July 6th, 2021
EPISODE 4: Friends and Foes: The Neuroscience of In-Group and Out-Group with Harvard Professor Dr. Jason Mitchell
In this episode of Your Brain at Work, Dr. David Rock, the CEO and Co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute is joined by Dr. Jason Mitchell, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. Together, they explore the concept of in-group and out-group, the effects it has on the brain and behavior, and what we can do about it to mitigate the negative effects and accentuate the positive. The two scientists unpack how we can leverage that knowledge to make interactions more positive and effective, and to make organizations more human.
[00:00:04] CD: Human beings are social animals. We’re “groupy” as Dr. Jason Mitchell puts it. He’s a professor of psychology at Harvard University and an expert on in-groups and out-groups, the science of how we recognize friends and identity folks, of how we sort and interact with other people on a neurological level. Dr. Mitchell explains that the distinctions we make between members of the in-group and of the out-group have measurable, though sometimes imperceptible effect on our interactions.
Study show that we have tremendous, even visceral feelings of apathy from members of our in-group and we just count those feelings towards members of the out-group. In other words, we feel more connected to and more positive towards members of our in-group. Findings like these beg questions like, “How can we place more people in our in-groups and less people in our out-groups? How can we mitigate the negative effects and accentuate the positive of this psychological phenomenon?”
Dr. Mitchell joined Your Brain at Work to answer those questions and more. Along with NLI’s CEO and co-founder, Dr. David Rock, Dr. Mitchell explores and explains the science of in-groups and out-group, of empathy and of perspective taking. The two scientists unpack how we can leverage that knowledge to make interactions more positive and effective and to make organizations more human.
I’m Cliff David and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw our episodes from a weekly webinar series that NLI has been hosting every Friday. This week, our panel consists of NLI’s CEO and co-founder, Dr. David Rock and professor of psychology at Harvard University, Dr. Jason Mitchell. Enjoy!
[00:01:57] DR: Jason, it’s great to see you again. We haven’t shared space physically since the summit in Boston, which I think was like 2011, a decade ago.
[00:02:06] JM: You haven’t aged a bit, David.
[00:02:07] DR: Right? You haven’t either. I’m a bit upset. Yeah, it’s about 2011, I think NLI total was about 10 people at the time. We’re about 200 now. Your trajectory just gone on from strength to strength, but you have continued being interested in similar things, which I was excited to find when I reconnected with you recently. Because some of the early research you did has been really essential in our thinking and influencing.
I wanted to kind of talk about your work, it’s sort of three chapters. Just for folks listening, this might help you focus your questions, and comments. But firstly, I want to hear a little bit about you and kind of why you got interested in neuroscience and just basically, what is this concept of in-group and out-group? Then chapter two, we’ll talk a little bit about the effects of in-group and out-group on the brain and what actually happens and on behavior. Then the big conversation really is, so what can we do about it, how can we mitigate the negatives effects and accentuate the positives? What do we know from actual neuroscience about that? We’ll kind of organize our thoughts that way a little bit.
Let’s kick off. First thing, tell me maybe a personal story. What got you interested in neuroscience in the first place? How come you started to study the brain?
[00:03:19] JM: Yeah. Part of my interest really dates back to my own childhood. I grew up in New York City, in Queens in sort of big extended family. My grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles all living on the same block. Spent a lot of time around my uncle, Paul, who has a diagnosis of high functioning autism. As you know, David, one of the cardinal symptoms of autism is a real inability to navigate the social world, individuals with autism tend to have a rigidity around other people and they really struggle to understand the behaviors and motivations of others around them.
I had this long-standing interest all the way dating back to childhood in trying to understand more about human-social interaction and how is it that humans are as acceptable as we are when we interact with others. I was sometimes very fortunate, when I came to Harvard as a PhD student in 1997, it was really just a few years after the advent of functional MRI. If you remember those times, it was very exciting. We were for the first time able to look at the functioning of healthy human brain. I realized that I could combine the power of these new methods with some of these questions of how it is that humans interact with others and what happens when that goes wrong.
[00:04:39] DR: Right. You were there at the beginning of Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience with Matt Lieberman and Kevin Ochsner and a bunch of the others. I think it was the first time that we could study brains interacting as oppose to individual brains in real time and see what was going on. What led you to want to focus on in-group and out-group? What was the spark that kind of had you go down that path?
[00:05:00] JM: Over the 28 some odd years now, 25 years or so of my career, I’ve been interested in a set of questions that all converge on similar theme. One of the questions has to do with, how it is we understand ourself? What do I make in my own personality characteristics? How do I decide what kinds of behaviors are appropriate in a social interaction? How do I sequence [inaudible 00:05:24] say to somebody? Another is how we make sense of other’s mental state and what is it that I — and how is it that I can be as acceptable as I am when I interact with most people. That humans are much more social than other animals and we’re really good at understanding what others around us are going to do.
