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Passion, People and Principles

Us and Them

post # 200 — September 26, 2006 — a General post

The September 4 issue of The New Yorker contains an article about a researcher, Spelke, who studies babies and infants to try and detect whether or not there are gender differences in how our minds really work.

What I found most stimulating of all in the piece was the following Spelke quote: “Nobody should be troubled by our research, whatever we come to find. Everyone should be troubled by the phenomena that motivate it: the pervasive tendency of people all over the world to categorize others into social groups, despite our common humanity, and to endow these groups with social and economic significance that fuels ethnic conflict and can even lead to war and genocide.”

Indeed I AM troubled by this tendency to define ourselves and others by the group we belong to.

  • My team versus your team
  • My nationality versus your nationality
  • My religion versus your religion
  • My race versus your race
  • My gender versus your gender
  • Management versus employees
  • Our company versus its customers
  • My generation versus your generation
  • We true believers versus the bad guys

Ever since I read Ayn Rand as a teenager, I have been an individualist. I am uncomfortable with deriving my identity from the various “groups” I belong to —gender, nationality, race, etc. For better or for worse, I am defined by my own characteristics, not by generalities based on my group identification — and I prefer it when others think this way.

As Spelke points out, mostly they do not. Most people derive their primary identification from their group.

Even when it is motivated by an honorable desire to rectify past discrimination, it is nevertheless “group think” to base one’s arguments on group identification. For example, a female blogger sent me an email, very gently asking why there were no female bloggers on my blogroll. The thought had never occurred to me to contemplate the question — you might just as well have asked whether or not there were any African American or Muslim bloggers on my blogroll (I don’t know.)

Do you care whether your group is represented? Should you?

As Spelke points out, isn’t group think “Our side versus their side” the cause of the world’s problems. Shouldn’t we stop fighting for our side, and demonizing the other team?

Can’t we derive our pride from our own accomplishments, not those of the team we are on.


ann michael said:

David – I have thought about this for years – as the person that wasn’t in any high school clique, didn’t fit in any of the “normal departments” in a corporation, has never been the “classic” mom, shies away from “women’s” groups, etc.

While I’m certainly no expert, I have found that most people feel comfortable with categories – they like to have boxes to put things in. It seems to be a tool used to store information in our brains for easy retrieval.

When applied to rourtine situations, this tendency can actually be an advantage. But when applied to people, it’s often a disaster!

The problem is that “we humans” often tend to apply tools indiscriminately. It’s why every new management revelation is taken by many as the silver bullet that will solve all that ails them!. We can be really horrible at using the right tool for the right job – and categorization is not the right tool when dealing with people!

posted on September 27, 2006

Judy Erickson said:

David: I have to completely agree with you and Spelke. So many, if not most, of the world’s ills are caused by man-made artificialities that stress our differences rather than our similarites, no matter who we may be or what positions in life we may hold. I recently went to the Museum of Man, an anthropological museum, in San Diego. One of the exhibits was that of a child’s foot surrounded by the shoes of many different cultures. The message? All the shoes fit the foot. Ergo, the truly relative nature of who we are (or who we believe ourselves to be) and what we believe to be the “truth.” That zygote that became you or me could have been born anywhere into any culture or country.

posted on September 27, 2006

Mike said:


Several millenia of human social interaction have made group identification a strong survival mechanism. In your discussions of practice building, you have talked about how group members need to look beyond their individual contribution and benefit and focus on the achievement of the team as a whole. If there is no pride in team accomplishment, you won’t get much motivation from most professionals.

I don’t think there is any problem from a pride of sense of ‘us’. As you also teach, a group without membership rules enforced by the group is a useless one.

The problem with group identification is how ‘we’ view non-group members. When we start to categorize people into groups of ‘them’, then we have a problem. We need to evaulate people outside our group as individuals. This simple rule would prevent all kinds of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ conflicts.


posted on September 27, 2006

Andreas said:

Great article. And how much more enlightening would we be if we would just mix with those that we see as different from us? There is so much to learn from others, isn’t it? But as it is, people like people who are like them. The other part is the one we have learnt to perceive as “dangerous”, “different”, “don’t talk to them, they are strangers” kind of labels.

posted on September 27, 2006

Warren Miller said:

Certainly we should all want to be treated as individuals. Like Ann Michael, I didn’t fit into groups, either, when I was growing up. Moreover, as an adult, I didn’t do well working for other people, either. Success and professional happiness did not enter my life until I went out on my own. I note this just to suggest that there can be an upside to all of the unhappiness that tends to accompany trying to be conventional and not succeeding at it.

