Living together in a world full of diversity

Sanneke Bolhuis


We humans are physical-emotional beings, and living together in groups also makes us social emotional beings. To live in a group, we need coordination and cooperation. During our evolution, we developed all kinds of mechanisms for coordination and cooperation, such as imitationempathy and compassion. Humans also create culture: we invent means and solutions for living together and pass these on to next generations. In turn, we also influence our culture. Cultures change over time due to a variety of influences. Different cultures, therefore, developed in different places in the world and in different times. People in each culture find their own beliefs and habits self-evident – and find other beliefs and habits strange or even disgusting.

The fact that we derive our habits and beliefs – largely unconsciously – from our socio-cultural environment does not imply that we are clones and never disagree. We do derive our identityfrom our socio-cultural environment, but we experience our identity as profoundly our own, not as merely a group characteristic. Group characteristics cannot describe the diversityof individuals! Still we very often discriminate against other people by treating them merely as members of a group, which is especially harmful if we have negative beliefs about this group. Why do we behave this way? Because of pitfalls in our behaviour and thinking, unconscious behaviour that is rooted in old evolutionary patterns and supplemented by habitual patterns. Kahneman calls this fast but unconscious pattern system 1thinking. But we can correct system 1 by using our system 2 thinking. That is, on the condition that we first recognise our primary system 1 responses.

How do you know what a chair is and what you do with it? Not because you looked it up in a dictionary or learned a definition by heart. You probably know because, as a young child, you observed mum and dad sitting, because you climbed chairs, and when you tried to stand up, they told you to sit on your bum, and also to sit on your own chair and not on mum’s or dad’s, and because they used this word ‘chair’. You learned what a chair is – and what ‘normal behaviour’ is when using a chair – by observing and imitating significant others, by physical experience and by physical and verbal feedback and explanation. But if you grew up in an environment where chairs were not part of the culture, you did not learn this, or only later in another socio-cultural environment.

Although Kahneman does not use these concepts, group-think and us-them thinking (in-out-group) are important examples of system 1 pitfalls. Several other pitfalls support group-think and us-them thinking, such as our primary response to what we do not know. Strange is dangerous because you do not know what to expect. Familiar is fine, or at least usually better than strange. Another well-known pitfall is our tendency to see only what fits in with what we already know (selective perception and confirmation bias). We have difficulty recognizing (good or bad) luck and dealing with the incomprehensible. Instead, we prefer to think we understand what is going on and have a strong tendency to attribute meaning. We do not like to doubt our beliefs and thinking. We prefer to hold on to our first impressions, which are made up by our system 1 in no time.

Then there is our preference for simplification and generalisation, the counterpart of our difficulty with dealing with complexity and nuances. We also have difficulty with abstraction (abstract concepts, statistics) and have a preference for the concrete. We find it difficult to be touched by something far away. We prefer the here and now and have difficulty with long-term thinking

There are also pitfalls in our judgments of other people and ourselves. One is to think that you would have known and done a lot better in a difficult situation than other people have (hindsight bias). The fundamental attribution bias means we judge someone else’s (bad) behaviour by attributing (bad) personal characteristics or intentions without taking the context of the behaviour into account. On the contrary, when judging our own mistakes and misbehaviours, we usually know lots of circumstances that made us do so (self-serving bias). It can be an error in self-assessmentto overestimate ourselves, but underestimation too is a consequential attribution bias.

We find it very difficult to change our deeply rooted beliefs and responses because of two more pitfalls: the power of habit and our tendency to dissolve cognitive dissonance by unconsciously adapting our beliefs. It is difficult to avoid our pitfalls … because of these pitfalls!

Mankind’s evolutionary and cultural history helps us to understand human characteristics. However, does ‘evolution’ explain individual behaviour? Certainly notDoes ‘culture’ explain individual behaviour? Certainly not. ‘Culture’ or ‘evolution’ can never adequately explain individual behaviours or beliefs. This goes for other people’s behaviours and beliefs as well as for our own. Explaining an individual’s behaviours or beliefs on the basis of culture or evolution would be a case of simplification and generalisation. Today’s big question is how we can live together with all our diversity in a world in which we are more connected with all the other people and more dependent on them than ever before.


Our behaviours and beliefs often come from physical-emotional and socio-cultural learning processes that largely take place without much consciousness.


1.1          We are all physical-emotional beings

Every human, you and me, they and we, we are all emotional beings. We like to think that we are predominantly rational, sensible beings, who think consciously about how to act. And, of course, it is nice that we do have some capacity to think – we need to use that capacity as well as possible. However, it is also very sensible to recognise that emotions are usually our primary motives. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Refusing to recognise your emotional motivations is misleading. You may believe you are very sensible, while you have no idea of the emotional motives behind your behaviour and thinking (nor do you want to!).

Why are humans emotional beings? There are very good reasons, which appear to have supported our evolutionary development. Emotions are signals that you feel directly in your body and that incite behaviour. That is why we are ‘physical-emotional’ beings. Evolutionary psychology makes a distinction between emotions and feelings. Although I will keep using only ‘emotions’, it is interesting to explain the distinction. The emotions come first. They start systems in the body in response to something outside (e.g., possible danger) or inside (e.g., hunger), which we then perceive or, in other words, feel. So, ‘emotions’ are unconscious, and ‘feelings’ are perceived emotions. The adrenaline rushes through your body and you feel your heart beating, you shiver with fear, or you tremble with excitement. Emotions are a warning, e.g., against danger or to alert you to a wonderful opportunity passing by. You need to react immediately, before the danger knocks you down, or before your opportunity is gone. If you had to think consciously first, it might be too late. Emotions such as fear or anger provide us with the energy to run or to fight. Emotions may also signal that you may relax, laugh or rest.