Then the third question is, the acknowledgement that we’re good at this, but we’re not perfect. In fact, we made systematic mistakes and errors when we interact with others. I became interested in what the source of those systematic errors are, which of course leads you straight away to the kinds of biases that we suffer from when we interact in-group members versus out-group members.
[00:06:03] DR: Right. I think that’s a great segue to just kind of getting a definition for folks listening. What is in-group and out-group? What is that basic schema or construct and how do we understand? I know so much all the effects of it, but just basically what is it.
[00:06:19] JM: Yeah. All primates and humans included are fundamentally group animals. We get together with other humans and in a sense, our species has really doubled down on our groupiness. If you look at how bands of hunter gatherers survive, it’s really through the joint effort of other human that we manage to navigate the physical world. It’s how we bring down large animals or how we farm. Throughout history, being vanished from a group with almost considered a death sentence because humans unlike many other animals really do have travel surviving on their own.
The interactions we have and our status within groups is really important, essentially important to human as individuals and as a specie. But as soon as you create a group, as soon as we bond together in some tribe, or family, or tribe or clan, what we’ve done effectively is draw circle around ourselves that excludes others who are not part of our family, or part of our tribe or part of our clan. It turns out that has profound implications for how human think about other people. It changes the way we think about those people who are inside of our circle and it fundamentally changes the way we think about people who are outside that circle.
[00:07:35] DR: Yeah. That’s a really clear definition. It’s, who’s in your tribe and who’s outside your tribe. It sounds like that — a lot of processes ended up getting organized around that or the simply summary, groupiness is quite fun. We’re very group. Interesting.
Let’s dig in a bit. When we do draw that circle, what are the effects on basic brain processes? As we look into the brain in particular, what do we know about the effects of in-group and out-group on how we actually interact. Take us through that.
[00:08:09] JM: Yeah. I think we’ve noticed a few things and just start. I’ll just point out a couple of the interesting and maybe if you will slightly add things that humans do that make us quite different. Chimpanzees are other primates to which we’re closely related. One is that humans seem to be highly pro-social as far as primates go. If you look at how apes treat each other, they almost never share food with each other, even their own offspring, very interesting. When female chimp share food with their offspring, it’s almost always food you can’t actually it. Of course, if I said I did that to my son even once, you would think I was some kind of monster. But of course, humans are not like that.
Americans give hundreds of billions of dollars away in charity each year and about the same amount in time spent helping others. We were very interested in what’s the nature of this effect is. It turns out that there has been a long-standing interest in that and many behavioral scientists have assumed that people are being nice to each other because they don’t want to get a reputation for being a jerk or because they’re worried about when they’re in need, whether this person is going to remember that they did a good turn and reciprocate.
But in turns out that when we look at what humans look like when they’re interacting with each other and have an opportunity to do nice things to each other, what we find is a small region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. This region has been known to neuroscience for quite a long time, because it seems to be important in behaviors that are rewarding. If you give an animal some very sugary drink or if you let animals look at attractive members of the opposite sex, you get lots of activation in this region. In humans, if I give you a lot of money or if you were snoring cocaine or other drugs of abuse, you’ll see a lot of activation in this region.
What we find is that, in most people, that region is also very active whenever somebody has an opportunity to do something kind of pro-social to other people. But here’s the [inaudible 00:10:05]. That depends entirely on how you draw your circle. All of what I said is, all that are off, if you have reason to think this is a person who is a competitor or somebody who’s fundamentally unlike you, or someone who’s likely to be a threat in some way. Because again, humans can draw these circles quite readily, I think it’s very easy for us to act towards other people in a way that doesn’t make use of this human tendency to be pro-social and find that act rewarding to act more like a chimpanzee.
[00:10:35] DR: Right. One of the effects is essentially, when we help people in our in-group, it’s intrinsically rewarding, it’s pleasurable. It’s literally the pleasure pathways. It’s pleasurable to help people in your in-group. What about to harm people in our out-group? I hate to ask that question, but is that activating reward networks as well?
[00:10:54] JM: Well, yeah. Researchers have also found over many years now that social neuroscience has been growing is that one of the things human tend to do when they watch somebody else having an emotional experience is that they tend to mirror that experience in their own brain. The classic example that we’re originally observed were: if I see somebody in pain, wincing because they’ve just broken an ankle or something. My own brain seems to look at though it’s in pain. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so uncomfortable to do that. Likewise, if I watch someone feeling disgust or even someone making mistakes.
