A recent New York Times essay by Jon Mooallem, "Is life better when we're together?" is worth a read, and references work of Packer and Van Bavel described in their new book "The Power of Us." Their experiments, a continuation of work started by psychologist Henri Tafjel in the 1970s, illustrate how our social brains are programmed to organize us into "us" and "them" groups on the basis of sometimes completely arbitrary and trivial criteria, as in assigning a study group of subjects into groups A and B on the basis of a coin toss. Tafjel's work is also referenced in another excellent article by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, "How Politics Got So Polarized." She reviews a number of recent books in this area, and also notes the phenomenon of "false polarization" - views of the extremes predominate as the moderate majority of people withdraw from the fray of commentary.
Here are some clips from the Mooallem article, the first noting Tafjel's experiments on high school students in Bristol, England.
...biases locked in right away. Overwhelmingly, people in Dr. Tajfel’s experiment gave more of the money he put at their disposal to members of their own group than the other. Moreover, they were bent on creating as large a disparity as possible, even when offered the option of maximizing the amount of money for everyone, at no cost. Their behavior seemed vindictive, “a clear case of gratuitous discrimination,” Dr. Tajfel wrote.
Since then, other researchers have run their own minimal group experiments, pushing those findings further. Dr. Packer and Dr. Van Bavel have split people into leopards and tigers, for example. Others have gone maximally minimal and divided people into group A and group B. Still, the pride — the readiness to connect — is always there. When you tell people they’re in group A, Dr. Packer says, those people are reliably psyched to be in group A. Stick leopard people in a brain imaging machine and show them a picture of a stranger, and their brain activity changes if they know that the stranger is a leopard person, too. Their positivity toward other leopard people increases and even supersedes racial biases that cut the other way.
Dr. Packer and Dr. Van Bavel call the minimal group studies “among the most important studies in the history of psychology.” They demonstrate that “the human sense of self — your gravitational center — does not stay in the same place. With a flip of a coin, people constructed entirely new identities in a matter of minutes.”...The rewards of this kind of connectedness wind up driving all kinds of wonderful human behavior, sometimes less obviously than we’d assume.But it also leads to the behaviors shown by the insurrections of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
It’s hard to imagine more antisocial behavior than attempting to undo a democratic election with mayhem and violence. But the insurrectionists were doing it together, and pretty joyously, it seemed — snapping selfies, posting them to Facebook with stupid jokes in real time. It was, within their community, a prosocial activity, too.
When a system appears to be malfunctioning, indifferent, reckless or corrupt, that’s a kind of disaster, and people are likely to come together and respond, for better or worse...Some will be volunteers, and some will be vigilantes. But both may be reacting to a similar feeling of free fall, of tumbling. This doesn’t make them morally equivalent; in the end, morality is what keeps them from being equivalent. I know it’s important to keep drawing that distinction, to keep calling it out. I also know it’s not enough.