Emotions are very valuable. However, it is also important to understand how they may mislead us. Our primary system 1 is very fast, but it is not always right. Our neocortex, which is important for our system 2 rational thinking, analysing and thinking ahead, developed as a result of evolutionary advantages. An example: our first emotional response to strangers is to keep our distance and not to trust them at first sight. Our primary emotional response to strangers who come ‘too close’ or who are with ‘too many’ is fear, fending off, aggression or flight. At an earlier stage in our evolution, it was quite sensible to keep away from strangers (if your own group was weaker) or to fight them (if that would be advantageous). This primary response has not left us. In the course of our cultural evolution, however, we also developed ways of having more peaceful contacts with strangers and of solving conflicts in less violent ways.

Vandaag is er een uitje van je werk. Je kent je directe collega’s, maar nu is het hele bedrijf er. De ochtend zal aan wedstrijdjes worden besteed, om elkaar wat beter te leren kennen. Iedereen wordt door elkaar heen in teams ingedeeld. Je kijkt nog wat onwennig naar elkaar. Iemand legt de spelregels uit en je hebt nog even tijd om als team te overleggen. “Ha, wij gaan natuurlijk winnen” zegt een vrolijke jongeman. “Ja, we maken ze in!” roept een ander. Er worden een paar strategische dingen afgesproken. Dan ga je de wedstrijd in. Jullie enthousiasme is geweldig, je moedigt elkaar aan en iedereen werkt hard. Je maakt denigrerende opmerkingen over de andere teams waardoor je je nog sterker voelt. “Die zijn sloom!” “Kijk ze klungelen, haha, wij zijn veel beter.” Als de tegenpartij een fout maakt roep je direct om de scheidsrechter. Als jouw team een fout maakt, doet tegenpartij hetzelfde. Maar dan vind je dat flauw. “Dat was toch eigenlijk nauwelijks een fout te noemen.” Of “Het was eigenlijk hun schuld, want …”. Je team wint, ieder krijgt een winnaar-sticker opgeplakt en je brult samen nog een keer “Wij zijn kampioen!” (“We are the champions!”).

Wij-zij-denkenversterkt het groepsdenken door het zich afzetten tegen andere groepen. Het leidt tot ongefundeerde opvattingen over en negatief of zelfs destructief gedrag jegens anderen. 

Bij teamsport is groepsdenken en wij-zij-denken vaak goed te zien. Zelfs als het om een heel toevallige en net gevormde groep gaat ligt de loyaliteit direct bij de eigen groep. Door het andere team te kleineren wordt het eigen groepsgevoel aangewakkerd. 

Het wij-zij-denken kan bij sporten vaak onschuldig blijven. Maar het kan ook leiden tot allerlei destructief gedrag. Bij verschil in macht leidt wij-zij-denken zelfs gemakkelijk tot gewelddadigheid. In het beruchte Stanford-gevangenisexperiment van Philip Zimbardo in 1971 werden studenten willekeurig verdeeld in gevangenen en gevangenbewaarders. Binnen een week moest het experiment worden afgebroken, omdat de gevangenbewaarders hun gevangenen aan allerlei wrede straffen onderwierpen. 

Het is niet moeilijk om in de geschiedenis talrijke conflicten en oorlogen aan te wijzen waar wij-zij-denkenwerd opgestookt met vreselijke gevolgen. Vandaag de dag, op een overvolle wereldbol waar mensen uit allerlei groepen (religies, etniciteiten, sociaaleconomische klassen, landen of regio’s) steeds meer met elkaar te maken hebben, zullen we moeten leren om groepsdenken en wij-zij-denken te beperken.

Diverse valkuilen in onze neiging om zonder bewust nadenken automatisch te reageren (systeem 1) ondersteunen het wij-zij-denken.


2.3          Valkuilen: vreemd is gevaarlijk; selectieve waarneming en confirmation bias; voorkeur voor betekenistoekenning; vasthouden aan eerste indrukken.

Je zit op een terras te genieten van een drankje. Ook de andere tafeltjes zijn goed bezet. Jonge vrouwen in druk gesprek, oudere echtparen aan de koffie, een groepje dat met laptops op schoot vergadert. Dan wordt je aandacht getrokken door een man die luid in zichzelf mompelend op het terras afkomt. Hij zwalkt een beetje en ziet er verwaarloosd en vies uit. He bah, denk je, snel kijk je de andere kant op en doet alsof je hem niet ziet.

Vreemd is gevaarlijk – vertrouwd is goed

De mensen op het terras zijn het soort mensen die je vertrouwd voorkomen. Maar die man, die hoort er niet bij. Als iets of iemand vreemd is, weet je nog niet of er gevaar dreigt en hoe je het beste kunt reageren. Ben je er eenmaal aan gewend, ook al was het geen eigen keuze, dan weet je in elk geval wat je kunt verwachten. Dat is gemakkelijker dan onzekerheid. Wat bekend voor je is, beoordeel je als positiever dan wat onbekend voor je is, louter en alleen omdat je het vaker bent tegengekomen. Vertrouwd is goed. Reclame maakt daar graag gebruik van en zorgt dat herhaling zijn werk doet! Een bekend merk zal toch wel beter zijn dan een onbekend merk. Het vertrouwde komt ons – in elk geval in eerste instantie – aantrekkelijker voor dan het onbekende.