But again, what we find is that, if the person who is wincing in pain is a competitor or an out-group member, my brain tends not to do that. In some studies, depending on the nature of the person in the out-group, you can in fact find some reward associated with watching your competitors fail and we sometimes talk about notions of [inaudible 00:11:48] kind of nice to see your competitor fail. It’s not surprisingly the brain reflects that in terms of what in fact is rewarding.
[00:11:55] DR: Interesting. Our motivations are really attuned to whether someone is in-group or out-group. That’s one of the effects. We are happy when an in-group member wins. We’re unhappy when an in-group loses. But we’re happy — but then that reverses for out-group members. We’re happy when an out-group member loses and unhappy when they win. The actual fundamental motivational drive is kind of reverse with in-group, out-group. That’s interesting.
What about at a basic perception level? If you don’t any of that work or I think you’ve been — the other work is done. Just sort of at a basic perception level, what are some of the changes that happened there.
[00:12:31] JM: Yeah. I really like your way of summing it up as a motivational issue because these regions like the nucleus accumbens really are essential to how animals — how they’re motivated to seek out food versus sex versus drinking, et cetera. I think that is a way to think about what’s happening in humans. But of course, yes, there are also — one of the most interesting and confounding aspect of in-group, out-group psychology is the number of places where it changes the way we think, and act, and perceive. One of the very well-known phenomena in social psychology now for many years is something that sometimes known as the same race effect or the out-group homogeneity effect.
It’s something that I think many of us have experienced in our everyday life. It’s easier to distinguish people, one individual from the next if they are members of your in-group. It’s harder if you’ve been in let’s say a foreign country where people look very different than you can be quite difficult to individualize or distinguish among members of that out-group. You could think about that other kind of motivational issue, maybe people have been racist or bias in some way and that’s maybe part of it. But what we have found is that, part of that is really a very basic perceptual problem that probably comes from just lack of experience with faces that look a certain kind of way.
There’s a region of the brain that’s very well characterized tends to respond to other faces no matter what those faces look like. But nowadays, over the last five, or ten years or so, you can actually look at the patterns within a brain region. What we can find is that, if I’m looking at numbers of the group that’s like me, the patterns associated with each of those faces are quite distinct. You could actually train a computer to figure out which face someone was looking at. But if I’m looking at faces that are highly unfamiliar to me, it’s as though that my brain is treating them like the same phase. It actually has trouble at a very physical neuro level, distinguishing pattern that might make each of those an individual.
[00:14:29] DR: Right. Interesting. We might misread social cues of people that we — is it people we don’t spend much time with or is it people that might be in our out-group or is it both?
[00:14:41] JM: It can be both. I mean, of course, those things are often confounded. Those effects are a bit asymmetrical in the sense that if you’re a majority group member, it can be quite difficult to distinguish faces of minority group member. Presumably because they’re just so much less familiar. But the reverse is not always as true. Minority group members will have an easier time, but again, not as good as they might for their own group. So it seems to be a combination of both of experience, the familiarity, but also a kind of cage that comes down around your mind when you think about someone as an out-group member.
[00:15:17] DR: Right. Interesting. I mean, we just say that the most familiar faces have the most kind of detailed mapping in our brain.
[00:15:24] JM: Yeah, that’s probably true. A great study to do. I don’t know that anyone has done it. It’s to really look at faces like, let’s say a parent’s face or a partner’s face that you’ve seen most often versus somebody who’s relatively new. I think that would be interesting.
[00:15:40] DR: Yeah. Interesting. What about the basic perception — I was a big fan of the study that you did years ago about the processing of similar versus dissimilar or others and the different networks that got involved. Can you tell me a little bit about that study and what you discovered there?
[00:15:54] JM: Yeah. That was really one of the studies that got us started thinking about how important in-group and out-group thinking is to all of our social interactions. The question that really animated that study was trying to think about, what do people do when they’re trying to figure out other people’s mind? If I’m ask, let’s say something like, “How would David respond right now if my video cut out?” and you can’t get me back on the screen for a few minutes. I don’t really know. You and I haven’t talked about that. I have no indication. But I could come up with reasonable ideas about what’s possible. What people had suggested is, well, one of the things that I could do when thinking about how you might respond is to put myself in your shoe to think, “What would I do if I was running a big meeting and there was suddenly a technological glitch?”
To the extent that I think you and I are governed by relatively similar rules, I might think, “Well, here’s what I would imagine doing. Maybe David would do something similar.” But what’s important there is that I have to assume that you and I are governed by similar rules, because I have a reason to think that you would respond in a way that would be quite foreign to me and quite different than mine. All of that are off.
