Inner circle outcasts

14 November 2011 - 02:44 By Refilwe Boikanyo
A person belonging to a circle of friends like this group can lean towards antagonising 'outsiders' Picture: LAUREN MULLIGAN
A person belonging to a circle of friends like this group can lean towards antagonising 'outsiders' Picture: LAUREN MULLIGAN

Have you ever been ignored by a clique of people at a party? Or heard of someone who has been attacked because they didn't belong to a particular group? Or had your opinions rubbished because you don't fit into a certain circle?

What causes people to inflict pain on others, view them as inferior or disregard their views and opinions? A new study suggests that part of the reason for this behaviour is being popular, powerful and having strong social connections.

In the past it was thought that people with strong social ties to friends, family and colleagues are happier and healthier and have more self-esteem than those with weak connections.

Last year a study in the journal PLoS Medicine revealed that having an active social life is a factor in good health; on par with exercise, diet and nutrition.

The study even found that people with strong social support have a 50% longer life span than those with weak connections.

But what's good for you can be bad for others. A new study has found that people who have strong social connections are more likely to dehumanise those outside their social circles.

Co-authored by Adam Waytz, assistant professor of management and organisations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois, and Nicholas Epley, professor of behavioural science at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the new research suggests that strong social connections can incline people to view those outside the group as less than human and even treat them as such.

According to Waytz, there are two reasons for this: "First, just as loneliness is like hunger, social connection is like eating. When we are hungry we seek food, and when we are lonely we seek connection. So when we become socially full, we simply do not have the capacity or desire to see others as fundamentally human."

Experiences of social connection clearly define who is like us and within our moral circle, and who is outside of the moral circle, and hence "less human".

Dr Helgo Schomer, a local talk radio psychologist, agrees.

He says when an individual becomes a member of any social group, they will eventually modify their behaviour and develop a social identity that complies with the group's norms, values and decisions.

Shared boundaries and beliefs are formed and group members develop a sense of belonging and strong loyalty to their group.

They then start making in-group and out-group associations.

"The in-group is the group which one belongs to and is loyal to, and it exists in relation to the out-group, a group that one doesn't belong to.

"People tend to have positive and superior views of the members who are a part of their group and negative, even hostile views to the ones who are not.

''This creates an 'us' versus 'them' dynamic which is essentially the basis of prejudice towards people of a different race, sex, nationality, religion, sexual orientation and so on," says Schomer.

Bullying in schools, gang violence, soccer hooliganism, and Julius Malema's hostile supporters are all examples of how being strongly loyal to a group, team or party can prompt members to dehumanise or engage violently towards those who support an opposing group.

Psychologist Ruth Ancer says: "When people are in a group they sometimes don't take responsibility as individuals . They tend to default to the group behaviour".

But these are extreme examples.

Waytz says dehumanisation isn't always violent and there are many instances of everyday dehumanisation.

"Every time we ignore someone's thoughts and feelings, whether it is disregarding the opinion of a co-worker or failing to make eye contact with a beggar on the streets, we are not considering other people as fully mindful individuals," says Waytz.

This stems from a number of causes like the need to prove one's self-worth, to justify harming others, the perception of others as dissimilar from the self and feelings of social connection.

But there are always paradoxes in the psychology of humans that make issues more complicated.

"Our social groups can also encourage positive behaviour and attitudes. For instance, people in rotary clubs and charity groups become more compassionate and empathetic to the plight of others than they would be if they were alone," says Ancer.