Where do our behaviours and beliefs come from?

We humans arrive in this world as helpless, immature beings, who need many years to grow up. The time we need to become adults has become longer and longer. Moreover, nowadays we generally accept that life-long learning is necessary. The new-born baby needs to learn almost everything: all behaviours and beliefs that are considered to be desirable and normal by the baby’s environment. How do you behave to whom? What are good manners? What are you expected to do and what not? Children learn all this in the first place from significant others: mother, father, and other people on whom the child depends physically and emotionally. They are the ones who mediate the child’s entrance into the world. What they do and say gives meaning to the world around the child and to the child itself.

Parents and all other people around the child constitute its socio-cultural environment. We share our behaviours, habits and beliefs with the people around us without noticing. We are part of one culture (or more) and several subcultures. However, each one of us is also a unique individual, with a personal learning history. As a result individuals have their own frame of reference.

The short answer to the question ‘where do our beliefs and behaviour come from?’ is: they come from physical-emotional and socio-cultural learning processes that largely take place without much conscious consideration.

1.2          We are all social emotional beings

Humans cannot live a human life without other humans. Other people, the group(s) we belong to, have a tremendous influence, not only in childhood when we depend on the care of other people, but throughout our complete lifespan. Particularly in Western countries, we are used to emphasising the individual. Children are raised to become independent. Everybody is expected to make ‘personal choices’ and to be individually responsible for their life. Today, however, we are all more connected with and dependent on more other people worldwide than ever before. Think only of the production of anything we use every day, from our foods to cars and smartphones. It is because of our social nature that we have been evolutionary successful to the point that we live in such large numbers across the globe.

Our social nature, which allows us to live together in groups, is deeply rooted in our emotional responses. If someone feels excluded, this triggers the same neural network that is activated by physical pain. Feeling pain is a serious danger signal. Something has to be done: take care of a wound, or make sure to be accepted in the safety of the group again. Solitary detention is one of the worst punishments. Also in everyday situations, the feeling of being left out is very painful and requires us to respond.

During our evolution, strong group bonds were essential to survive. It is not surprising, therefore, that all types of mechanisms emerged to stimulate strong bonds. Imitation, empathy and compassion play an important role in establishing strong group bonds, coordination and cooperation


1.3          Social beings need coordination and cooperation (imitation, empathy, compassion)

‘Together we stand strong.’ This is the advantage of social beings. When we live in a group, however, we need to ‘agree’ on how we deal with each other, how we solve problems, what are common goals, and what you are going to do. We can observe a similar type of coordination in other group animals. Female lions hunt together. Birds fly in flocks and fish swim in shoals, quickly moving about. Humans have developed all types of mechanisms and means for coordination and cooperation. The primary part, developed in the course of evolution, functions mainly unconsciously.

A first example is imitation. We tend to imitate each other’s behaviour unconsciously. When someone crosses their arms, the others do the same. When someone yawns, others quickly follow. Research showed that we find other people more agreeable when they imitate us than when they do not, even though we are not aware of the imitation. It makes sense: by adjusting to other people, we show that we belong, that we are together. By showing similar behaviours and beliefs we make clear that we belong to the same group.

Imitation, moreover, is an efficient way to learn from other people what they may have learned by trial and error. There is no need to find out everything on your own when you can simply imitate solutions. Imitation is also the way to learn the language of the group, and language is a powerful means for coordination and cooperation. Language improves imitation learning, by allowing explanations, questions and answers (why do you do this that way) and promoting further exchange and development (how could we improve this).

Another important mechanism that supports bonds between humans is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s situation and imagine their feelings: empathy. Seeing someone else’s pain makes you feel that pain yourself. This often leads to a spontaneous urge to do something to end or soothe that pain. Helping each other strengthens reciprocal bonds and makes the group stronger. Empathy is usually stronger when members of our own group are involved.

Empathy, however, may also cause empathic stress. This is a strong feeling of discomfort that makes you look away from the other person’s pain because you cannot bear the pain. Sympathetic, helpful behaviour needs compassion. Social neuroscientist Tania Singer showed that different neural networks are involved in empathy on the one hand and compassion on the other. While empathy is about sharing a feeling (pain, pleasure), compassion means engagement, being considerate and motivated to help another being.

Imitation and empathy are sparked by the so-calledmirror neuronsin our brains. When we see someone do something, the same brain domains become active in us, as if we were doing the same thing. Mirror neurons become even more active when we see behaviour we would like to finish or complete, for instance when we see someone acting clumsy and we feel an urge to help, such as when you see a child trying to tie her shoes. In fact, we should call mirror neurons interaction neuronsinstead. They are active in dealing adequately with social situations, which are less about imitation and more about supporting and completing other people’s behaviour.

Group bonds are strengthened by fighting other groups. Evolutionary psychologists explain this by the fact that, in our evolutionary past, a group often needed to compete with other groups for food and other needs. Today, however, the primary, unconscious mechanisms strengthening cooperation within the group (group thinking and us-them thinking) may also have disadvantages. Imitation helps us recognise who belongs to our group and, ‘of course’, our own group is the best. Whoever behaves differently does not belong and deserves to be distrusted or fought against.