We did a study 15 or more years ago where — what we have subjects do is look at a series of individuals and tell us — I know you’ve never seen this guy, but you’re better at this than you might imagine. Tell us what you go what you think this guy might think of [inaudible 00:17:24] like how much you think you might like chocolate ice cream or hate doing laundry. What was critical was that, we manipulated those target individuals, either be similar to the subject. In our case, they were people who voted in a similar way and had similar social attitudes or they were quite dissimilar. They had opposing political attitudes and very different social attitude.
What we found when we — we were using MRI to scan people while they were doing this. What we find is that, it’s very clear what regions of the brain are active when subjects make these judgments for themselves. It also turns out that same region cares a lot about making those judgments about similar or others. If I’m asked how much do I like chocolate ice cream, I’m asked how much you like chocolate ice cream. I can’t as a researcher distinguish those two things.
But if the individual was dissimilar, the brain looks very different. It says, if now you’re treated as somebody who is outside my circle, not like me, I can’t use what I know about myself to understand you. Therefore, you get treated in a very different way than somebody who’s within my group.
[00:18:30] DR: Yeah, it’s interesting. When you’re interacting with someone similar to you, you’re processing using similar networks for thinking about yourself. If you’re interacting with someone different to you, you’re processing using a different network. How would you characterize that different network?
[00:18:48] JM: Well, it looks to us as though it’s making sense of people in probably what I might consider a more stereotypical way. I don’t really know what this person who has other political attitudes might do, but I think people with these kinds of political attitudes probably think X. We actually intentionally design this stimulus to have nothing to do with politics. We weren’t intricate in politics [inaudible 00:19:12]. But nevertheless, it turns out people have opinions about what liberals or conservatives might think about chocolate ice cream. Of course, these are I think intentionally they’re meant to be cartoon-ish example, but you can imagine how this might scale up in the real world when you do encounter people who have different attitudes about very important issues.
[00:19:30] DR: Right. We tend to understand people in our in-group more accurately because we more actively mentalize it sounds like or we more actively perspective take.
[00:19:39] JM: Yeah. It turns out both things are true. From the study I just describe, we can say, I do perspective take much more with people who are in my group. More recently, we ask the question that you alluded to, which is, “Is that the right thing to do? Does that actually make me more accurate?” Because maybe I’m actually better off thinking that people have a different political persuasion, don’t like chocolate ice cream. I don’t know.
But it turns out that in fact, your intuition is right. When I am mentalizing about someone who is in my in-group, I tend to make judgments about that person that are far more accurate. The reason has to do with the fact that, on average, people are average. On average, I’m average too. I don’t really know how much you like chocolate ice cream. But if I were looking at lots of questions of this kind, my best guess about how much you like chocolate ice cream for example is that you’re pretty much towards the middle. That’s true for me too. I’m pretty much towards the middle on the range of attitude. People are actually more accurate when it comes to thinking about in-group members and out-group members. Even on this very, very trivial [inaudible 00:20:39] cartoony type questions.
[00:20:42] DR: Right. That’s so interesting. I mean, I’ve been summarizing this for a few years as kind of perception, empathy and motivation that in-group, out-group, that distinction determines how you perceive the other person, whether you perceive them accurately or not, whether you have good empathy for them and what motivations are. Do you think that’s a reasonable characterization of the effects?
[00:21:01] JM: Yeah, I think so. The empathy piece is also quite critical and something we did allude to earlier when I’m looking at somebody else’s pain and I don’t mirror their pain response. I mean, that to me feel like fundamentally about a lack of neural empathy if you will when I’m not adopting your stance. I think yeah, I think the motivation and perception pieces are again part of this entire suite of changes that seems to take place whenever I interact with someone who’s not like me or outside my group.
[00:21:29] DR: Yeah. I mean, it really explains a lot of the challenges that happened, the heart of diversity, equity and inclusion movements that are happening. This explains kind of what goes wrong and the things that we’ve got to fight against. We’ll get to mitigation in a minute and what we know about that sort of a couple of themes that I’m seeing. One is sort of the question, crazy idea, let’s talk about the real world for a minute, intersectionality. People have lots of in-groups, lots of out-groups and they’re members of multiple in-groups and all this. Do we know much yet about how the brain processes kind of these multiple groups or how easy it is to create an in-group or exit an in-group. Talk us a bit about that.
[00:22:08] JM: Yeah. I think the field of psychology broadly has not yet caught up with some of the increases and how we as society are talking about intersectionality. I think there are however themes within the literature that are relevant to these issues. One theme has been on the ideas of what happens when you’re kind of the sole member of a group within a larger group. Imagine, one of the studies might take African-American woman who in some situations might be the only woman in the group of men. In other situations, might be the only African-American in a group of white individuals. Now, in the real world, it’s likely that you might be the only member of both groups in a group of white men.
