I just walked past two children playing cricket on the lush grass-field along the lagoon where I am currently living. I was somewhat surprised when the two sisters spoke to each other in fluent Afrikaans, because they were black – unlike their parents (obviously adopters) who were stereotypical afrikaners, watching and coaching them from their camp chairs.
It got me thinking; why was I surprised? Due to the colour of their skin I had certain expectations about the language they would speak, the home they would come from, the sports they would like and so forth. The situation might have been the other way round as well, it doesn’t matter, the fact is that our brains are wired to react in certain ways to certain cues. Although this is a simple example, the psychological processes involved can ultimately lead to extremely illogical decisions and behaviour. Think about Nazi Germany, Apartheid-South Africa, current-South Africa and even the Trump administration. I want to describe a few psychological processes and site some experiments that I think can help explain what we have been witnessing in the news recently.
Classic conditioning: The first process is known to most of you by the example of Pavlov’s experiment with his dogs – where he started to ring a bell every time he fed his dogs and observed that even if the bell rang at different times the dogs would still get ready to eat. Isn’t it interesting that they can associate a neutral stimulus like a bell that rings with hunger – just because they have been associating them with each other over a long period? Or that I could associate the skin colour of a person with a whole different culture because of my experiences thus far. We might associate a specific religious group with terrorism because of the type of news coupled with that group every time they are named in the media. The same with political parties. As you can see these associations might occur very subtly from a very young age through the way our family and friends react to certain cues; to overt media messages we get exposed to over time.
So we are conditioned to react to cues. These cues are often times labels that we consciously or unconsciously place upon people or groups. It seems to be so deeply engraved in our DNA to belong to a certain group – whether it be the ‘left’ or ‘right’ -group, black or white, red or blue, conservative or charismatic; and I don’t think this will change – it is human nature to seek out the label where we will fit in. Look at the ‘Robbers Cave Experiment‘ from 1954 by Muzafer. Two groups of teenagers were randomly put together in two different camps at a summer school and allowed to socialise. For several weeks the two different groups didn’t know about each other, but when they were introduced to each other there were apparent prejudice and hostility towards the other group members – they even refused to eat in the same room. These groups were not even associating under the same specific label; just by virtue of sharing the same camp for a couple of weeks they formed a group that was unified somehow. This unity became more apparent when they let the two groups compete in activities. A bunch of normal random teenagers that new nothing about each others’ ideas and ideologies teamed up against each other. Or consider the ‘A class divided‘- experiment from 1968 by J Elliot who divided blue-eyed kids from brown-eyed kids and named the blue-eyed group the superior group, constantly praising them. This caused the blue-eyed group to perform better academically and bully the brown-eyed group. When she reversed the groups, the brown-eyed group displayed exactly the same behaviour. Labelling by eye-colour led to change in academic performance and social behaviour. (*These early studies does not always carry the strong validity as more temporary studies – due to small numbers and many uncontrolled variables – and often spill beyond current ethical guidelines, they, however, were the first to shed light on important psychological principles).
While this early experiments shed light on our desire to belong to a group, it didn’t explain why it could get so extreme. This brings me to the following phenomenon called group polarisation.
Group polarisation: Different groups don’t like each other, but why could they end up hating each other so much? A 1961 experiment demonstrated that people tend to be more extreme in their ideas when in a group than when alone – a phenomenon termed risky shift. Three main theories arose to explain this:
- Social comparison theory: people generally want to gain acceptance when entering a group and therefore they adjust their opinion to the group’s opinion – but then a little more extreme – to gain more acceptance. As this scaffolding happens between different people the group arises with a more extreme opinion as what the average of all the people in the group would have been.
- Informational influence: people are aware of the two arguments held by two opposing groups, but tend to lean towards the side that provides the more information and holds the most persuasive arguments.
- Self-categorisation theory: maintains that people want to identify with a certain group that is often more extreme and when a group is confronted by one that holds an opposing/differing view, the group become even more extreme in the direction they were already headed almost pushing each other further apart.
Neuropolarisation: in the wake of the events around the previous American election, researchers 2 once again endeavoured to understand this phenomenon. Technology advanced significantly since these previous early social experiments and neuro-imaging studies gave us a slightly closer look at the neural basis for these experiments named above. Participants from both conservative – and liberal political backgrounds were connected to functional brain scans (fMRI) while being shown both conservative and liberal election campaign advertisements. It showed two important things: Firstly it showed which part of the brain worked when participants considered the ads. It was the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), the part of your brain which is essentially responsible for you identity, your social judgement, empathy, emotion regulation and ethical decision making. Researchers calls the dmPFC the ‘lens’ of the brain as all the information our brain receives firstly passes through it. The same part of the brain was utilised by both groups of participants, but functioned differently – to such an extent that researchers could deduct from the brain scan whether they would be conservative or liberal. This is not because we were ‘wired’ to disagree – it is in fact these processes I have described above that changes the brains to act differently. The way our parents conditioned us and the propaganda we got exposed to – all form the way our brain works! And that brings me to the second important finding: This part of the brain was engaged mostly when language which highlighted threat, morality and emotion were used in ads. The scary thing is that the media knows this and has used techniques to gain votes which has probably resulted in extreme neuropolarisation.