1.4          We live in our own culture (and subcultures) – and influence our culture as well

Humans are special not because they are social beings but because they pass on their solutions for life to other people and, even more important, to next generations. These might be solutions such as how to get food, how to create comfortable places to stay, developing a language to communicate and rules to deal with each other and creating stories that give meaning to our existence. All these material and immaterial elements together make up a group’s culture.

Groups in different circumstances and in different places and times have developed different solutions. Obviously cultures differ quite a lot from each other. Being polite in one culture, by lowering your eyes, for instance, may be impolite in another culture where children are taught to look parents and other people in the eye. A strict time schedule is considered indispensable in one culture, but people deal flexibly with the course of the day in another culture. Et cetera! Many books have been written on the differences between cultures.

Culture provides grip: you do not need to think about everything, and you have an idea of what to expect and how to behave. The environment is largely familiar. Your behaviours and beliefs unconsciously confirm your own culture, but within each culture there are always smaller or bigger deviations. Larger and smaller groups stick with different behaviours and beliefs. These may be groups with their own culture that came from elsewhere at some point in time, perhaps because of poverty, war or other threats. Smaller differences are found in subcultures: in most places, women and men live partly in their own subculture; the rich and the poor live in their own subculture; and clubs and organisations usually have their own subculture. 

Meanwhile, change happens in the dominant culture as well as in minority cultures and subcultures because people influence each other’s behaviours and beliefs. Cultures may also change due to events. When new situations and problems emerge, people try something new and invent new solutions. People discuss prevailing cultural ways that have become unsatisfactory and find other ways to solve old problems. Cultures are never static! Sometimes they may develop and change very slowly, and sometimes they change rapidly. Some cultures protect themselves from other cultures or fight them. Other cultures are more open to differences and contacts that may be beneficial. But cultures always know some dynamics. Too often cultures are regarded as if they present a static situation that will never change and needs to stay the same. If people experience many changes, they may feel perhaps that they are losing grip and may try to stop changes. 

‘Today is tomorrow’s yesterday. So enjoy, since yesterday everything was better!’


1.5          We are all unique (frame of reference, learning history, identity, diversity)

Culture is passed on to next generations as something self-evident: ‘That’s just the way it is. That’s the way we do things.’ All of our environment helps to experience our own culture as ‘natural’. Our children do not need to find out everything for themselves, as they learn most things from their socio-cultural environment.

Sharing a culture does not mean that we are clones. On the contrary, each individual is unique. Why? Each human being, firstly, is born with a unique set of characteristics. Secondly, each child grows up in a slightly different situation, in another time and context, in another family or another position in the family, with other parents, siblings, relatives, neighbours and friends. And, finally, each human being has her or his own experiences. As a result, each human being acquires a unique frame of reference: those partly unconscious ideas, beliefs, emotional behavioural patterns and habits that constitute the way you perceive and react to the world around you.

A person’s frame of reference results from that person’s learning history. The personal learning history develops in the interaction between 1) ‘nature’, innate characteristics at birth, 2) experiences in more or less accidental situations, and 3) the broader socio-cultural and historical context shared with other people. It is never only your genetic make-up at birth that decides what kind of person you will be, nor is it only the environment that decides this, but it is the interaction between ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ that shapes humans. For instance: you may have an ear for music, and at home, you experience the pleasure your parents have making music, they encourage you to play an instrument and take music lessons. Or you may have an ear for music, and at home everybody often joins in singing, but unfortunately you live in an area where music is considered suspicious, and there are no music schools around.

In the course of your learning history, you develop your own identity: what you experience as and consider to be ‘really you’. Developing an identity is something that happens largely unconsciously, by identifying with other people who are or have been important to you and the group(s) you want to belong to. You become aware of your identity when it is triggered. That is to say, some aspect of your identity is triggered. We have a multiple identity, as we identify with different groups. Among friends, you feel and behave differently from the way you feel and behave at work or at home. It depends on the situation what layer of your identity is triggered. Your identity as a football player will be triggered in a game against another team. Your national identity may be triggered by national festivities or when the nation is threatened. Your gender identity may be triggered when you feel you are being discriminated against because of your gender. It is not difficult to realise that identity is related to group think and us-them thinking, with advantages as well as disadvantages.

People represent a vast diversity: each human being is unique. Each of us, moreover, perceives the world around them from a personal perspective. Diversity may be discussed in different ways. Today, we often hear about cultural diversity in organisations or in society as a whole, in which diversity is interpreted at a group level, along ethnic, national, religious or other cultural dividing lines. This approach has two problems. Firstly, these lines are indeed cultural as human beings have invented them and give them meaning. For a long time, for instance, people have tried to define racial characteristics because they wished to make up a hierarchal order and thus define people from one race as being superior to people from another. However, it is now clear that race does not exist, which also shows in our DNA (see, for instance, A second problem with this approach to diversity is that we keep thinking and acting in terms of groups and seeing only group characteristics, rather than perceiving unique individuals.


1.6          In spite of our diversity, we discriminate continuously

Discriminating is in our nature: we all do it all the time. To discriminate means: to distinguish. It is a very old and useful ability to quickly see what is different and also to interpret this difference: what or who is important for me in this situation, and what or who is not? What or who needs attention immediately, and what or who does not? It may save your life to distinguish between the high grass and the snake hiding there. It may be very useful to distinguish whether the person approaching is a familiar one or a stranger.

