According to psychology, we’re all evil (but there’s hope…)

According to psychology

Our country is in the middle of a civil war.

This war isn’t being fought with bullets and bazookas, it’s being fought with words and withering glances.

While those of us on the coasts with a liberal bend might want to act morally superior, the fact of the matter is that there are no innocent soldiers in war—even this one.

At least that’s what a fairly recent line of research shows. As Politico summarizes:

“Research over the years has shown that in industrialized nations, social conservatives and religious fundamentalists possess psychological traits, such as the valuing of conformity and the desire for certainty, that tend to predispose people toward prejudice. Meanwhile, liberals and the nonreligious tend to be more open to new experiences, a trait associated with lower prejudice. So one might expect that, whatever each group’s own ideology, conservatives and Christians should be inherently more discriminatory on the whole.

But more recent psychological research, some of it presented in January at the annual meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), shows that it’s not so simple. These findings confirm that conservatives, liberals, the religious and the nonreligious are each prejudiced against those with opposing views. But surprisingly, each group is about equally prejudiced. While liberals might like to think of themselves as more open-minded, they are no more tolerant of people unlike them than their conservative counterparts are.”

The tribal, us-vs-them attitude is no surprise. After all, for most of human history we lived in small groups. Unfamiliar outsiders were scary – were they coming to hurt us? Were they safe?

Given that context, fear of the unknown, especially unknown others, is rational. But in the modern context, we’ve built up institutions that allow us to let down our guard and trust even complete strangers. The legal and law enforcement systems are meant to deter bad behavior, so that we can go through our days with the belief that complete strangers are unlikely to harm us. If they do they’ll be punished (we believe). Companies like Airbnb and Lyft allow us to put ourselves at the mercy of others in highly vulnerable situations—because we trust the companies, and the systems they’ve created.*

But, unfortunately, the drive towards balkanization seems to be an ever-present part of life. There’s actually an area of psychological research that focuses on this, and one of its main models is called “Realistic Conflict Theory”.

The most famous experiment underlying this theory was the “Robbers Cave Study”. Led by Muzafer Sherif, a pioneer in social psychology, the study looked at how 22 fifth graders would behave, (and how prejudice would evolve) when they were put on arbitrary teams and made to compete.

Here’s how the study worked: The kids were split into two groups, and brought to a park that was (unsurprisingly) called Robbers Cave State Park.

During the first week of the experiment, each of the groups lived in different parts of the park. They bonded. They came up with group names. They made flags and other paraphernalia.

Then, the two groups were brought together for a series of competitions. The winning team got prizes. The losing team got nothing. In other words, they were engaged in a zero-sum, winner-take-all competition.

What do you think happened? Do you think they got along and acted like good sports? Did they fall in love with each other, form drum circles, and sing kumbaya?


Things got pretty nasty, pretty quickly.

The two teams fought–verbally and physically.

They dehumanized each other.

They hated each other.

As Wikipedia summarizes:

“Researchers set up a four-day competitions between those groups with promised prizes to the winners. Prejudice became apparent between the two groups. The prejudice was initially only verbally expressed, such as through taunting or name calling, but as the competition progressed, the prejudice began being expressed more directly, such as with one group burning the other’s flag or ransacking their cabin. The groups became too aggressive with each other to control; the researchers had to separate them physically.[8]

Researchers then gave all boys a two-day cooling-off period, and asked them to list characteristics of the two groups. The boys tended to characterize their own group highly favourably and the other group very negatively. The researchers then attempted to reduce the prejudice between the groups, and found that simply increasing their contact with each other made matters worse. In contrast, “Forcing the groups to work together to reach subordinate goals, or common goals, eased the prejudice and tension among the groups”.[8] Thus, in this “integration” or conflict resolution phase, it was shown that superordinate goals reduce conflict significantly more effectively than communication or contact did.”


So, while it may be human nature to bind together and hate “the other”, it also looks like the research points towards a solution: binding together and fighting for a common goal or cause.

I actually believe this is why Singapore originally instituted mandatory military service–it created a situation in which all the diverse youth of the nation were able to work together towards a common goal. According to the Robbers Cave experiment, that’s exactly what’s needed to reduce conflict and prejudice.

While I don’t think a national military requirement is necessarily what our country needs, I do think that the more we can work together on large, audacious projects the stronger our country will become. We need a new space race. We need new infrastructure projects.

We need massive, imagination-tingling goals that all of us can rally around.

That may be our only hope. 

*My friend, Stephen Scott, is the expert on this. Check out his stuff if you’re interested in the psychology of trust and how it relates to business. 

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