Us-Them Thinking and Fear

Us-them thinking is a psychological tendency involved in genocide and racism.

In Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, social psychologist James Waller (2007) explains that empirical and experimental research demonstrates that when groups form, members experience the boundaries of the group as meaningful, dividing people into in-group members and out-group members (p. 174). This division into “us” and “them” occurs even when the principle organizing group membership is not that meaningful. (Researcher Henri Tajfel has studied these tendencies in “minimal groups,” where complete strangers were divided into groups using arbitrary and trivial criteria.)

Separating people into in-groups and out-groups leads to four documented effects. One is the “assumed similarity effect.” According to Waller (2007), people are more likely to perceive fellow members of the in-group as “just like me,” exaggerating similarities among in-group members (p. 174).

Another effect, the “out-group homogeneity effect,” is the tendency to see all out-group members (people not in their group) as essentially the same.  Of course, these tendencies to generalize about people by group membership (whether in-group or out-group) means that we are not seeing individuals in their full and complex humanity but are ignoring real differences and similarities.

A third effect affects our ability to be impartial; the “accentuation effect” “leaves us biased toward the information that enhances the difference between social categories and less attentive to information about similarities between members of different social categories” (p. 175).  Here categorizing people into “us” and “them” based on group membership affects our brain’s selection process. We all know that our brains take in a tremendous amount of information, selecting what is important from what is not. The accentuation effect leaves us vulnerable to selecting specific kinds of information that confirm our preconceived ideas. (Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for and recall evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs; the accentuation effect leads to one sort of confirmation bias here.) Here we can see how us-them thinking leads to selection bias, leaving us less impartial and fair than most of us would like.

Finally, “in-group bias” is a fourth effect of seeing people as divided into us and them. Waller (2007) states:

[T]he mere act of dividing people into groups inevitably sets up a bias in group members in favor of the in-group and against the out-group.  We evaluate in-group members more positively, credit them more for their successes, hold them less accountable for their failures or negative actions, reward them more, expect more favorable treatment from them, and find them more persuasive than out-group members. (p. 175)

Based on our perception of others’ group membership, we will tend to judge in-group members differently from out-group members, favoring in-group members over out-group members. Notice especially that, according to Waller, we tend to evaluate our in-group members more positively, forgive their failings more, and find them more persuasive than out-group members.

Us-them thinking helps me to understand how racism builds on itself. Racists see people of color as a “them.” Then racists stereotype people of color as “all the same” (out-group homogeneity) and rather effortlessly seek out evidence that “they” are utterly different from “us” (accentuation effect), preferring their own group (in-group bias). With these stereotypes of the out-group, it’s easy to begin to see “them” as not quite human or outside the circle of human obligation. One understanding of white supremacists and virulent racists is that when us-them thinking is coupled with high-social dominance orientation, the desire to dominate other groups (i.e., people of color) outstrips other considerations, especially if one already has a tendency toward aggression or violence.

So to be a better antiracist and ally to people of color, I need to make sure that I’m not engaging in us-them thinking with people of color as an out-group. One way to do that is to search for connections between people of color (“them”) and myself (“us”), disrupting the accentuation effect’s notion that we are so different. If I can do that, perhaps I can dissolve any problematic ideas of group divisions between people of color and myself I may have lingering in my head. Further, it’s wise to pay attention to differences within the category of “people of color” or “African-American people or “Arab people,” in order to disrupt any lingering stereotypes I may have that the members of any group are “all the same.”  I can’t do all that in one week, but I’ve decided I’m going to read So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo to educate myself and see what connections I can draw. (Please let me know if you’d be interested in reading this with me.)

That said, us-them thinking is a pretty normal psychological tendency. (It’s important to understand that in psychology normal doesn’t mean good, optimal, ideal, or ethical; rather it means statistically popular. After all, in a racist society, the norm is to be racist. We can do better than that.) Waller (2007) is careful to affirm that us-them thinking does not always – or even often – lead to hate or mass killing of out-group members, though us-them thinking is a usual component of genocide (p. 201). In fact, when I taught these concepts to college students in my ethics class, students recognized us-them thinking in their daily lives.* They recognized us-them thinking within groups at school (e.g., students in the Greek system versus non Greeks; students versus faculty) and at work (e.g., engineers versus technicians or management versus line workers), making it the topic students most often reflected on in their own lives (since reflection was required). Since the class also focused on leadership, they also brainstormed ways to disrupt us-them thinking when they saw groups in conflict. Students also recognized us-them thinking in politics and the public sphere.

I can certainly see the effects of us-them thinking in our political sphere. In-group bias suggests that people find their own in-group members more credible than out-group members. The divide on climate change makes for an easy example: it’s difficult to think of experts that both sides of that divide agree on. It makes sense that the two sides can’t engage in dialogue and come to a compromise on climate policy if the two sides can’t agree on who qualifies as a credible expert.