However, to discriminate also has a very specific meaning: to treat other people badly or place them at a disadvantage on the basis of attributed or real characteristics –such as descent, skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, age, handicap or chronic disease −that are irrelevant to the situation at hand. Having a driving license is a relevant criterion for judging candidate drivers, but their being female, black, homosexual or Muslim is irrelevant. Discrimination is to attribute negative characteristics to a group of ‘others’.

The problem is that our natural tendency to discriminate operates unconsciously, automatic and immediately. The unconscious prejudices that we acquired in our learning history pop up before we even notice. When asked why, we usually manage to have an explanation at hand. Only when we take the time to honestly reflect on our beliefs and behaviours and wonder how we can be so quick to judge others may we be able to get a grip on the mistakes we make. Is it really true that this person should be regarded as a bad person or should be rejected for the job, only because of his or her background, skin colour, sexual orientation or religion? Or do we allow the pitfalls in our behaviours and beliefs mislead us? Do we allow patterns such as us-them thinking, ‘strange is dangerous’, and our preference for simplification and generalisation mislead us?





2.1          We can fight system 1 pitfalls by using system 2 thinking

We are not very consciously aware of many of our behaviours and beliefs. Very often we do not behave in very conscious and rational ways. There are many pitfalls in our unconscious response patterns. The new behavioural sciences, such as evolutionary and biological psychology, behavioural economics and neuroscience, greatly contribute to our understanding of these patterns. Daniel Kahneman, the founder of behavioural economics, divides the processes of our thinking and behaving into two systems: system 1 is the oldest in evolutionary terms and consists of the unconscious response patterns; system 1 allows immediate, quick, automatic, reflex-like responses. System 2 developed later in our evolution and consists of the more conscious response potential; system 2 is slow because it takes time to stop and think. Thanks to our system 1, we do not have to stop and think for all our actions, and we can move about without much effort in many situations. Thanks to system 2, we can analyse a problem and reflect on how best to solve it. Thanks to system 2, we may also reflect on the pitfalls in system 1 and try to resist them.


2.2          Group thinking and us-them thinking

Group thinking results from the unconscious adaptation of our behaviours and beliefs to those of the group we belong to, and a strong identification with this group to the point of uncritical overestimation of this group. It is essential for human beings to belong to a group. It is no surprise, then, that we have a strong tendency to copy and appreciate the behaviours and beliefs of our group. All sorts of studies reveal how people give up their own judgment in favour of the group. If you want to see an example, check out the Asch Experiment on the Internet. Moreover, we always automatically tend to look for ways to make our own group look good. If our own group is caught making obvious mistakes, we immediately try to play down what happened and find extenuating circumstances or understandable causes that make things look less bad. Of course, your group is the best, and, of course, your group is right! A strong group identification may even occur in incidental groups.

Today, you will participate in a company outing. There are your colleagues, but also many other people from the company. The morning will be spent playing all sorts of games to get to know each other. All people are mixed into teams. You first look at each other feeling a bit strange. Someone explains the rules of the game and you have some time to prepare as a team. A young man shouts cheerfully ‘Hey, of course we are going to win.’ ‘Yes, we’ll smash them!’ some other guy cries. You agree on some strategies and off you go. Your team’s enthusiasm is great, you encourage each other and everybody is working hard. You also make belittling comments about the other teams, which makes your team feel even stronger. ‘They are so slow!’ ‘They are losers. We are much better!’ When the other team does something against the rules, you are quick to turn to the arbiter. When your team does the same, you protest. ‘That was not really a fault.’ ‘In fact, they are to blame because …’ Your team is the winner and once more you shout together ‘We are the champions!

Us-them thinking (also known as in-group and out-group mechanisms) strengthens group thinking by devaluating and fighting other groups. This results in unjust beliefs about other people and negative or even destructive behaviour towards others. Group-think and us-them thinking are often obvious in team sports. Your loyalty is immediately with your own team or group, even in incidental groups, and belittling the other group stimulates in-group cohesion. 

Us-them thinking may be harmless in team sports, but it may also lead to all sorts of destructive behaviours. In the case of power differences, us-them thinking may easily lead to violence. In his notorious Stanford prison experiment from 1971, Philip Zimbardo divided students at random into prisoners and guards. Within a week, he had to stop the experiment because the guards were submitting their prisoners to a variety of cruel punishments. 

History shows us numerous conflicts and wars where us-them thinking was incited with horrible consequences. Today, on this crowded planet of ours, where people from all sorts of groups (religions, ethnicities, socioeconomic classes, nations, areas) have to deal with each other more frequently than ever before, we will have to learn how to manage our group thinking and us-them thinking. That is why we need to recognise several pitfalls in our system 1 thinking that support group thinking and us-them thinking.

2.3          Pitfalls: strange is dangerous; selective perception and confirmation bias; strong tendency to attribute meaning; strong tendency to stick to first impressions

You are enjoying a drink at a terrace cafe, surrounded by people at other tables: young women in a heated conversation, older couples having coffee and people having a group meeting with laptops in hand. Your attention is drawn to a man who approaches the terrace, muttering to himself, drifting a bit, looking filthy. Ugh, you think, and you quickly look the other way, pretending not to see him

Strange is dangerous - familiar is good

The people at the terrace cafe are the kind of people that look familiar, but this man, he does not belong. When someone or something is strange, you do not know whether you are running into danger and what is the best way to react. Once you are used to other people or a given situation, even if you did not choose them, you at least know what to expect. Familiarity is easier than uncertainty. We are more positive about what is familiar than about what is strange, for no other reason than familiarity. Familiar is good. Advertising eagerly uses this insight by providing repetition. We assume that a well-known brand, which is well-known because we have often seen its repeated adverts, is better than a brand we have never heard of. What or who is familiar often appears more attractive than something or someone strange.

