attributions of mind. The results of this research suggests that liking someone may influence specific (action identification) and global attributions of mind. The study highlights the impact of the actor–perceiver relationship on perceptions of agency.


[What Do I Think You’re Doing? Action Identification and Mind Attribution; Megan N. Kozak, Abigail A. Marsh, Daniel M. Wegner,; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2006, Vol. 90, No. 4, 543–555. Copyright 2006 by the American Psychological Association, DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.90.4.543]


An understanding that dehumanising is common does not make it any more acceptable and understanding why we do it means that we can work towards preventing it. It is a major barrier in unlocking the great stored potential of an equitable society. Recent research offers hope suggesting that although it is easy to trigger prejudice, it can be easily subverted, self-controlled and tamed.


Some people are more prone to dehumanise others. Individuals who suffer from narcissistic traits are particularly vulnerable to it, as are those with a strong sense of their own elevated position in a social or professional hierarchy.



Experiments demonstrate that when we dehumanise people, we publicly strip them of attributes such as the ability to be rational, to feel, to understand or be thoughtful. We are more likely to condone police or marshal violence towards them. We are less likely to offer help, forgive them, and more likely to impose ourselves on them with a just feeling to use force. This is true from the bully in the playground to the senior manager intent on achieving their impact.


Those we have grouped ourselves with become part of our identity and we tend to judge members of the social groups we belong to as being more human than others. Jeroen Vaes suggests this is evident in the names that some groups give themselves. “Rom”, the name used by many of the Romany people of Eastern Europe, means “human”, for example, as does “Ainu” in the language of the Ainu population of northern Japan.


We define ourselves in many ways and are parts of many groups, ethnicity is just one of the ways. Each of us takes part in networks, large and small, which garner identity from religion, politics, gender, work, sport, clothes, shoes, friendship – the list goes on. The human tendency to split the world into “us” and “them” before discriminating against outsiders is so strong that it hardly requires any prompting.


Laura Spinney is a writer based in Lausanne, Switzerland. She wrote the article ‘Talent for prejudice: Why humans dehumanise others’ and reports on Jay Van Bavel and team how a graphic experiment, reveals that we literally see less humanity in the faces of those outside our own group.  Labels facilitate our sense of prejudice and our ability to see others as less human.  Stigma can be associated with labels associated with mental health, sexuality, gender, cultural background; it turns out we don’t need much to create ingroup and outgroup associations.


Jay Van Bavel and his team at New York University showed people images from a computer-generated series. If the face was designated as one of their own group – they perceived it as looking human sooner. Meanwhile, scans of their brains showed corresponding increases in activity in the “theory of mind” network of the brain, which is involved in recognising the minds of others.


In another experiment, they assigned volunteers to small groups that were randomly defined in every way except one – each included both blacks and whites. The participants rated members of their own group more positively than outsiders, regardless of skin colour, and were also more likely to remember the faces of group members despite having seen them for just a few seconds (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 38, p 1566). This is unusual as people are usually worse at remembering the faces of others who do not share their ethnic background – an effect thought to explain the high rates of cross-ethnic misidentification in police ID parades.


The fact that we so effortlessly bond with any group is positive news for those wanting to reduce prejudice in society, because if social groups are transient, then so is our tendency to dehumanise. Van Bavel and team have found that simply informing people that they have been accidentally assigned to the wrong group causes them to reverse their biases.


Research has found that encouraging interaction between groups helps reduce dehumanising behaviours, as does highlighting that members of different groups may belong to the same umbrella group – Irish Americans and African Americans sing the same national anthem, for example.


“You can get rid of many types of ethnic bias pretty quickly as long as you make people feel like they share some kind of group identity,” says Van Bavel. However there is a danger that by emphasising new groups, you may also help engender new social boundaries.


Engaging in behaviours which promote social ostracism by dehumanising others leaves us feeling dehumanised ourselves. Humans have a deep rooted need to feel that they belong to a group, obviously with both positive and negative consequences. It begs the question of how small and arbitrary can a group be while still creating a feeling of “us” and “them”?


toss a coin

The “minimal group paradigm” was devised in the 1970s as a way to explore this. Social psychologist Henri Tajfel and colleagues discovered that even something as basic as flipping a coin, or telling people that a coin had been flipped and that they had been assigned to one of two teams as a result, was enough to produce a measurable preference in them for members of their own team.


Tajfel puts forward: “Prejudice is an attitude (usually negative) toward the member of some group solely on their membership in that group. Prejudice can also be seen as part of the general process of ethnocentrism. Discrimination can be seen as the behavioural expression of prejudice.


Psychological theories which attempt to explain the origins of prejudice fall into two major categories. Personality theories, which see the source of prejudice as being in the individual and social psychological theories, which see prejudice as a result of group membership.


Sherif (1966) believes that prejudice arises out of conflict between two groups. For example when two groups want to achieve the same goal but cannot both have it, hostility is produced between them. Tajfel et al (1971) argue that ‘competition’ is not a sufficient condition for inter-group conflict and hostility.


Tajfel does not deny the importance of ‘competition’ between groups, personality types as explanations for the origins of prejudice but argues that mere perception of the existence of another group can itself produce discrimination. Tajfel et al argue that, before any discrimination can occur, people must be categorised as members of an in-group or an out-group, but more significantly the very act of categorisation by itself produces conflict and discrimination.”

[Tajfel H., (1970) Experiments in Intergroup Discrimination, ©1970 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, INC ]


Jay Van Bavel at New York University has replicated this finding many times. Those taking part in the experiments never meet the other members of their group and know nothing about them. There is no game or competition involved, no prize or punishment at stake. They are simply told which group they are in and shown pictures of the other members for a few seconds each. “That’s sufficient to get in-group bias,” he says.


Sometimes that is all it takes for us to think of outsiders as less than human. You can get rid of ethnic bias by making people feel like they share some kind of group Identity, thus you can work to reduce prejudices and differences by highlighting shared values. Understanding these basic dynamics is important in creating an open network connected with the Ragged University idea.


Education and knowledge must be perceived as being co-owned rather than the domain of proclaimed experts – that is, everyone must be acknowledged as having some kind of expertise. Experience provides us with this and working to break down the diminishing effects of exclusive attitudes is primary in the Ragged project. Also, the opportunity to obtain the necessary experience is vital to reveal the true potential of people – in short, everyone is capable of learning anything given the right settings and resources.


Peoples front of Judea

Also, as the project grows it is important to identify across boundaries to avoid Monty Python Syndrome – this alludes to the lampooning of small groups remaining atomised in the beginning of the Life of Brian. Time and again people and groups undermine themselves by remaining isolationist when they should be relating to each other in significant ways. Mutual reciprocity must be fostered at an intergroup level.


In the interpersonal spaces which events are held, there are no members and non members, there are no special considerations or exclusive rights; it is a co-owned space which is informally negotiated and renegotiated on a moment by moment basis. The co-ordinators take their place as facilitators not gatekeepers or chairs for the evening. They are there to ensure that the person speaking is supported in the preparation and that all the people attending are made welcome in the space as equals.


The talks are not about representing groups, but individual passions. Each person is a Ragged University, each with a unique history partly told, partly untold. These are the circumstances in which broader, private and personal networks are grown with a view to sharing the knowledge and passion each of us has.