I am currently reading The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli, which gives a summary of the many cognitive errors that human beings are prone to make, errors that inhibit our ability to think clearly and logically. The book also gives advice on how best to overcome some of these biases. One chapter in the book struck me as being relevant to the debate on the moral relevance of countries and the ideas around citizenism, a debate to which my co-bloggers Sebastian Nickel and Nathan Smith have recently made contributions (see here and here). The chapter is called “Why You Identify With Your Football Team: In-Group Out-Group Bias” and it appears as Chapter 79 in the book. Below I reproduce, with the author’s permission, the entire chapter (I have added hyperlinks):
When I was a child, a typical wintry Sunday looked like this: my family sat in front of the TV watching a ski race. My parents cheered for the Swiss skiers and wanted me to do the same. I didn’t understand the fuss. First, why zoom down a mountain on two planks? It makes as little sense as hopping up the mountain on one leg, while juggling three balls and stopping every 100 feet to hurl a log as far as possible. Second, how can one-hundredth of a second count as a difference? Common sense would say that if people are that close together, they are equally good skiers. Third, why should I identify with the Swiss skiers? Was I related to any one of them? I didn’t think so. I didn’t even know what they thought or read, and if I lived a few feet over the Swiss border, I would probably (have to) cheer for another team altogether.
This brings us to the question: does identifying with a group — a sports team, an ethnicity, a company, a state — represent flawed thinking?
Over thousands of years, evolution has shaped every behavioural pattern, including attraction to certain groups. In times past, group membership was vital. Fending for yourself was close to impossible. As people began to form alliances, all had to follow suit. Individuals stood no chance against collectives. Whoever rejected membership or got expelled forfeited their place not only in the group, but also in the gene pool. No wonder we are such social animals — our ancestors were, too.
Psychologists have investigated different group effects. These can be neatly categorised under the term in-group-out-group bias. First, groups often form based on minor, even trivial, criteria. With sports affiliations, a random birthplace suffices, and in business it is where you work. To test this, the British psychologist Henri Tajfel* split strangers into groups, tossing a coin to choose who went to which group. He told the members of one group it was because they all liked a particular type of art. The results were impressive: although A) they were strangers, B) they were allocated to a group at random and C) they were far from art connoisseurs, the group members found each other more agreeable than members of other groups. Second, you perceive people outside your own group to be more similar than they actually are. This is called the out-group homogeneity bias. Stereotypes and prejudices stem from it. Have you ever noticed that, in science-fiction movies, only the humans have different cultures and the aliens do not? Third, since groups often form on the basis of common values, group members receive a disproportionate amount of support for their own views. This distortion is dangerous, especially in business: it leads to the infamous organisational blindness.
Family members helping one another out is understandable. If you share half your genes with your siblings, you are naturally interested in their well-being. But there is such a thing as ‘pseudokinship‘, which evokes the same emotions without blood relationship. Such feelings can lead to the most senseless cognitive error of all: laying down your life for a random group — also known as going to war. It is no coincidence that ‘motherland’ suggests kinship. And it’s not by chance that the goal of any military training is to forge soldiers together as ‘brothers’.
In conclusion: prejudice and aversion are biological responses to anything foreign. Identifying with a group has been a survival strategy for hundreds of thousands of years. Not any longer; identifying with a group distorts your view of the facts. Should you ever be sent to war, and don’t agree with its goals, desert.
*Henri Tajfel’s classic paper on the behaviour of groups is Experiments in Intergroup Discrimination.