Selective perception and confirmation bias

Our perception is selective. It is unconsciously led by expectations that flow from our prior knowledge. This prior knowledge is based on what we have learned, largely without much consciousness, from our sociocultural environment and what has thus become part of our frame of reference.

You are joining your new neighbours’ housewarming party. After greeting them, you look around and you see many unfamiliar faces; they must be their relatives and friends. You keep looking around and you spot some people you know from the neighbourhood. You smile and join them.

* * * 

What do you see? A picture in the news shows a black man running and a white man running behind him. ‘Wild chase’ says the headline. What do you think is happening?

What we ‘know’, our frame of reference, leads to selective perception. Our expectations are filling in what we cannot know in a way that suits our prior knowledge and expectations. Many of us will think that the white man is trying to catch the black man who, as we assume, will be some criminal, or at least a suspect. We fill in what we do not know. In reality, the picture shows two detectives together running after someone.

A teacher who expects his students to cheat in an exam will see their nervous behaviour as a confirmation of his belief rather than as a stress symptom. Witnesses in court are convinced they know what the burglar looked like, even if it is impossible that they could have seen him well enough. Our brain completes missing information in accordance with what we think we have seen. This also works the other way around. When paying attention to something, we often do not notice what else is going on. If you like to see examples, look for ‘selective attention test’ or ‘person swap’ on the Internet. Accurate and unprejudiced perception requires a lot of effort. System 2 needs to be put to work consciously!

Confirmation bias is a fallacy in our thinking that supports selective perception. Confirmation bias refers to our tendency only to take in  information that confirms our earlier choices and beliefs. You bought something (a mobile phone, a car, a holiday) and the next thing you do is to focus on all the advantages of your choice. You discard any possible disadvantages or you think of reasons why these are not so important to you: ‘Yes it was expensive, but … really worthwhile.’ ‘I deserve it.’ ‘I really need it.’

We have a strong tendency to attribute meaning, and we have difficulty recognizing good or bad luck and dealing with the incomprehensible. Selective perception supports our need to attribute meaning to anything we encounter. If necessary, we make up such meaning ourselves. We rather assume that we understand something than recognise our failure to understand it, probably because not understanding something implies that it is strange, and, hence, possibly dangerous. We like to think we control our lives.

This probably helps us because chance and the incomprehensible might paralyze us. ‘This cannot be chance’, we think. Why not? Because we feel better when we are convinced we know what happened and why. We easily take an incidental succession for a cause-and-effect relation. We easily perceive all sorts of figures, often animals or people, in completely arbitrary formations (splatters, clots, clouds). Such unrealistic pattern recognitionis an everyday phenomenon. Perceiving relations and phenomena that are not there, however, also leads to superstitionwith all its accompanying fears and irrational actions.

We have a strong tendency to stick to our first impression, and we have difficulty doubting our beliefs. We evaluate other people in a split second, based on our prior experience and resulting expectations – our frame of reference. This is bad news for anyone or anything ‘different’ that does not immediately fit in with our frame of reference, such as candidates who somehow differ from the reviewers’ – unconscious – expectations. Or for patients. If a physician’s first impression is right, the diagnosis will usually be right. But the chances of arriving at a correct diagnosis strongly diminishes if the physician’s first impression goes in a different direction. The first impression – that the teacher has of a student, a social worker of a client or the court of a suspect – usually determines what follows. Once we believe our first impression, we lean back and trust our system 1.

2.4          More system 1 pitfalls: preferring simplification and generalisation; preferring the concrete; preferring the here and now

Preference for simplification and generalisation – difficulty in dealing with complexity and nuances

These tendencies support us-them thinking. For instance, a friend told you about his bad experience with foreign construction workers. So now you know you cannot trust them, and you are sure you are never going to hire foreign workers. Simplification and generalisation arise from the human need to have an immediate overview of the situation. Other suitable concepts for this phenomenon are parochialismand black-and-white thinking. Simplification and generalisation cause us to regard other people as members of a group and to define them in terms of group characteristics, such as ethnic, gender or religious characteristics. We often attribute negative characteristics to ‘other’ groups. Just think, what you would expect from a Turkish woman with a traditional headscarf.

Famile Arslan, born in Turkey, was the first lawyer to wear a traditional headscarf in the Netherlands. On her first day at the Justice Department, the receptionist wanted to refer her to the cleaners. She could not believe that Arslan had to go to the fifth floor. Only a call with Arslan’s new colleagues could convince her. Nowadays, Arslan works as a lawyer in courts all around the country. She tells us what often happens when she arrives. With an exaggerated articulation: ‘Madam! Here court’. ‘Well, I am at the right place then.’ ‘You client.’ ‘No …’ ‘Oh, you are translator!’ ‘No, I am lawyer.’

Preference for the concrete – difficulty with abstraction (abstract concepts, statistics) 

A heart-breaking picture and story about a child who lost his whole family in an earthquake is more effective to make us donate than the mere message that hundreds of people died and thousands lost their homes. The media prefer to tell this one story, rather than fully inform us about the background. The public prefers a concrete story, and prefers an extraordinary story over a more representative story. We are willing to save that one child, but find it difficult to think of all the anonymous others.

