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Us Versus Them: How To Break This False Dichotomy?

Us versus Them is a powerful narrative that divides societies, fragments families and severs relationships. How can we change this?

Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling, Tai

Lisbon, Portugal

Us Versus Them: How To Break This False Dichotomy?

Us versus Them is a powerful narrative.

Throughout history, the powerful and the elite used the strategy of "divide et impera", or the divide and conquer.  A divided society is easier to maintain control.

The conflict between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia has continued to rage on since the fall of the British Empire. The Brexit campaign pitted remainers against leavers, even though they were British nationals. The Rwandan conflict between Hutus and Tutsis resulted in genocide. Recently, discrimination against the unvaccinated population.

This rhetoric is most appealing because "Us" needs protection from "Them", thus provoking fear. The story of "Us" makes it easier to dehumanise "Them" because their existence threatens "Us" way of living.

Families split because members support different political parties. Communities stay segregated because of their physical appearance. Locals distrust "them" foreigners for seeking refuge from conflict and violence.

Yet, Us versus Them is a false dichotomy because there are no clear cut categories. People belong to many different groups, and some groups are distinct and some overlap.

But, what is this narrative that makes it so powerful that it can mobilise large groups of people towards violence?

Being in a group fulfils a primal human need.

Human cooperation is an evolutionary behaviour. People needed to live and work together to survive in this wild world. Together, they gather food and protect each other from predators. This led to people living in groups.

When a person associates or identifies with a group, it fulfils a deep psychological need. Identifying with a group provides a sense of certainty and safety.

This is known as the Social Identity Theory (SIT), pioneered by social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner.

According to Tajfel and Turner, a group category need not be significant. Even arbitrary labels or meaningless distinctions can trigger social categorisation. In their defining experiment,  participants were randomly assigned to different groups based on their preferred paintings by unknown artists.

The participants were requested to assign "monetary rewards" to other participants from the same or different group. Surprisingly, participants gave more to members of the same group. When asked for a reason, participants perceived members of the same group similar to themselves, even when they had not met before the experiment. This experiment is later adopted as the Minimal Group Paradigm for other social psychology research.

Based on the experiment, they proposed that SIT consists of three mental processes; Social Categorisation, Social Identification and Social Comparison.

Social Categorisation

For people to understand things and their environment, they categorise. A category contains information that helps people to make decisions or guide behaviours.

People categorise things. Also, people categorise other people and themselves into social groups. Social groups can consist of different nationalities, races, professions, etc.

The social group defines the characteristics and norms of its members. And so, the characteristics of a group can tell a lot about its members.

Social Identification

Social identification occurs when the person identifies and feel a sense of belonging to a group. When members associate themselves with a group, they refer to and adopt the group's attitudes and norms to inform their decisions and shape their behaviour. Also, a person's self-image and self-esteem are linked to group membership.

For example, if you identify as a doctor, you will abide by the professional norms and ethical conduct. Hence, a doctor may feel a sense of pride due to their status in society.

Social Comparison

When people recognise different social categories and identify with one or a few groups, they will also categorise other people.

When social groups are established, a relationship forms between the groups. Intergroup relations can be wide-ranging and dynamic. Groups can live harmoniously in a location, be competitive and hostile, or be everything in between.

If groups see each other as rivals, the intergroup relations may turn hostile, where group members compete for resources. People will view their group more favourably than other groups to maintain self-esteem.  A person from a "superior" group may discriminate or be prejudiced towards another group member.

Once, in an IT company, an elderly male colleague had a habit of putting down younger female colleagues by openly criticising ideas, throwing sarcastic remarks and finding nefarious ways to discredit them. Yet, when his male colleagues, there were only praises and support.

Using SIT, it can be interpreted that the elderly male colleague perceived his female colleagues as a separate "group" and wanted to maintain his "superiority" by being hostile towards them.

Unfortunately, this scenario is common. Some examples were discrimination against women in Tesla, Uber and WeWork.

