Us vs Them mentality (What is it?)

In this guide, we will discuss what the Us vs Them mentality is and some important theoretical aspects to make sense of how we get to form this type of mentality or even to understand how we get to decide where we and other people seem to belong in different social settings. However, it doesn’t mean we are only allowed to belong to one group or the other, in fact, we can belong to many different groups at the same time. 

Us vs Them mentality

You may have probably heard about the ‘us vs them mentality’ that may be explained through the Social Identity Theory by Henri Tajfel. This theory explains how, as human beings we tend to categorize people and have this sense of affiliation (or affinity) with one group over another because we perceive the members of the group as being similar among them. The group we feel we belong to would be the in-group while the ‘others’ will be part of the out-group. 

Moreover, being part of a group allows us to have a sense of who we are (identity) based on the characteristics of a group. We may see this through social class, family, football teams, etc., which people tend to give a lot of importance to becoming a source that feeds our self-esteem. In this sense then, it is normal that as human beings we tend to look for acceptance and where we belong in the social world. This is our way to divide and organize the world around us based on a category called ‘them’ and another one called ‘us’ where we belong. 

Undeniably we are social beings that try to make sense of their place in our society but sometimes, in the search for belonging, we could take things further to an extreme. We will also see some ways to counteract this type of mentality. 

In group (us) and out group (them)

Henry Tajfel talked about how we tend to categorize people through a cognitive process called ‘stereotyping’ which is a tendency to group things. Moreover, in the process of doing so we tend to group people because they are different from us and we also group them because of the similarities.

As indicated by simplypsychology.com, “This is known as in-group (us) and out-group (them). The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that group members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image.”

However, prejudice may lead to racism and we have seen it in its extreme forms, resulting in genocide which is the case between Germans and the Jews, the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, and many other examples through the history of mankind. Also, we could consider football as an example, for instance, Liverpool and Man United, being part of a social class such as middle or working class, or gender differences within males and females.  

The Robbers Cave Experiment

In 1954, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif and some colleagues conducted the ‘Robbers Cave Experiment’ which is one of the most famous demonstrations on what later became the us vs them’ phenomenon. 

The experiment consisted in taking a group of typical young boys from a summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma and randomly assigned them into two groups that were isolated from each other. Each of these groups adopted names (The Rattlers and The Eagles) and after an initial bonding period, the researchers told each group of boys about the existence of the other group.

Both groups engaged in a series of games and began behaving badly, resorting to name calling, self-segregation, and similar behaviors. At the final phase of the experiment, the researchers created a situation where the two groups needed to work together in a cooperative task. They found over time how the tension between groups declined gradually in time when the groups were able to see the opposition more favorably.  

Stages of the social Identity Theory

Stage 1: Social categorization

The first stage is social categorization which simply means we tend to categorize objects so we can understand and identify them, the same way we categorize people so we can make sense of their place in a social environment. The type of categories we may use are white, christian, latin, muslim, student, popular, poor, rich, etc, because they are in essence useful to idenfity the people around us.

Imagine if we couldn’t assign a category or a ‘tag’ to a certain group of people with similar qualities or characteristics. By doing so, the category itself will give us information about the people contained in it but we have to consider how biased and full of stereotypes. 

Moreover, it is also helpful to identify which category we belong to, because we are able to find things about ourselves, define our behavior by the group of norms followed by the group. However, consider how an individual is not limited to belong to only one group having the possibility of belonging to many different groups at the same time, for instance an individual could belong to the group of white, millennials from a certain nationality.

Stage 2: Social identification

In this stage, we tend to adopt the identity of the group we think we may belong to. For instance, if you have categorized yourself as catholic then chances are you will adopt behaviors associated with the group of people that identify themselves as catholics.

Moreover, as indicated by simplypsychology.com, “There will be an emotional significance to your identification with a group, and your self-esteem will become bound up with group membership.”

Stage 3: Social comparison

This would be the third and final stage where, once we have identified ourselves as part of a certain category or group of people then it is natural to compare our group with other groups and all the differences between them, good or bad. We have to remember how personal experiences with a certain group will shape our perception, creating stereotypes and prejudice around them. 

For instance, let’s consider two football teams that identify themselves as rivals and therefore seem to be forced to compete in order for their members to keep their self-esteem. Moreover, we could consider being part of a certain football team but if there was another group called ‘police’ then we would become one group ‘soccer fans vs the police’. 

Is it all bad?

Not necessarily since it is not only about what we often see on TV and how a group of people became hostile or aggressive towards another and we have already mentioned when this mentality goes into the extreme. 

The ‘Us vs Them’ mentality can also be used as an example in business but how? Well, let’s start by consider it creates competition and without having a competitive business then they couldn’t have the possibility to improve themselves, have better products, services, processes, etc. subsequently, we could identify some of the categories within a business such as staff vs customers, boss vs employer, entrepreneur vs clients, and so on. 

Counteracting the ‘Us vs Them’ mentality

There are certain concepts we need to consider when counteracting the ‘Us vs Them’ mentality, such as:

  • Supportive, friendly competition.
  • Transparency, encouraging people to speak honestly about their feelings.
  • Rearrange competitive groups by switching some of the members from one group to the other. 
  • Making inter-group cooperation the norm, by creating opportunities to share responsibilities and incentives, learning from each other. 
  • Encourage team spirit as part of the workplace culture.
  • Remember, ‘You are all in this together’ so they know that even if they belong to a certain group, they work towards a common goal.
  • Choose team leaders carefully by identifying those that are able to nurture collaborative and communicative environments.

Why is this blog about Us vs Them mentality important?

The Us vs Them mentality is important as we have discussed because it allows us to understand how human beings get to categorize people and even themselves in groups. Moreover, we saw how the social Identity Theory by Henri Tajfel gave sense to the Us vs Them mentality by explaining how, as human beings we tend to categorize people and have this sense of affiliation (or affinity) with one group over another because we perceive the members of the group as being similar among them. 

Subsequently, the group we feel we belong to would be the in-group while the ‘others’ will be part of the out-group. In addition, the stages of the social Identity Theory such as social categorization, social identification and social comparison help us understand step by step how we get to form and belong to certain categories.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Us vs Them mentality

What is us vs them mentality?

The psychological theory of us vs them mentality may give us an explanation on how the human mind has a tendency to categorize people into social groups, whether it is nationality, political affiliation, age, culture, gender, race, etc. When these categories are formed, we draw an invisible line where we differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. 

What does us vs them mean?

Us vs them is related to a state of opposition where there is a difference between two groups, mostly based on group membership or affiliation. For instance, we could talk about Young people (Us) vs old people (them), Catholics vs muslims, millennials vs centennials, teachers vs students, and so on. This allows people to make sense of their place in society and to make sense of other peoples places in a social environment. 

Why do humans divide into groups?

Humans tend to divide people into groups to have a sense of belonging or identifying with one or another group. This is the way we find our place in society or in a social environment. Moreover, this also allows us to adopt certain behaviors, customs, cultural aspects, etc, that lets us identify ourselves. This is as old as time, if we consider old civilizations grouping since the beginning of time.

References 

McLeod, S. A. (2019, October 24). Social identity theory. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html

Lipkin, N. (2019, Jan.) How To Avoid US VS THEM In The Workplace. Retrieved from medium.com.

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