But what that literature have found is that, those kinds of situations will make salient one or another of those identities, so that as a member of any intersectional group, the nature of the situation that other people around you or the cues in your environment will serve to highlight one of those identities a bit more than others. You can kind of foreground and background, different memberships and different in-group’s data, depending on the context. This is also something that’s very true of the human mind. We’re very fluid in the way we think about not only other people but also ourselves.
[00:23:27] DR: Right. That’s interesting. It reminds me of the book A Thousand Brains by the guy who did the PalmPilot. His name is gone for a second, but he’s been talking for years about how different interpretations of the world kind of fight with each other every second and the dominant interpretation becomes the main one, It sounds similar to that, the sort of overarching schema for which group you’re part of kind of argues with other schemas and then one ultimately rises at any moment. I know there’s a whole other research on kind of the ease with which we form in-groups and out-groups. Can you speak a little bit to that, just kind of how easy it is to form an in-group or out-group or even make the transition?
[00:24:05] JM: Yeah. This is I think some of the most interesting research in psychology, because as I’ve said, the ways in which we draw circles around our groups has real profound implications for who do I save or who do I help, et cetera. One of the interesting findings has been just how easy it is for humans to do that and how quickly we can change the shape of that circle so to speak, who’s in and who’s out. Even in our own lives, we’ve had experiences like this. If you’re traveling abroad, any member of your home country suddenly become a member of your in-group. Whereas, back home, you might have nothing to do with them. They live in a totally different part of the country or root for the wrong sports team.
That’s in a real-life situation can document the kind of elasticity that our group psychology can make use of. But in the lab, people and the researchers have been interested in how quickly we can trigger these kinds of in-group, out-group effects. Something as trivial as, “Hey! You’re in the lab and here’s a red shirt. You’re now part of the red shirt team” or somebody, “Here’s a blue shirt. You’re part of the blue shirt team.” Suddenly, if I now highlight that difference is enough for me to get competitive with you, because hey, we’re on a different shirt of team. All of the kinds of things that I’ve talked about, the sort of unwillingness to emphasize for the lack of motivation to be pro-social or even a perception of these people is all the same can be triggered very easily by just something as trivial as, “We’re on a different team.”
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[00:26:04] DR: One of the things that we’ve been really acutely aware of as we moved into the diversity, equity, inclusion space about seven years ago is that, this in-group, out-group mechanism is so fundamental and so important. If you do an intervention, but you accidentally further the out-groups, you accidentally create more division, you can actually do more harm. We wrote a paper on inclusion, the Neuroscience of Inclusion some years back, talking about how focusing on difference between people actually can be harmful, unless there’s a super ordinand goal — unless there’s a big in-group. Then individual variation can be really helpful if there’s a common in-group within that in-group, which you’ve got to be careful not to focus on kind of how different everyone is and end up creating more in-group and out-group, which can be really an issue.
We’ve got Jonathan Haidt coming on, I think next week even or the week after. We’ve got Jonathan coming on soon. I think you know him and his work. Him and a colleague from NYU, they’re going to talk a lot more about how we’re divided and how to bring us together and some of that. But it’s just so tempting to kind of celebrate differences and celebrate uniqueness. But we’ve got to be really thoughtful about kind of taking the focus off difference and bringing the focus onto similarity. I think that’s such an important thing, because it’s almost like difference is more salient. Like it’s easier to know there’s variation than there is commonality. There’s like an error detection network. It’s just stronger than a similarity detection network.
Can you speak a little bit about that difference versus similarity and sort of the whole in-group, out-group phenomena?
[00:27:41] JM: Yeah. I think you’re putting your finger on something very important and very difficult. I think you’re right in saying that there’s a very thin line to walk between celebrating diversity and talking about difference and striving towards inclusion. The ease with which you might actually exacerbate the ways in which we think about some members, some people as being members of an out-group. The place where it’s been most salient to me is, how educators have sort of handled the — especially in recent years. It’s interesting, young children not surprisingly, their group psychology develops over time just like everything else for them.
Parts of it develop very early on when young kids look at members of minority groups, they do have sort of emotional responses that can be different than looking at members of their in-group. But if you then quiz them about, what does it mean to be a member of this group, or who’s part of this group or what are the diagnostic characteristics are often confounded by who actually belongs to those group. It is very difficult to try to think through, have you begun to alert children about these aspects of diversity without speeding them towards the process of thinking that some people are like me in my group and others are pretty other. That’ s a place where I think I really seen this on the ground and how that might work or not work.
