Research: Who Is Not with Us, Is Against Us

This article is a research paper on the topic of brain activity. Check more info on division We-They.

Research: The Brain Divides the World into “We” and “They”

People constantly divide society into “We” and “They” on the basis of race, gender, status, religion, age, and so on. Our brain copes with this task effectively and builds the most complex strategies of condemnation. We experience a number of emotions in relation to strangers from slight dislike to blind hatred, and at the same time make ridiculous attempts to rationalize what is happening to us. Experts from suggest you to read a scientific research on this topic below.

The Power of Prejudice

An aspiration of a human to create an image of the enemy looks unpleasant and frightening. However, there is a reason: we are not born with it – it is the result of evolution. A large amount of scientific data confirms that the division of the world into Us and Them is the legacy of the ancestors deeply rooted in our brains. We discover the differences between us and others at an astonishing speed. The brain can determine who is a friend and who is a stranger in a half of a second.

This effect is clearly visible in the case of races. If you show a person a photo of a representative of another race, he/she activates an amygdala – the brain section associated with anxiety, fear, and aggression. However, in the fusiform cortex, which specializes in recognizing faces, it causes less activity when a person sees representatives of his/her race. Therefore, we hardly distinguish the faces of people of other races.

Another barrier that separates Us from Them is the hormone oxytocin. This substance encourages people to act together and makes them more generous and trusting. However, it affects only the members of your own group. This hormone does not change the attitude to people from other groups.

Practical Experiment

Let us imagine that you do not like orcs: you think that they are more stupid/terrible/evil than people. This will be evident from the results of the association test, where images of people or orcs will be compared with positive or negative words. These couples can support your prejudices (for example, a human face and the word “kind,” a troll face and the word “liar”), or may contradict them. In the second case, a person needs a little more time to process the information. When you see the connection between the words “orc” and “handsome” or “human” and “offensive,” you have a cognitive dissonance.

People are not alone in their prejudices: other primates are also hostile to strangers. Chimpanzees systematically kill males from other groups. A recent study that adapts the test of the subconscious association to another kind suggests that even monkeys have hidden negative associations. Primates were shown images of their group or strangers in combination with photos with a positive or negative connotation. Monkeys looked longer at a pair of photos that did not come along with their ideas about Us and Them: for example, pictures of their group next to an image of snakes. Thus, monkeys do not just fight for resources, they have negative associations about other spices.


In different cultures and throughout the history, people have been prejudiced against “they.” We are the wisest, most courageous, and most moral representatives of mankind. Our food is the most delicious, our language is the best, and our country is the greatest on the planet. According to the results of a research conducted at sports stadiums, fans are more likely to help a person in the attributes of their favorite team.

The key question is whether we want everything to be good in our group or we want everything to be better than in their group. In the first case, we care about our own wellbeing and in the second one, we want to make the gap between Us and Them bigger. Results of both cases activate the brain regions associated with the reward and the neurotransmitter dopamine. However, this choice can be fatal: if you have three sticks and two dugouts, and they have only one, it is silly to think that you won the war. We easily forgive mistakes, miscalculations, bad deeds and even crimes of the representatives of our group. However, when our opponents do something wrong, we take it for granted: “Well, they are the same!” When our mate makes a mistake, we are inclined to situational interpretations: it is not typical for us, it is just the circumstances.

Can I Change “My People?”

Yes, a vivid example is the transfer of players from sports teams. When a player moves to another team, he/she does not do it in order to help his/her former comrades – the core of these contractual relations is the interchangeability of the employer and the employee. However, a rare Shiite wants to become a Sunni and vice versa. “Traitors” are often subjected to retaliation on the part of those whom they left behind. In addition, “defectors” often attract suspicions from the host party.


Is our dislike to strangers rational or not? The division into Us and Them requires the involvement of various cognitive processes. We are sure that all representatives of the unpleasant group are equally bad. This is essentialism. For example, if some stranger gave you a helping hand, you have to make a logical trick: “Probably, this person is not like Them.”

However, this division is an emotional process. Jonathan Heidtis of New York University has shown that often the awareness is an excuse for our feelings: we are trying to convince ourselves that we hate someone for rational reasons. As we have already said, the amygdala is activated.

The strongest evidence that discord is an emotional, uncontrolled process is that rational knowledge about strangers is easy to manipulate. If you show people gloomy images of some country and images of people with an expression of fear will appear among them, then a negative attitude towards this place will form. In another study, passengers at stations in white suburbs filled questionnaires about political views. Then, on a half of the stations, a couple of young Mexicans began to appear daily. Two weeks later, the passengers filled out the second questionnaire. It is noteworthy that the presence of such couples made people support the reduction of immigration from Mexico and set them against an amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Hence, our cognitive side tries to keep up with emotions; however, our prejudice deeply rooted in the brain causes such an issue as hate towards strangers. We accept only those facts that support our point of view and we are skeptical about what does not speak in our favor. This is our nature, but it is always possible to make yourself a bit better person.