Knowing about us-them thinking and its dangers is not enough to keep from engaging in it. I know. I’ve been studying us-them thinking for years, but I have been guilty of us-them thinking big time this week. To explain, I need to give you some background about myself. I’m from Los Angeles from a fairly liberal family. I’ve lived in a number of different places in the US – southern California, northern California, Silicon Valley; Austin, Texas; Lincoln, Nebraska – and culturally they are quite different from LA and from each other. I’m not going to tell you that I feel perfect comfort and belonging in my native Los Angeles (between the heat and the gridlock, I can barely stand it), but I can say that some places make me feel more out of place than others. I’m pretty sure I’m more of a West Coast person. But I now live in a very white county in Michigan, the kind of place where I get it when Robin DiAngelo tells German Lopez in an awesome article about researched ways to reduce racial bias that “most of us live in racial segregation.”

Not too far from me, there are at least two houses flying Confederate flags. There’s a particular car I’ve seen at the high school with a Confederate flag. There’s been a racist incident not too far away in the last month. Trucks sport bumper stickers about how to annoy liberals.

A few days ago, my family and I attended a community event in the next major town over. The only people of color I saw were an African-American couple manning one concession stand. (I bought my lunch from them. Great food.) I couldn’t help wondering: how many white attendees would avoid getting food from the African-Americans, either unconsciously or consciously? I began to wonder as I looked around, how many of these people were racist? Sexist? Xenophobic? Anti-Islam? How would you look at me, I began to silently wonder as I walked around and looked at people’s faces, if you could tell I was Jewish? (In Lincoln, Nebraska some students described me as “exotic” and non-white based on visuals alone; I guess I look very different from people in their small towns. But in Michigan, no one has described me as anything but white.) What I was doing was awful. Not only was I entirely uncomfortable and ruining the outing for myself, I was engaging in us-them thinking with my neighbors, making each person a “them.”

It was time for some reflection. I realized I was looking at my neighbors this way for several reasons: 1) I feel out of place, like I don’t belong here in this town and county. 2) I wake up daily in a US that disturbs and frightens me. Almost every day there’s news that shocks and offends me or hurts my heart. I feel attacked, and the people I care most about feel attacked. There are deep divisions in this country, and I don’t understand the reasons why some are so willing to, it seems to me, throw others under the bus. In short, I’m deeply scared. It seems like some members of our society are out to get other members, and I’m afraid my neighbors are those who seem out to get people like me. 3) I don’t know my neighbors, so even seeing their faces, but not talking with them, I can wonder what’s behind their white faces drawn like curtains on their minds and hearts.

I am full of fear, and I am seeing my neighbors as “thems” because I’m afraid, and I don’t know them. What I didn’t do is remind myself of the lovely people I do know in this county and nearby – the sweet woman who patiently told me how to drive in the snow; the former colleagues I admire who live here; the many people I know devoted to organic food in this and neighboring areas. When scared, people often do what I did – hunker down and protect themselves, shut down, not open up. I need to note: fear made me rely more on what I don’t know, stereotyping based on news reports, than what I do, like the people I do know who are lovely. I have first-hand experience in fear overwhelming my actual experience. Fear also makes us see the world in binaries (dare I say black and white?): yes or no; comfortable and therefore okay, or a threat; us or them.

A person so full of fear that she’s mired in us-them thinking, however understandably (or not), is not who I want to be. I want to connect, understand others who are different from me, find points of connection, engage in dialogue. And that means that in addition to reaching out across difference to people of color, I also need to reach across difference to understand my neighbors and those on the other side of this deep divide in our country. Fear made me hunker down in my us-them bunker – maybe fear is a big part of their motivation too. If so, then we have points of connection – maybe not enough for a dialogue, but at least the beginning of understanding.

So I’ve decided to seek out readings that help me understand what white racist people fear or think they are losing, whether I think those fears are reasonable or not. In order for the country to progress on diversity and inclusion, rather than just have the pendulum swing back and forth,  I think we have to understand and address (which doesn’t mean give in to) these fears. Instead of only trying to “win” (as important as that is), we have to learn what it takes to help everyone heal.

Your turn: who is a “them” to you? Why? Are you stereotyping based on your fears and not your experience (like I did)? Are you assuming your in-group is more similar to you or each other than they actually are? Are there real differences among out-group members that you could pay more attention to? Are there connections you can draw between you and out-group members? Could you seek out information that complicates your preconceived notions? How could you work on diminishing and healing these divisions?

Us-them thinking can be healed. In a future post, I’ll focus on how reconciliation after genocide and mass killing in other places can inform our own efforts. For next week, though, expect a discussion on why language is important.

Your comments, suggestions on readings, and interest in joining me in a reading book club are welcome!

*Note: I will refer to my former students only in general like this. I will never refer to a specific student without their express permission. I take ethical conduct toward my former students very seriously.


Waller, J. (2007). Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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