[00:29:02] DR: Yeah. Jonathan Haidt’s new book about how we’ve cuddled American children or in the west, and kind of — he digs a lot into the way we’ve accidentally created and us and them, in good and evil and polarization that’s happened, that there are political movements even that really focus on common goals and focus on bringing people together. Then there are political movements that focus on the separation. I think the more you understand about in-group, out-group, the more you see the value of bringing people together and not focusing on difference. But it’s a challenge because that can sound like you don’t care about people, or difference or you’re not celebrating diversity in some ways. It’s a delicate argument.
I would imagine that someone who’s learned the distinctions of in-group, out-group and understands how our brain process, it can be more intentional in perspective taking. [Inaudible 00:29:53] below conscious processing or at least have a better chance of not being held hostage to implicit bias. To me, that’s one of our very strong hypotheses. We certainly hope that’s true and we see it out there. But can you speak to that a little bit? If people have this language, how do you think it would help them to be better at perspective taking? Can you hypothesize how that would look?
[00:30:13] JM: I think that’s a really great intuition. One way to think about this question related to the one, just the core is to think about some of these changes or helping to ameliorate some of these effects as coming both from the cap down and also from the bottom up. Where from institutions and the context in which we live or from our own personal changes that we can make within our own hands.
David, you mentioned a couple of times this notion that one of the ways to camp down in-group and out-group differences is to give people a superordinate group. We’re not republicans and democrats, or liberals and conservatives, or Germans and French, but we have some higher order identity. We’re all Americans, we’re all Europeans. Almost every great alien apocalypse movie includes a time when all the nations put their differences aside, because they have some superordinate threat.
[00:31:09] DR: Right. Independence Day II, opens with that —
[00:31:10] JM: Exactly.
[00:31:10] DR: — [inaudible 00:31:10] because we were fighting not —
[00:31:13] JM: Right. But it does really turn out in the psychological literature that when — it’s very easy to create groups that work against each other and show animosity towards each other. It’s also pretty easy to [inaudible 00:31:25] effects if you give people a common challenge or a common identity. I think that might be sort of top down kind of changes that leaders might be able to implement. I think intuition comes from a perspective of what I might be able to do as an individual, regardless of what my institution is doing. It is the case that one of the most powerful ways of changing that to yourself is to be very conscious, and thoughtful and mindful about putting yourself in the shoes of other people.
Even if I can just stop and think for 30 seconds about what this person’s perspective might be or how this person might be feeling and thinking in a given situation. What it’s like to be in that person’s shoes. We have known that that’s enough to really start to have your brain think about that person a part of your in-group, and therefore, do all the things that I do when I interact with other members of my in-group.
[00:32:18] DR: Let’s dig into that. Let’s dig into mitigation and dig further into these things. Our hypothesis is, there’s three different intensities of mitigation. There’s the kind of shared time where you’re basically getting to spend some time with someone. The shared experiences where you’re getting to work on something together and then the shared goals. The shared goals are the most powerful mitigator of outgroup and creator of in-group. What are some of the studies that are being done on these phenomena: shared time, shared experience, shared goals and what can you tell us about those things?
[00:32:50] JM: I think that is a really natural way of thinking about it and makes a lot of sense. I’m always fond of comparing human social behavior to that of chimpanzees because it’s hard to even realize how strange we are and how successful we are as social species about comparing us to our nearest primate cousin. Chimpanzees never share goal. It’s incredibly difficult for them to learn how to simultaneously change their behavior so that they can accomplish a shared goal. As if they don’t even recognize that other chimpanzees could share the same goal. So maybe its not surprising that that represents the deepest level at which we know that when human share a goal, they can in fact erase some of these differences.
Some of the original findings in the literature on in-group, out-group date back to the 1930s. Psychologist, Muzafer Sherif actually ran a camp for children in which he created two different groups. One was called the Eagle. The other one the Rattlers [inaudible 00:33:48], et cetera. Pretty quickly they start to compete and start to pull pranks on each other. Towards the end of the camp, he’s interested, “What can I do to have everybody leave as friends?” He creates a situation where the school bus on the way to a field trip breaks down and the two groups have to work together, cooperatively get the school bus out of the stuck mud. This turns out to be a kind of magic almost in erasing these differences that had emerged over the previous couple weeks.
I think you’re very much right. That shared goal is likely to be the strongest way in which I can pull out-group member into my in-group. We’ve done a little bit of research on shared experience and kind of inspired a bit by just watching how much people really do go out of their way to share experiences of others. It seems rewarding to go to the movies with somebody, even if you’re going to sit in silence during the two hours regardless. I think it’s in part because at some level, we understand that when I have the same experience, I hear the same things and interact with the same other people, that it does make our minds more similar and it actually does serve to bring our minds closer together in some sort of psychic space.