Let us not forget the work of Tocqueville. For all of our group affiliations, we have a remarkable level of pluralism in America, more so than in any other country on the planet, I believe.

But still, we in America are surrounded by forces that push us to think of ourselves in terms of groups. In no particular order, those forces include advertisers targeting particular groups; politicians playing one group off against another; and the rampaging cult of group-related victomology, among others. I should also mention that, in my view, the decline of education quality at the primary and secondary levels is producing millions of citizens unable to think clearly, so their decision-making process takes on more particularism as it sheds universalism. I believe we risk becoming a nation of tribes, a la the Balkans or even Iraq.

posted on September 27, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Great thoughts, everyone.

But let me try and refine the dialogue. I accept completely Warren’s analysis that many forces in the US are acting to make us a nation of tribes. But remember Spelke’s original point – the tendency to ‘group think’ (and the objectivication of ‘others’) appears to be pervasive across geography and history. It’s not a local or recent phenomenon.

That doesn’t make it acceptable. What troubles me is not that rabble-rousers use group-think. My problem is that even very intelligent people use it when it is to their group’s advantage.

We seem unsurprised when polls show an almost complete racial divide on reactions to (to take an old example) the OJ Simpson verdict. When women treat a woman’s triumph as a triumph for women. When a Jewish or Muslim person’s first reaction to anything can be “Is it good for the Jews or the Muslims?”

Surely our responsibility as thinking adults is to rebel against such primal tribal thinking, not to indulge in it. Shouldn’t we all be pushing for human rights and the triumph of meritocracy, instead of fracturing into tribal blocks and enshrining diversity. Let’s stand arm-in-arm against discrimination, not the special interests of our team.

Mike’s challenge to me about the power of building teams when it comes to management deserves a athoughtful response.

I hope I’m being consistent when I observe that trying to create an organization based on enforced, shared values and treating everyone on their merits within that context can and should be a powerful substitute for our primal tribal instincts.

Indeed, that’s the very position I argue for in my writing. I think we can and should build communities based on values and merit – and leaders of all kinds owe it to the rest of us to encourage such thinking, not the opposite.

I won’t get the famous quote exactly right, but I stand behind Martin Luther King who dreamed of the day when people were judged by their character, not the color of their skin, their gender, or anything else.

We need educated people and business leaders, as well as everyone else, to start thinking that way.

posted on September 28, 2006

James Davidson said:


Having grown up in Scotland and having the opportunity to travel and work in various parts of the world before our son was born I felt I had a great appreciation for “others”. I had to rethink this many years later. We decided to send our son to a school that had no more than 49% of any race, religion, or socio-economic group. Although we lived in the suburbs this school was in the inner city. When our son reached twelve we decided to move to another state due to a better work opportunity. Our sons first observation of his new school was that all the people were different! Not different from him, different from his classmates at his old school. They were the same race as he was, same socio- economic group, and almost all of the same religion. This was strange to him!

It is interesting to me that many of the other comments focus on school. Maybe that is where the focus needs to be!

posted on September 28, 2006

Mike said:


You answered my challenge in exactly the way I hoped, and I agree wholeheartedly with the notion of building teams and evaluating people based on performance and character rather than superficial distinction.

You are right that as thinking adults we should make these evaluations in a rational manner, but our left brain is often overruled by our less-rational but faster-processing right and r-complex brains.


posted on September 28, 2006

david foster said:

Identification with a group is not always a bad thing. Consider the crew of a ship, which is part of a fleet. In general, it is a very positive thing if the crewmembers identify strongly with their particular ship and with the other members of the crew.

This is a very different sort thing from identification with a group based on extraneous facotrs such as race. Indeed, identification with a group whose members are “all in the same boat’ in some sense (in the above example, literally) is more beneficial and less divisive than identification with some functional or skill-based grouping (such as the gunnery department or the engineering department, in the example).

posted on October 1, 2006