Will groups always be fighting and competing with each other?

Groups have been living together for as long as humanity exists. Tribes, clans, communities, civilisations and nations rose and fell. Intercultural relations evolve over time and space. Enemies can become allies, and allies can become enemies.

Yet, this isn't always the case. Long histories of varied con tacts, interactions and relations among different groups create a complex dynamic that the rhetoric of  "Us" versus "Them" becomes ineffective.

For example, the Ukrainian-Russian war is mired with "Us" versus "Them" rhetoric on social and mass media. Most prominent is the de-Nazification of Ukraine. Yet, many do not believe this. As neighbouring nations, they share a long history. Families spread across the two countries.

People and nations are standing up in solidarity against these injustices. This is good news.

This shows that as a civilisation, we have evolved. We can move beyond the "Us" versus "Them" rhetoric.

Still, not everyone is immune to it. So long as people continue to use this strategy, we can all do something to protect ourselves from being manipulated and enslaved by this rhetoric.

Seek the truth

Seeking the truth is the eternal pursuit of uncovering reality. Typically, people only see what they want to see, and they believe what they want to believe. And so, people deceive themselves by living in fantasy.

Yet, the truth should be based on reality. When you strive to seek the truth, you recognise illusions and stop deceiving yourself. You stop protecting your ego and persuading others that you are right.

To become a truth seeker, you cannot fully accept the "truth" of an expert or a person of authority. Explore. Investigate. Find the truth yourself.

Collect, record and measure data, patterns, anomalies, gaps and movements. Look for people with the same or different perspectives or experiences. Learn how to ask questions, no matter how silly it may sound.

By seeking the truth, you make progress. The more truths you discover, the more knowledge you have to break the "Us" versus "Them" narrative.

Make diverse connections

In 2006, social psychologists Pettigrew and Troop discovered that meaningful intercultural contact leads to a reduction in prejudice. This occurs because intercultural contact reduces anxiety, increases knowledge and cultivates empathy.

Meaningful intercultural contact occurs when two or more people from different cultural backgrounds exchange or connect on social, economic or political matters. Contact occurs in everyday spaces where cultures interact, such as the supermarket, parks, classrooms, public transport, etc.

In other words, you need to connect or interact with people from different cultures. If possible, make friends from as many walks of life as possible. You will find their varying perspectives valuable in navigating diversity.

If intercultural contact is not possible, you can also search for and be exposed to cultural products, such as reading books, watching movies, listening to music or savouring cuisines from different cultures. The increased knowledge can help to foster empathy.

Use "We"

Typically, intercultural contact provides a positive experience. A more positive intergroup relationship forms when more people make more intercultural contact. Over time, group norms change, and people begin to see each other, not by their social category but by their authentic selves.

As interaction continues, people may begin to recategorise themselves as a more extensive and inclusive group. Instead of gender, the group becomes the school or company. Instead of skin colour, the group becomes their nationality. Instead of different nations, the group becomes humanity.

Instead of "Us" or "Them", it becomes an inclusive "We".

Some global examples are the Colombians who opened their homes to their Venezuelan neighbours, escaping a life of poverty and authoritarianism. Or over 200,000 AirBnb hosts offering their spaces for Ukrainian refugees.

Show that "We" matters in your everyday. Take small steps. Talk about "We". Make plans, and carry out tasks as a "We".  Make decisions as a "We".

By embodying "We", you help to chip away at the firm grip of "Us" versus "Them". We can all wake up to a "We" reality one day.


With psychology, we're able to understand further social issues facing humanity. Social issues such as violent conflict can be dissected and understood to see how it forms and develops.

"Us" fulfils a vital need to feel safe and secure in a group. The three mental processes of the Social Identity Theory, social categorisation, identity and comparison, shows us how conflict forms.

With this knowledge, we can overcome our destructive and evolutionary mental processes through critical thinking, making friends, and demonstrating "We".

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