“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].
Q: Why is it that humans appear to have the need to designate others as enemies or bad guys? Whether we’re talking about race, sex, religion, or nationality – there always seems to be a reason why we are at odds with others!
A: This question is an excellent follow-up to last issue’s column on opposition to same-sexed marriage and relates to the dynamics of prejudice, fear, basic insecurity and the attainment and maintenance of social status and power.
Human history, as well as a myriad of social psychological studies, appears to support the notion that humans have a tendency toward divisiveness, aggression and the derogation of others. As mentioned in my previous column, before the conflict over same-sexed marriages, we discriminated against inter-racial marriages. Prior to the inter-racial marriage conflict (as well as racial desegregation in general) we were embroiled in inter-faith marriage conflicts. So the question becomes, why do we always feel the need to favor certain groups while excluding others?
Findings suggest that, in the absence of popular cultural out-group designations (such as race or homosexuality), humans will create bases by which to discriminate against others. For example, in one profound study involving a classroom of white elementary school children, experimenters told teachers to inform students that there were significant differences in ability between blue-eyed and brown-eyed students. Results showed that students soon formed alliances with like-eyed classmates and engaged in egregious forms of bullying, teasing and ostracizing those students with different eye colors. Therefore, it appears that we can always find a basis by which to reject others that are different from ourselves. And if the differences don’t naturally exist – we will create distinctions to form social polarities.
If one were to study the major world religions, one would find more similarities than differences. And while skin color may appear different on the body’s surface, our bio-chemical composition and anatomical structures are the same. Surely, the social world is diverse, but underlying the diversity is a foundation of similarity in function – if not form. We tend to focus most heavily on what distinguishes us from one-another as opposed to what we share in common. Even researchers studying wolves have found striking similarities between human behavior and the family structure of wolf-packs in terms of parenting and nurturing.
Social psychology has demonstrated that those with low self-esteem and insecure self-concepts utilize prejudice and discrimination to stimulate an increase in self-worth. By putting others down, we gain superiority by comparison. But the real underlying question is why we feel insecure in the first place? We know that poor or destructive parenting can damage the self-esteem of developing children. We also know that capitalist societies, by worshiping material gain, foster social divisiveness between the “haves” and “have nots.” However, low self-esteem and insecurity – just like the selfish desire for power and status – have their roots in basic fear.
We are inundated with fear tactics everyday. From what novel disease lurks around the next corner – to weapons of mass destruction – our daily lives are spent dodging, weaving and managing fear triggers and our responses to them. We overeat, over medicate and over spend, all in an attempt to anesthetize ourselves from our feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. But in doing so, we overlook the tremendous inner power and strength we possess as a collective species and members of a global community. You know the saying: a single snowflake is delicate and harmless, but collectively, an avalanche becomes a powerful force to be reckoned with.
What are we truly afraid of that keeps us victims of this social “divide-and-conquer” mindset? Why are we threatened by unity and diversity – and why do we treat these concepts as mutually exclusive? Those wed in inter-faith marriages have led full, loving and productive lives as our friends and neighbors. The progeny of an inter-racial marriage has now been elected president. So why are we so afraid of same-sexed marriage (the new enemy de jour)?
In reflecting upon the concepts in this column, ask yourself who stands to gain from the plethora of endless social discrimination and conflict. Who profits from racism, war, sexism and our collective states of fear and hatred? Do we? Perhaps the question we need to be asking isn’t so much what we’ve got to lose by realizing human equality as a concrete reality, but rather, what do we stand to gain?