Lotteries eagerly abuse our difficulty with abstraction, especially with numbers and statistics. They depict winning and winners in attractive concrete ways, so that we do not realise that our chances of winning are close to zero.


Preference for the here and now – difficulty with long-term thinking 

The short term has priority! This is quite understandable in a survival situation, as there is simply no long term without safety and food. But we find it very difficult to deal with long-term threats to our survival. It seems more attractive to enjoy food and drink now than to think about staying healthy in the long term. It seems more attractive to skip school than to have a certificate sometime in the future. It seems more attractive to take the car and the plane than to think about the long-term environmental damage. When people are given a choice between 100 euros now or 125 next year, they usually choose the 100 euros.

Our brains long for immediate rewards. To reach long-term goals, therefore, it is recommended to break them up into smaller sub-goals that are each rewarding. To do so, to start thinking and planning, means switching on our system 2.


2.5          More pitfalls in misjudging other people and yourself: hindsight bias; fundamental attribution error; errors in self-assessment

Hindsight bias

News item: Crime investigation shows that the murderer came from the notorious neighbourhood X. Public response: ‘I knew it!’ ‘They could have known that!’ ‘They should have started looking there to begin with!’ 

News item: Investigators of the demonstration-turned-into-chaos pointed out that the police was present with too few officers. Public response: ‘How could they be so stupid! Everybody knew this would be a huge demonstration!’

The public responses demonstrate hindsight bias, also called the knew-it-all-along error. You think that you would have known and done a lot better in a difficult situation than other people have. You think so because you know what happened afterwards, but you do not realise that you would not have had this information when you had to act.

On the highway, a car passes by, quite obviously breaking the speed limit. You notice a woman sitting next to the driver and a child in the back. ‘A maniac!’ you think, ‘Another guy who thinks he can just drive like mad. They should take him off the road!’ What you do not know is that this family had just been told that the condition of their eldest child suddenly got a lot worse. The hospital asked them to come as soon as possible.

The fundamental attribution error means that we explain other people’s behaviour on the basis of personal characteristics without even thinking about possible contextual explanations. However, when explaining our own questionable behaviour, we have no problem mentioning circumstances that make our behaviour understandable (self-serving bias). The fundamental attribution is more frequently made in the individualistic Western culture and less often in collectivistic cultures, which tend to focus on the context. The fundamental attribution error may cause us to leave people in trouble in the lurch, thinking that they will have done something wrong and only have themselves to blame. When you get into trouble yourself, however, you know perfectly well what all the circumstances were that caused your trouble.

There are more attribution errors. Errors in self-assessment are overestimation and underestimation. Overestimating yourself, even if wrongly, may be useful. Thinking you are very good and can do anything gives you satisfaction and energy. Overestimating yourself, however, also involves selective perception and easily falling into pitfalls. You regard success as being solely down to your own merit, without realizing that you were also very lucky. Overestimating yourself also leads to taking irresponsible risks. In powerful positions, this may bring about disaster for other people, as demonstrated by the financial crisis. Power leads to less empathy and, hence, to actions that disregard the risks for other people.

Underestimating yourself wrongly has a more negative effect on yourself. When you think you cannot do it anyway, you will not even try and you miss a learning opportunity. You feel dependent on other people, who can do so much more. Because you expect other people to be aware of your incompetence, you do not have the courage to make contact. And so you miss the chance to meet interesting other people and make friends.


2.6          Avoiding pitfalls is difficult … because of these pitfalls

In order to respond and act quickly and without much effort, relying on system 1 is often advantageous but certainly not always. We would frequently be better off if we made the effort to stop and think whether we are really right and whether we are doing the right thing. However, it is not easy to change deeply rooted beliefs and habits. The pitfalls involved in system 1 are the troublemakers for switching onto system 2. Two more pitfalls are great contributors to this trouble: the way we solve cognitive dissonance and the power of habit.


How we solve cognitive dissonance

We solve cognitive dissonance by unconsciously adapting our beliefs. Not noticing cognitive dissonance impedes our potential to change deep-seated beliefs and behaviours. Festinger studied a sect that announced that a flood would come to end the world and that a spaceship would come and save them. When their prediction was not fulfilled, their faith did not weaken but grew even stronger with all the reasons they made up for why the world had not ended, for instance, that their strong faith had protected the world. The sect solved their cognitive dissonance by adapting their beliefs.

Cognitive dissonance can be defined as the tension that is caused by observing facts, information or beliefs that disagree with your own. This forces you to think up new meanings that are in agreement with your beliefs. If that is really impossible, we can always resort to ‘the exception proves the rule’.


The power of habit

If driving a car or brushing your teeth has become a habit, you do these things without thinking. As a habit is learned and often repeated, it becomes unconscious. Habits have an important positive function: the power of habit is that it allows attention to focus on non-automatic behaviour. Conscious attention has only a restricted capacity, but you may think about something else while driving your car or brushing your teeth.

The power of habit may become more disturbing, however, when you learn wrong habits or when your habits lose their positive function. Wrong habits, such as driving carelessly, eating unhealthy food, being unfriendly or uttering prejudices, are disturbing. Habits can also turn ineffective or unwanted due to contextual changes. The power of habit is then disturbing because it prevents us from noticing change, as when teachers fails to notice gradual change in their student population, or when physicians are unaware of new diagnosis and treatment options.

