There will always be an out-group to hate, so what do we do?

Whether we like it or not, people live and function in distinct social groups.  Often times, an individual is a member of multiple groups and thus will identify with these varying groups.  These social groups are often positive in that they provide the social support needed to help the human species survive and thrive.  However, some groups provide such a strong social identity for individuals that it is hard not to view individuals in terms of “us-them” categories.  This is when group membership has the potential to become dangerous.  Once we start to view ourselves with labels such as “us” vs. “them,” we get into a dangerous territory known by social psychologists as intergroup bias.  Intergroup bias is composed of two parts: 1) in-group favoritism, which essentially means showing preference toward one’s own in-group members, and 2) out-group derogation, which means treating out-group members poorly, especially in comparison to one’s in-group.  Often times, out-group derogation can take on the ugly form of hate, prejudice, and discrimination.

This intergroup bias exists across a multitude of groups, including gender, race, religion, and even sports teams or university affiliation.  The problem does not necessarily lie in identifying with one’s group members.  Rather, it lies in viewing those lying outside one’s own group negatively, often in order to bolster esteem among one’s own group.

Unfortunately, time demonstrates that there will always be an out-group to hate.  In America, that out-group has shifted over time from African Americans to gay men and lesbian women, and now, according to a recent article in the New York Times by Robert Wright, that out-group may be Muslims.  Despite much progress made in recent times to reduce prejudice against gay men/lesbian women, a new out-group to hate – Muslims – has emerged.

This pattern of derogating specific minority groups in America keeps repeating – African Americans were derogated, then eventually the civil rights movement helped reduce that prejudice.  Then, gay men/lesbian women were derogated, but according to Wright’s article, this prejudice has decreased dramatically in recent years.  Now on the rise (and openly accepted by some) is prejudice against Muslims, referred to as Islamophobia.

So who’s to blame?  Often, most people point their fingers at Christians, suggesting that intolerant scripture is what promotes prejudice against value-violating out-groups such as gay men and Muslims.  However, according to Wright and based off research done by Putnam and Campbell, this may not be the case.  Putnam and Campbell note that three decades ago, less than 50% of frequent churchgoers in America were fine with gay people openly expressing their views on gayness.  Today, however, that number has risen to 70%.  And no Biblical scripture has changed in the meantime.  Thus, there seems to be a cultural component to this prejudice.

What’s the cause of this reduction in homophobia?  According to Putnam and Campbell, the only way to reduce this prejudice is to build bridges between the out-group and the in-group.  As these bridges have been built over time, prejudice against gay men and lesbian women has been reduced.  This way of reducing negative attitudes toward out-groups works across a myriad of groups.  For instance, there is an often understated, overlooked prejudice against evangelical Christians.  This prejudice too can be reduced using the bridge model.  Research by Putnam and Campbell demonstrates that individuals who gained evangelical friends rated evangelicals more warmly.  So why is prejudice against Muslism so high?  It could be that the current population of Muslims in the United States is so small and in such concentrated areas that bridges are hard to build with this community.

So how do we build bridges with the Muslim community?  And if these bridges are built, will another minority rise up as a target for discrimination?  These are the questions left unanswered.  As a prejudice researcher myself, I also aim to understand what causes prejudice and how to reduce it.  But the big question is, can you ever prevent society from having a constant out-group to derogate?

About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

2 responses to “There will always be an out-group to hate, so what do we do?

  • Ian S

    Whenever one takes on an identity, whether socially or individually, the other side of the coin is almost always, what one, or one’s group, is “not”. In social situations, it manifests itself in the “us/them” mentality as you’ve described, or more individually, I am me, I am not you. You are not me.

    What follows, then, is the emotional component of this identification. How do I feel about myself in light of who you are? How do I feel about my group in light of the fact that you are not in my group? Often times, those differences, in order to make one feel good about oneself or one’s group, takes on a certain positive evaluation, such that oneself or one’s group is somehow “better”. These good evaluations build “esteem” in the self or the group. The more esteem that is built (often at the expense of the out-group), the more the divide and the more “arrogant” or “intolerant” or “prejudice” sometimes one/one’s group may be perceived.

    Perhaps the way to approach your “big question”, then, may be to examine ways to discover and/or acquire one’s own identity, socially or individually, without having to use the “out-group/other” as the means to do so. I know this comes so instinctually to us all but perhaps our solution lies there.

    Here I believe is where the Christian worldview/Gospel might have some insight, for “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. All lines have been eliminated from the Christian world view. If Christians can truly come to understand this, perhaps have an idea of how to begin to address “us/them”. The reality is, Christ died. The reality has already shifted. As far as God is concerned, sin is gone for all. Christ died for all. It’s just that not everyone recognizes this reality. Many of us are still drawing the lines.

    BTW, Megs, I love that you ask such questions. 😉

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