After considering these processes that polarise people, one can try and understand why this can get so extreme. We have seen how easily humans gather themselves under a label. But now, no label is as appealing as a human being. Specifically one with strong character, fearlessness and keen persuasive capabilities – in other words, the political leader type of character – and there is a good psychological theory for this. Psycho-analysis is the field of psychology that can help explain dynamic processes happening in and between people. As we develop and become aware of our strengths and weaknesses through life, some parts of our identity remain yet unconscious. It is these aspects of ourselves, whether good or bad, that we tend to project unto other people, clasically our parents when we are young, and often famous people when we get older, like politicians. The Jews who requested the tall and handsome Saul to be their king is also a good example of this 1. And so we can end up, for example, in awe of the bravery of that person which is in actual fact our own, unknown, bravery. Or end up despising the arrogance of a person which is only our own arrogance, ever so unacceptable to our conscious selves! And so from the depths of our own souls, we idealise one political leader at the expense of another we despise. We end up witnessing on the news – conflict between two parties which is in actual fact two poles of our own souls. Furthermore, the unaware political leader becomes the bearer of his accumulated followers’ worst and best ideologies.
One of the most extreme forms of this polarisation we have seen in recent history may be the holocaust. In the wake of the holocaust researchers wanted to understand how human beings can end up doing the atrocities that happened in Nazi Germany. Comes the ‘Milgram experiment‘ from 1963: Participants were told they were recruited to help study the memory of other ‘participants’ in a study. The participants were told they were to give the ‘participants’ of the study an electrical shock each time they got the memory test wrong. The real participants did not know that the ‘participants’ undergoing the electrical shocks were actors who were instructed to make as if they were being shocked. The unknowing participants gave the shocks and increased the voltage as they were instructed by the study leaders, but stopped when they saw the poor ‘participants’ being in pain. After the study leaders reassured them that they will take full responsibility, 65% of the participants continued shocking the ‘participants’. Stanley Milgram concluded that: people will let them be directed by others if they believe they are authority figures who will take responsibility for the outcomes.
In summary, we have all ended up in a group as a result of our conditioning, projections, our culture and group polarisation dynamics, whether we like it or not. But there is one last element I want to mention that we have not touched on. And that is the presets we all have in our DNA – the code for our conditioning before humans programmed us. CG Jung observed that all humanity regardless of anything that other humans did to us, we have certain presets engraved in our psyche. Presets he termed archetypes. These are recurring themes like the need for mothering, for love, for meaning, the possibility to be significant and to be a hero. These themes has occurred through all of history in all humanity. And maybe this is what Jesus wanted to get us back to when He described the parable of the Good Samaritan 3. He demonstrated the victory of the good samaritan in whom the ‘Hero-complex’ overcame the need to keep to his cultural rules. For the hero inside him it was more important to show compassion and help, than to avoid a Jew because of those days’ customs. Maybe if we all started connecting with our original presets we will find that we all have more in common than we differ.
After chatting with my new friends at the lagoon, it transpired that the adoptive father was an ex-policeman who used to be a bodyguard of PW Botha many years ago. Their two black adopted daughters were in the place of safety, that they recently started and ran, and after the children got too old for the place of safety and were supposed to be returned to welfare, it was in fact him that desperately stopped the process and convinced the family to rather adopt them. I can imagine how much change must have gone into his mindset from his early days as an Apartheid police officer to where he was today, but the important thing is that such a mind shift is possible and we all should develop the skill to regularly reconsider all that we have been conditioned to believe. Because today we might sign up for a better Germany and tomorrow we could be putting Jews in gas chambers; today we could sign up to defend our country against the ‘rooi gevaar’ and tomorrow we might think it’s normal to prevent differently coloured people to sit on the same bench as us; today we might be voting for our liberators and tomorrow join them in bribery; or today we might be making America great again and tomorrow we could be destroying Capitol Hill property.
“Your eye is a lamp that provides light for your whole body. When your eye is good, your whole body is filled with light. But when it is bad, your body is filled with darkness. Make sure that the light you have is not actually darkness.”Luke 11:34
- 1 Sam 8
- Brain Imaging Reveals a Neural Basis for Partisan Politics – Medscape – Oct 27, 2020
- Luke 10:25
*Revised 25/01/2021 for sake of clarity