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Us vs. Them Instinct

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

In the 1970’s, a British social psychologist named Henri Tajfel identified a human instinct that is easy to understand and yet a bit hard to admit. He called it Social Identity Theory. The theory refers to the human tendency to identify members of our own group as fine folks with a good head on their shoulders and members of the other group as uncivilized morons (that’s my language not his). 

But what Tajfel studied specifically is this process still occurs even if the two groups are identical. You can take one group of people and divide it into two groups by flipping a coin, or using any other method of randomization, and the members of the two groups will immediately start to form feelings of connection with their own “in-group” and feelings of opposition towards the other “out-group”.

Social Identity Theory is kind of stuffy though, so I’m going to call it Us vs. Them Instinct. We can shorten it to UTI. Nope, I have now been informed a UTI is a different thing, so let’s stick with Us vs. Them Instinct.  

This powerful instinct is an important part of human nature as it inspires us to connect with those around us and work together against a common threat. However, it is also easily manipulated because Tajfel’s work illustrates we tend to assume another group represents a threat even if they don’t. Us vs. Them Instinct explains why sports fans tend to feel very strongly that our hometown team is the best and our rivals, from another nearby place, are definitely the worst, regardless of actual win/loss ratio.  


Understanding the existence of Us vs. Them Instinct allows us to find parts of our lives where it may be holding us back. For instance, at work, a healthy sense of competition with competitors or even amongst a sales team within the company can motivate success.  However, if the accounting team and the marketing team start to become adversarial to the point it’s causing problems, it may not have anything to do with accounting or marketing. The escalating conflict may be because they only communicate by email with the other department. The best solution might actually be sending them out to lunch together.

Because the Us vs. Them Instinct occurs almost instantly, it can also be used to defuse conflicts between two groups. By sending two people from accounting to hang out with two people from marketing, we create a new grouping that will feel connected to each other. An important component of this would be they are not meeting to talk about their conflicts, that would reinforce the division between them. They are just hanging out together and building connection.  

If you wanted to harness even more power from Us vs. Them Instinct, you could give this new marketing/accounting group another group to unite against. Divide the marketing staff and the accounting staff randomly into two groups, let’s say the Snarfdoodles and the Chizzlebops, and make the two new groups compete against each other for the Blitzly Cup. Pretty quickly the previous divisions have completely dissolved. Although you do run a slight risk of generating a new problem with Snarfdoodle/Chizzlebop conflict and that could lead to one of the stranger conversations you’ve had with your HR person.

Us vs. Them Instinct is a tremendously important thing to consider when thinking about United States politics. As soon as the U.S. emerged as a two party system in 1796, it was destined to be plagued by Us vs. Them divisions. The current state of division between the two U.S. parties may have a lot to do with the United States not facing many external threats for several decades.

I am old enough to remember a few nuclear attack drills in school where we would shelter under our desks to protect us in case the missiles were on the way. In that era, the political Us vs. Them was Americans vs. the Soviets. In that same era, a Republican President worked well with a Democratic Congress to legislate and govern. Since the fall of the world’s other superpower, the United States has lacked an external threat to keep united. So the division between Democrats and Republicans has become the primary Us vs. Them. This division is intentionally provoked and manipulated by social media algorithms and partisan cable news.

I don’t want to suggest the divisions between parties are not important or substantial. They are currently very important and very substantial. However, it is also important to recognize even if there were literally no differences, we would still feel oppositional towards the other party just because they are the out-group and we are the in-group.  


What can be done about this? It’s a pretty big problem, which seems to be getting bigger. However, this particular moment in history does present us with a common enemy to unify against. The deadly virus tearing it’s way across the world really doesn’t care about your party affiliation. 

But what can you personally do to nudge us all in the right direction?  Possibly the most powerful thing any of us could do is to identify someone in your life who is a part of your out-group and start a conversation. Do this with the goal of understanding why they are part of that group and not part of your in-group. Start by connecting on common ground such as you both love dogs, you both hate coconut, whatever.  Then bring up the area in which you disagree, but not with the goal of changing their mind or winning an argument. Your goal is simply to enhance your understanding of the world and the things that can divide us. There are many barriers in our world to prevent conversations like this from occurring and there can be extraordinary benefits from making them happen.  

I’d love to hear how it goes! Right now Kelly in HR wants to talk to me about the Snarfdoodle situation in accounting.

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  1. December 21, 2020

    I have noticed a tendency of “super green” people to regard anyone else as enemies of the planet. And so, of course, lots of other people disdain the entire environmental message. It looks like you have explained it. Besides trying to make relationships with the “out-group,” it would help a great deal if we would just resolve to speak kindly to everyone.

    1. December 21, 2020

      Agreed, David. Being respectful and kind to those around you goes a long way! 🙂

  2. Kristine Wong
    December 21, 2020

    Really interesting and informative article Zach! This UTI (us versus them) mentality has affected all of us at one point or another and you were able to break it down in a simple way and provide relevant (and quirky) examples of how this can still be affecting us. During my least mature phases in high school and college, clubs were a great way to create an ‘us vs. them’ mentality where anyone who was in your club is the coolest person ever and anyone outside your club is weird for not being in your club. It’s good to be aware of these mindsets and intentionally try to combat these initial, immature thoughts – otherwise you might end up limiting yourself and not getting to know some very cool people.

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