"We're just ordinary chaps"

Do we see others as fully human? In a recent article in the New Scientist, Survival of the  Suspicious, (New Scientist 27 November 2010) Douglas Fox reviews what the evidence tells us about the tendency to assign human traits, to others, to Gods, to natural phenomena and even to inanimate objects. Amongst his many findings there are one or two that have implications for the way we behave in groups.

For example apparently there is a growing body of evidence to show that as our feelings of security and even power within a group grows, we are less likely to see those clearly outside the group as fully human.

In a bizarre side experiment referred to in the editorial of the same edition of the New Scientist, Adam Waytz from Harvard showed for example that volunteers primed to feel more socially connected by thinking about a family holiday were more likely to endorse techniques like water boarding. Think here of the implications for new immigrants. If we have developed a comfortable and familiar pattern of behaviour, perhaps reinforced by a code of dress and general appearance of those sharing the pattern we can then perhaps better understand why those who look or behave wrong to fit with the group are not considered as possible members of the group. Religious or social intolerance then becomes more expected as a norm for those who don’t subscribe to the same formula beliefs and patterns of worship, those whose skin colour, hair style, fashion style, eye appearance, language etc.

This may well be learned social behaviour. For example whereas the Race Relations Conciliator’s office in New Zealand fielded many examples of intolerance for Pacific Islanders in the 1990s, by 2009 a survey suggested the main victims of discrimination were reportedly Asians closely followed by fat people. (for the record 75% and 68% respectively!)

In terms of another recent phenomenon in New Zealand society it is intriguing to remember that the full cover Islamic dress for women presumably both gives them a feeling of strong identity with others similarly dressed but at the same time may well be expected to make them less accepting and less acceptable to those who adopt entirely different dress codes.

If we are considering ways to reduce the discrimination then more attention to teaching understanding of habits and customs would be one obvious area to consider.

For groups wishing others to join their group from outside the group, reducing the instances of distinctive behaviour within the group – and taking the trouble to explain why different behaviours take the form they do seem likely to reduce potential difficulties. In the church, highly stylised liturgies, special clothing as for example with religious vestments and music peculiar to the worship might indeed add to the sense of familiarity for the regular attendees. But if the cost is making newcomers feel that they cannot belong and reinforces for the regulars that they do not see the newcomer as fitting in – perhaps the cost is too high.

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