The Awesome Destructive Power of "Them"

Normally you ask a question before you answer it, right?

David Maister, never one to bow to convention for convention's sake, recently asked "How Did You Lose Your Innocence?" referring to people adopting cynical attitudes:
"I have been doing a lot of client work in the last few weeks in many countries, meeting people young and old in professional businesses.

My message is one of the economic benefits of optimism, professionalism and high standards, but it is met most often with a dejected, beaten-down cynicism.

Many times during my latest trip I was told things like: 'David. It would be very nice to have your ideals: to believe that the managers with the highest integrity get the best work and the highest profits out of the group they manage. But don’t task-masters and slave-drivers also get results?'"

A great question; but one that David himself answered two weeks before in Us and Them:
"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.”"
And six days before in It's THEIR Fault!:
"Something happens to me whenever I give speeches. At some point, when I am doing what I was hired to do and explaining how the people in my audience could perform their roles better, someone always sticks their hand up and says: “It’s not us, it’s them!”"
Spooky Action regulars, Charlie Munger, and Bob Cialdini know what's going on here. For those that might need a refresher, let's bring in the boys from How to Make Important Decisions.

If you haven't seen it in a previous post, there's something funny about this picture. The boys are marching in the wrong order, right?


Ogg, representing your r-Complex reptile brain - the fight-or-flight brain - has seniority over the others. Ogg's world view is simple:
  • Prey -> Them
  • Predator -> THEM
  • Mate -> Us, for now
Thag, the guy in the middle representing the right brain, is designed for pattern-matching. Your Thag-brain is constantly grouping people, whether you consciosuly want to group them or not. A recent study (sorry, couldn't find the link in 5 minutes of search) showed that the more multicultural a society, the less trust their was. As educated/sophisticated as we fancy ourselves, Ogg and Thag will naturally categorize/stereotype people. The only thing Oleg, our left brain can do is to influence the categories into which Thag will classify people. Categorizing involves "is like" and "is not like" comparisons. As you might guess, "is like" filters the categorizee into the "us" group. An "Is not like" match puts the categorizee into the "them" group.

This categorizing process isn't inherently problematic. After all, survival of the species relies on Ogg's ability to categorize male vs. female, human vs. [everything else].

The real problem is false attribution of group characteristics to an individual. Our Thag-brains, being good pattern creaters and matchers, naturally devise characteristics for any group we create. Sometimes they're logical conclusions of empirical observations: "Packer fans love the new Lambeau Field" (not a universal).

More often, they're generalizations based on observations of a single member of the group: "My boss didn't approve my suggestion for enterprise-wide radical aromatherapy. All managers are narrow-minded neanderthals!" And to the person who formed that thought, all managers will forever be sloped-foreheaded subhumans. Even if she is the sweetest, generally-non-judgmental person she knows. Sure, a string of non-congruent pleasant experiences with a single manager will allow her to "unlump" that individual from the neanderthal group, but everybody else in the group remains stuck there.
"Alphonse isn't like any of those other managers. He's special. He understands us."
And suddenly one of them becomes one of us.

So what, you ask?

It turns out that we treat "us's" very different from "them's". Our Thag-brains feel a connection to and responsibility for the "us's". And our Thag-brains feel an aversion to and wariness of those "them's".

And all the while your logical left brain doesn't know that your Thag-brain is doing this. You SAY you don't care if someone is a Minnesota Vikings fan, but are you subconsciously discriminating against people wearing purple and yellow (a potentially false grouping!)? Most likely, you are. Sorry. Don't feel bad; you were born that way, and your brain wants to work that way.

But there is a problem. Your Thag-brain treats each "them" as a member of a group, not as an individual.

So what to do?

In dealing with people, force yourself to focus only on the "is like" patterns. How does this person fit into "us"? Start by viewing them as an individual. They're a human being - very general "us". If you're talking to them, you share a common language! Keep building from there. What are their life aspirations? Chances are they want to leave the world a better place than they found it. Hey, so do you! You may not agree on the specifics, but now that you know you're both trying to do the same thing, you have incentive to cooperate. Can't agree on the big stuff like global warming? Maybe there's a smaller idea on which you can agree, like that Packer superiority meme. With some effort, there should be some basis on which to form an "us" relationship.

Boy, is that ever true! After several decades of them-classifying practice, I'm still in the training wheels stage of conscious us-classifying. Here's an easy game almost anyone can play. The next time you get into the car to drive somewhere and become annoyed by another driver's antics, consciously try to imagine what you have in common with that person.
  • "I've done that same Oh-there's-my-turn-let-me-cross-four-lanes-at-once-without-signalling maneuver myself."
  • "Hey, look, she's been to Wall Drug, too!"
  • "He's probably got a lot on his mind. I can relate to that!"
Start small and it will get easier.

Earlier this year I said that Kathy Sierra's 'Crash Course on Learning Theory' post was the best blog content of 2006.
"Go read the only Crash Course in Learning Theory that you'll ever need.

But wait! There's more! In addition to the crash course post, Kathy created a companion PDF Study Guide!"
Up until a few minutes ago I was still convinced of this.

BUT recently I read Steve Pavlina's Soulful Relationships. Now I'm inclined to change my opinion. In his post, Steve provides a crash course in us-classifying and connecting. I tried to find a good pull quote, but you just need to read the whole thing.

Kathy's material is poweful; Steve's is transformational.

Imagine a world in which everyone adhered to Steve's principles.

Can you?

Together we will disarm the awesome destructive power of "them"!
(without having to resort to singing Kumbaya)

posted by Mike at 12:53 PM


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