A country, a region, a sports team, a political party, our links with certain groups constantly shape our identities. And our feelings of connection with such “ingroups” profoundly influence our beliefs, values and behaviors, social psychologist Jay Van Bavel, PhD, told listeners of Learn Serve Lead 2022: The AAMC Annual Meeting in Nashville. November 12.
Moreover, our group identities can be a powerful force of unity – or a dangerous source of division, Van Bavel continued during a session titled “The power within us”, echoing the themes of his 2021 book of the same name.
“[Group identity] is something very primitive in man. It’s part of our nature,” said Van Bavel, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University (NYU). “We have to understand it if we want to harness it for good and prevent it leading to bad things that we see in society: conflict, discrimination, hostility and potentially violence.”
In fact, research shows that dividing people into groups on the basis of a simple coin toss is enough to incite intra-group favoritism as well as discrimination, Van Bavel said in a heated conversation with the audience and the Session Facilitator Danielle Lombard-Sims, Vice Chancellor/Chief People and Chief Culture Officer at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Regarding the political landscape, Van Bavel noted that the polarization between Democrats and Republicans is higher than at any time in the past 40 years. But perhaps more disturbing is the moral outrage that fuels these differences. “It’s not just that you disagree with people. It’s that the disagreements are such as you see [people] as good or bad.
Social media can fan those flames. “For every moral-emotional word like ‘disgusted,’ your post gets shared about 15% more,” he said.
It is possible to build cooperation and a sense of unity, however, and neuroscience, psychological studies, and real-life examples provide insight into how.
In an experiment with NYU students, participants whom researchers determined to be inherently selfish rarely donated to other students. But when scientists deliberately boosted these selfish individuals’ identities as NYU students, their willingness to donate to their peers almost doubled. “Even the most selfish people can become incredibly selfless if you remind them that part of their self is that they are part of something bigger.”
Creating this broader sense of “we” is a key characteristic of effective leaders, Van Bavel noted, quoting New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s success in getting his country to accept intense restrictions during COVID-19. That success was fueled by her verbal and visual cues of unity, calling the nation a ‘team of five million’ and sharing images of herself squatting at home, just as she asked her fellow citizens to do so. .
It is also essential to stimulate collaboration to establish common objectives and to reward all those who contribute to success, whatever their status. Unfortunately, academia tends to fail in this regard, rarely rewarding mentorship and too often ranking faculty based on research productivity.
Psychological safety is also crucial for forming cohesive and successful groups. In fact, when Google sought to identify which of its departments was most successful, only one trait emerged: psychological safety. Moreover, other research indicates that psychological safety particularly enhances the success of people from historically marginalized backgrounds.
Noting the value of diverse teams, Van Bavel went on to warn that diversity alone is insufficient. Without psychological safety, “people can feel like they’re not valued and leave. Without the inclusion element, it won’t work,” he said. “A lot of organizations are looking at diversity, but they’re not asking, ‘How is our culture? Are we bringing people to a place where they can thrive, regardless of where they’re from?’
Ultimately, Van Bavel said he hopes his work will encourage individuals to go beyond “Who am I?” or “Who do I want to be?” Instead, he hoped people would focus more on “Who do we want to be?” ‘Which group should I care about?’ and ‘How can I make the groups I’m part of healthier and more successful?’ It’s about thinking about how you can tap into that group identity in a healthy way.
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