Humans aren’t born hostile to ‘outsiders’: Insights from the Social Allegiance Theory and Coalitional Psychology
Kids aren’t born with us versus them mindsets.
Young children form these behaviors by observing what the systems and allegiances around them value and reward. The human brain is primed to look out for patterns of cooperation and coordination between other humans – as a way to figure out its best chances for survival. Once young children see that certain behaviors (and even superficial things like appearances, and even more random things like t-shirt color) are valued or devalued by the ‘system’, they begin to form allegiances, and increase their hostility towards ‘outsiders’. (Banaji, 2013).
In fact, studies show that when a group is made aware of ‘outsiders’ by an authority figure, their in-group oxytocin (bonding hormone) levels rise. Bonding increases… that can only be a good thing, right? Well, higher in-group oxytocin is also shown to increase hostility and aggression to the out-group. (Lieberman, 2013).
In-group preferences can be manipulated easily in humans.
Studies on Minimal Group Paradigms, pioneered in the 1970s, showed that people can become increasingly hostile to other people for categories as flimsy as under-estimating the correct number of dots on a screen versus over-estimating the dots. The change in behavior comes when an authority figure has pointed out the difference (Tajfal, 1970 & 1982).
The behavior of a teacher or authority figure can lead groups to create in-group / out-group hostility
Children as young as preschoolers have been shown to reject and exclude kids based on completely arbitrary groups – but only if the teacher makes it clear that a specific group gets special treatment compared to the other. In these studies, one set of children are placed in a ‘distinct allegiance’ condition – where the authority figure arbitrarily assigns kids to one of two groups and makes it clear that one of the groups gets special treatment. In ‘non-distinct’ allegiance conditions, children are also placed in two different groups, but the authority figure does not give special treatment to any particular group. (Rhodes & Chalik, 2013).
In distinct allegiance conditions, children are significantly more likely to exclude non-group members from activities and are more likely to justify mean behavior toward an outsider simply because they’re an outsider. When authority figures show no preferential treatment to either group (even though the kids may be wearing either red or blue shirts to indicate their group), children show no difference in their behavior according to which group they were in. (Banaji, 2013).
Children view cooperative allegiances as determining unique moral obligations
Children are also shown to explain moral infractions by appealing to group membership when it is clear that allegiances are valued by the overall system (distinct allegiances). For example, in a study on preschoolers, where some were randomly assigned to be a Zaz, and others a Flurp, children who were in the distinct allegiance condition would answer the question, “why did a Zaz steal a toy from a flurp? Because he’s a Zaz, but he’s a Flurp. They’re not the same kind.” When asked why a Flurp should share toys with another Flurp, the answer was aligned with category membership: “because they are both Flurps.” (Rhodes, 2012).
In contrast, children who were in the non-distinct allegiances referred to general social values: “a Flurp shares with a Zaz because it is nice” (Rhodes, 2012).
The behavior of teachers, parents and authority figures plays a major role not only in how children view themselves as in-groups versus out-groups but how they choose to treat ‘outsiders’.
The grown-ups in the room can deprive children of psychological safety by making it clear that a certain group is more highly valued than another. We can’t leave that for the kids to sort out – they look to authority to build up their ‘social grammar’ and worldviews of who’s an “us” and who’s a “them”.