Again, I think you’re right that it’s probably not as powerful as shared goals, but it does seem to me like a powerful way of trying to decrease those differences between in-group out-group. Of course, [inaudible 00:35:12] sometimes the most passive of those. In the sense that, the two might sort of decrease but in kind of an ancillary way as a sort of byproduct as oppose in a real intentional kind of way.
[00:35:25] DR: Can you dig a little bit into some of the mechanisms that you’ve discovered are involved in the shifting from out-group to in-group, whether in any of those? Do we know much about the deepened neuroscience of shifting from one to the other?
[00:35:36] JM: Yeah. There really are two kinds of findings in this literature of people thinking about other people. One is the, which I alluded to earlier where people tend to mirror the emotions of others around them, that pain or disgust or fear. But they will tend not to do that as somebody is a competitor or an out-group member. One thing that we’ve seen that when the targeting question does become an in-group member because somebody has been kind to them or shared and experience or taken that perspective, but you will get as more of the neural empathy, this kind of neural empathy where I also share your pain.
The other kind of finding has to do with the ways in which the brain will use the same processing in thinking about, making predictions about itself, and then thinking about or making predictions about others. In our own work, what we’ve shown is that regions of the brain that care a lot about, thinking about your own responses will be responses if another person is an in-group member. We can turn that on. We can get you to do that when you weren’t otherwise by actually asking to spend a few minutes perspective taking. In our case, we have subject to write a short five-minute vignette. What would this person do on a Saturday afternoon?
Even just that simple manipulation is enough to get our subject to start using the machinery they normally use for themselves. They now use that neural machinery to think about this other person.
[00:37:06] DR: Yeah. That’s really interesting. Shared goals, we’ve been talking about this for years and teaching this at NLI. But shared goal has such a powerful in-group motivator, but they also give people an opportunity to not just be an in-group, but also increases their sense of certainty, their sense of control, their sense of urgency or autonomy. It gives them a chance to look good in other people’s eyes to increase their sense of status. I think in a strange way, shared goals provide an overarching scheme of rewards systems across the board or social reward systems across the board, which I think is really interesting. It turns out-groups into in-groups. I think it’s a really important lens that particularly all people managers should see the world through this or be able to see the world through this lens, and kind of, you got to turn this lens on.
It is the R in SCARF in the SCARF framework that we have. It’s R, which is relatedness. We define relatedness as basically in-group or out-group. Do you think that there is a continuum, like it’s obviously not just binary that you can be very out-group, or slightly out-group, or very in-group? Has anyone looked into that? Like, is it a quanta? Is it like in stages or is it a natural continuum?
[00:38:21] JM: That’s a great question. By and large, it really doesn’t seem to be a bit more all or nothing than you might imagine. There are so many things that humans do in shades of gray, but this is one where, it really does feel like a circle of [inaudible 00:38:35] or a cage comes down and there are people who are in and out. Putting some of things we’ve talked to together, David, there are many ways in which you and I are members of the same group and there are many ways in which you and are not. Where the flexibility, the fluidity comes from is really, which of those differences or similarities are being highlighted at any given moment?
If we’re watching world-cup soccer, things might be different than if we’re both talking about the brain. Because one highlights some differences, other some similarities. I think in any given moment might send some of the literatures that things really do feel a bit cut or dry from the brain’s perspective, but that can change in the next minute.
I do think that make sense if you think about what these processes will probably design to help us with. It really is the case that you want to know. Is this person part of my family or not or do I trust this person as a member of my clan or my tribe? That doesn’t really admit too much uncertainty or shades of gray. You’re either my sister or you’re not.
[00:39:35] DR: Like in or out.
[00:39:37] JM: Yeah, you’re in or out.
[00:39:38] DR: Maybe no one studied this. Intuitively, I think it’s an and. Intuitively, I think if I had to guest, it’s binary but I have a feeling there’s also an intensity — like I think about the work on the intensities of threat based on proximity. We did some research on that and the way a threat that’s way off in a distance, you’re alert but not alarmed. A stronger threat, your alarm systems kick in and in a really strong threat, you go into the full high jerk. I guess when you start activating threat and it works and out-group member might have different intensities. Probably also very binary in the — it’s Dean Mobbs’ work. Obviously, you know Dean as well. We’re able to summarize and simplify some of his work into a workable three-part model that helped a lot of people during the pandemic, I think, just kind of notice the threat level.
I guess if you’re overlaying threat and you’re experiencing anxiety about an out-group, there might be intensities, but it’s probably very binary otherwise. Talk to me about some of the contemporary issues that are going. I mean, if you could give advice to people that are running diversity, equity inclusion initiatives inside organizations, large organizations. What do you think these people should know about? What would you be telling them?
