Photo: Mauro Martino 

Group Psychology's Implication in Politics

Why We Can't Get Along

Under the Radar

Thomas Werner

April 4th, 2016

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all get along? Wouldn’t it be great if congress could put aside their stubbornness once in awhile and pass something? The world would be a better place. However, it’s simply human nature that drives group disagreements. In-group favoritism, or in-group out-group bias, is the phenomenon of social psychology where when put in groups, humans will consistently exhibit behaviors favoring their own group over those in the ‘out-group’. This behavior seems obvious and surface-levelled, but the downreaching implications run deep. On the issue of working together, two sub-theories are most prevalent: Out-group homogeneity and realistic conflict theory. These two explanations of group dynamics serve to give insight on why people polarize and the effects the polarization bring.


Out-Group Homogeneity 

Out-group homogeneity is exactly what it sounds like: the theory that we views members of our ingroup as diverse and complex, while the members of the outgroup seem to be, well, homogenous. To test this, a group of social scientists surveyed 90 sorority members, asking them to judge other sororities based on the similarity within them. Every participant judged members of their own sorority to be more diverse than the others. This may seem trivial, you may say to yourself, “yea of course that would happen, the ingroup has more contact with each other and less with the outgroup. They know each other deeper and naturally see each other as more complex.” But this is not the whole case. Studies show this bias does not depend on how well you know members of the in and outgroups. The bias has even been observed with groups as large as ‘men v women’, who have substantial contact with each other. The full explanation for this bias is still undetermined. However, Its implications are not. This cognitive error leads to stereotypes, snap judgements, and an inability to empathize with the outgroup. In a 2004 study, Israeli Kibbutz members, who promise to be universally cooperative, were observed to be more cooperative with other anonymous Kibbutz members than anonymous city residents. Even when a conscious effort is made to work with with the outgroup, we still naturally cooperate more with our ingroup.


In the world of politics, outgroup homogeneity is all too prevalent. We see it every day, in the people we interact with, and in ourselves (I’m guilty of it all the time). We assume our views are more correct and more well thought out, while the views of the opposition are the opposite. This leads to a discounting of the viewpoint from the other side. We only vote for our own party’s candidates, we only support our own party’s policies, and we naturally argue against the opposition. This may seem sensible, as your views line up with your designated party’s. But do they? The world of politics and policy is a complicated one, where black and white designations for efforts, such as political parties, cannot suffice. Even a 2D spectrum is not enough; many see the placement of theories as actually more of a twin axial one.


When it comes to information, there is a similar story. People who get their news from Reddit probably don’t read the National Review too much, and vice versa. When we limit our news to sources coming from one side, it results in a failure to see the big picture and analyze issues from all sides and perspectives. On top of this, when new issues arise we naturally go to our usual sources, and only intake the opinions, facts, and spins from one (our) side. Because of outgroup homogeneity, we almost unconsciously assume the other side's’ presentation of the issue will be similar to their other arguments, and that they do not have a distinct case, while the issue from our own side’s point of view is diverse and, well, correct. This cognitive error restricts us from properly politically thinking.


Realistic Conflict Theory 

Realistic conflict theory occurs when a special ingredient is thrown in the pot: limited resources. This, combined with the perception that there will be a clear winner and loser, results in hostility and discrimination between groups. In Robber’s Cave State Park, Muzafer Sherif conducted his most famous experiment testing this. 22 12 year old boys from almost identical backgrounds were selected at random to be divided into two groups. The boys did not know each other at all prior. During the first stage, the two groups were unaware of the other’s existence, and were encouraged to bond together. With the introduction of the second stage, the competition stage, things got hairy. A series of activities, such as baseball and tug-of-war were planned for the groups to compete in to promote friction between the groups. The winners got prizes and trophies, the losers got nothing. The groups ended up burning each other’s flags and raiding each other’s cabins, stealing personal property and sacking the cabins. After they had a few days to cool off, each member unsurprisingly ranked their own group as highly favorable and the other as very unfavorable. 12 year old boys, not gang members, resorted to this behavior because of group dynamics. The only difference between the boys was the group they were put in. In a world where cooperation is key, this instinctive behavior is counterintuitive.


Congress seems to have come down with a bad case of realistic conflict theory. There are limited resources: policy, power, votes. There is a clear winner and loser: who controls congress, who controls the white house, even who controls the judiciary. Our government has perverted itself into a polarized stubborn body that seems more self-centered than America centered these days. Over the years, congress has become systematically and shockingly more and more polarized. Today’s congress has only done a fraction of what the supposed ‘do nothing Congress’ achieved in the late 40’s. The ability to work together even resulted in the infamous government shutdown in 2013. With the knowledge that people even from identical backgrounds, when put in separate groups, can despise each other as seen in the Robber’s Cave experiment, the notion of political parties competing with each other seems unproductive. The two don’t work together, but rather against each other to further their own goals. Instead of building on each other to both become greater, they tear each other apart so one is the lesser.


The fact is, political parties are natural. Groups are natural. The river of democracy has poured down the rapids of political development, carving the canyon of political parties. But the cognitive errors that arise with groups are also natural. The partisanship and uncooperative nature of politics is an inevitable occurrence, but to stay afloat we must swim against the current. To bridge the canyon, politics must not be taken as a competition but rather as a coalition.