[00:40:48] JM: Yeah. I think even in this conversation, it’s worth keeping in mind that this aspect of human psychology really run deeply. It is actually part of who we are as a specie to think about there are being in-group members who are like me and out-group members who don’t count as much. I think it’s important to recognize that the goal is probably not to “fix that” entirely. That’s probably a hopeless path, just because these things really do run so deeply. That might seem pessimistic, but I actually think it points to what kind of things are possible for us as species. I think we’ve mentioned ideas about trying to celebrate diversity at the same time that we recognize that we’re members of a superordinate group.
I think it also points to in a very important way that institutions have a real role and contact have a real role and what kinds of behaviors are elicited by people. I’ve mentioned a few times that our group differences will be highlighted or backgrounded by what the context tells us is important. I think these are places where institutions can help to do that for their members. I think it’s worth helping people be better angels and really helping to tell them what it is they can do in their everyday life. But I think, institutions don’t necessarily have to only count on that. I think we can create diversity initiatives or primitive action programs or other aspects of our institutions that can guide people towards behaviors that we deal are going to decrease these in-group, out-group differences.
[00:42:23] DR: Yeah. Interesting. What do you find to be the best way to defuse a polarizing situation? Like politics or religion obviously. How do you get people to stop and think about others who are in their out-group maybe with more of an open mind? What have we learned from the lab on those issues?
[00:42:40] JM: It depends on how much time you want to spend. I think one of the things that I think we’re realizing very much that’s happening in the world and especially in the United States that people are not stupid in general and they’re not malicious. Part of these differences really do come from paying attention to different sorts of information and having some reasonable differences and background assumption. I think reminding folks that those things are true. This person is not an idiot and he’s not acting maliciously. There are real reasons, real good reasons why people might differ.
This is a little bit like kind of taking to a superordinate level I think is often helpful. I think part of these differences is because we get caught up in some of the actual specific of the issues and forget why people are coming to these differences in the first place.
[00:43:28] DR: Yeah. I’m hearing, if then planned, if I find myself thinking that someone is lazy mean stupid or cruel, then try to consider what our common goals might be, and what we share and then what might be driving their behavior or something.
[00:43:42] JM: Yeah, I like that.
[00:43:44] DR: An unconditional positive regard. Can you talk about the connection to unconditional positive regard, which is such an important idea in the last few decades?
[00:43:52] JM: Yeah. Interesting. You mean in as a way to try to ameliorate some of this effect? I don’t know that anyone is really — if there’s much research on this, but I think much of it would have come from literature on clinical psychology and the relationship the therapist has with his or her clan. Yes, we do know that one of the sources of our insecurities and our own falling short of our own goal has to do with our anxieties around how it is we’ll be perceived by others and what our status is around others. I think to the extent that others around us, including our managers, et cetera can model that kind of unconditional regard, the more likely I am or people are to really shine and become the people that they’re likely to be and rise to their own levels of talent.
[00:44:41] DR: Yeah. Fantastic. We really appreciate your thoughts and reflections on this. You got me thinking about a whole bunch of stuff. Jason, any closing thoughts on in-group and out-group and I guess, what are you looking to study next? What are some of the frontiers of this research?
[00:44:57] JM: I think as a society, we have a long way to go in terms of trying to create the kind of country, the kind of world that we would like to live in. I feel heartened by the changes that are taking place and the conversations that we’re having at least withing the United States. Those are obviously fragile conversations. I think we’re pointing in the right direction. I think it would be interesting to see how some of our human thinking around differences will change as a result of these conversations and ideally policies that come out that. Those things don’t change overnight. You have to wait 10, or 15, 20 years before you can really see their effect. I think now is the time to start looking at how these conversations will change.
[00:45:40] DR: Yeah. Wouldn’t it be great if policies were informed by current science, not by principles created hundreds and hundreds of years ago in a document by bunch of questions of people. Interesting. Let’s hope follow the science more as we go forward. It brings up some really deep questions. We’ve got a session coming up with Jonathan Haidt and his colleague at NYU, where we’re going to dig into kind of the polarization issue and what to do about it. I think that’s going to be a really fantastic conversation coming out in the next few weeks. But Jason, thanks so much for being here for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate all the hard work that you’re doing there. I look forward to having you in one of our summits again down the track. Let us know when you’ve got a book in the way so we can tell the audience about that.
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[00:46:26] CD: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our producers are Matt Holodak, Danielle Kirshenblat, Shadé Olasimbo and me, Cliff David. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Katch Wehr. We’ll see you next time.