The power of habit is disturbing, moreover, because habits are part of the rapid and unconscious system 1. You may be firmly determined to drive more carefully or to overcome your prejudices, but habits take over before you even notice. The positive message is that good habits can be learned. Once learned and automated, they then become powerful parts of system 1 as well.





‘Why do those people behave so different from us?’ ‘It’s their culture!’ ‘Why do we do it this way?’ ‘It’s our culture!’ Question solved. ‘Why do men love barbequing?’ ‘Obvious. After hunting, men have always put their kill on the fire.’ This evolutionary explanation sounds more attractive than a complicated and disturbing story about commercial interests and marketing. We humans prefer simple explanations. Nuances and complexity are awkward. In fact, it is quite remarkable that ‘evolution’ and ‘culture’ are both popular as simple and supposedly adequate explanations of the beliefs and behaviours of other people and ourselves. Both have been used in the preceding text. However, neither one can be used as the only explanation of an individual’s beliefs or behaviours, for then we would be falling into the pitfall of simplification and generalisation.


Why evolution does not explain individual behaviours and beliefs

I have three comments on this issue. (1) It is useful to understand how evolution may have moulded our emotional response patterns and unconscious tendencies. But it is also useful to remember other abilities we acquired in the process of evolution. Think about our potential to reflect, to experiment, to organise, to plan, to imagine, to create and to design. During our evolution, we developed the skills and created the means for living together. And, very importantly, we do not need to invent everything all over all the time. We pass on what we invented and created to each other and to the next generations. That is culture.

(2) The use of evolutionary explanations often suffers from a selective bias. The idea of ‘survival of the fittest’, for instance, has long been used to defend individual egotism as ‘natural’, while completely overlooking the fact that social beings need their group to survive and, therefore, also need to have other capacities, such as empathy, compassion and cooperation.

(3) An individual’s beliefs and behaviours can never be fully understood as a group characteristic because each individual is unique. Ironically, individual variation is an important evolutionary condition. Variation means that one living being is better adapted to its environment than another and, therefore, has more survival and reproduction opportunities. Cultural evolution too depends on variation and deviation.


Why ‘culture’ does not explain individual behaviours and beliefs 

Of course, behaviours and beliefs are heavily influenced by the sociocultural environment and period in which you live, but they are different for each individual. Whatever you learned during your socialisation seems self-evident because it was offered as the only way to do and see things. The effects remain largely unconscious, and you do not think about them. But that may change. When you grow up, you may start to wonder, question and talk to other people who are also asking themselves questions. With all the social media of today’s world, it is almost impossible not to know that other people in this world have other beliefs and admit other behaviours than the ones you learned.

A culture usually has subcultures, that is, groups that differ more or less in their behaviours and beliefs. We often belong to several subcultures. Moreover, you may be part of a minority culture as well as the dominant culture. An individual’s behaviours and beliefs can never be explained only by their belonging to one culture. Importantly, cultures are dynamic, and they keep changing as a result of all kinds of factors, such as new circumstances, contacts with other cultures or internal inconsistencies. For instance, can you value human dignity and contribute to degrading circumstances at the same time? Dissatisfaction with elements in a culture may lead to a struggle for change. When you meet someone with a different cultural background, you still need to find out how this person relates to this background.

In conclusion: Never use ‘evolution’ or ‘culture’ as the only adequate explanation of the behaviours or beliefs of other people or yourself. Never say things such as ‘a typical American’ (or any other group), or ‘an Islamic woman, obviously oppressed’ or ‘what else do you expect of those hooligans’. That is a mere simplification. Americans, Islamic women and sports fans are not clones. People are never clones of their culture. Individual beliefs and behaviours are always influenced by a variety of factors.

Firstly, each human being has a unique frame of reference, that is, the largely unconscious ideas, beliefs, emotional response patterns and habits from which they see and deal with the world around them and themselves. This frame of reference develops as a result of their personal learning history, that is, the interaction between their individual ‘nature’ (innate characteristics at birth) and their ‘nurture’ (experiences in more or less accidental situations in the broader socio-cultural and historical context).

Secondly, whatever someone says or does at a certain moment is always a response to the situation at that moment. Another situation would trigger another response. When people feel left out or threatened, they will behave differently than when in the company of friends. When you are in a fight, you may say things you would never say in another situation. Good partners know how to bring out the best in each other, and the opposite happens in a bad partnership. When people want to get to know someone else, they will create another situation than when they reject the other person using some label.

Each individual is unique. You, me and everyone else. Any situation may influence behaviour – and encounters between different people – in a positive or negative way. It makes no sense to believe or pretend that someone else’s or your own behaviours and beliefs ‘just happen to be so’.





Think about system 1 again. You may have noticed that system 1 is not only easy (fast with little energy) but also continuously working to provide certainty, even if only the appearance of certainty, but that is still comfortable. Feeling certain means you feel you have a grip on things. There is nothing wrong with the need for certainty. But don’t we also long for something new, a bit of a thrill, imagination and making our life a little better? These are the needs that have stimulated cultural development. Each culture is based on change for if this was not the case, we would still be living like prehistoric beings.

Possibly the biggest challenge of our times is how we can manage to live together in an agreeable way in spite of all our diversities. There is no need to be close friends with everybody, nor is this possible. Your own intimate circle is obviously limited. But there are some things you can do.

  1. You can (learn to) understand that – most – other people’s world views are different from yours, but this does not make other people less valuable. You may realise that the behaviours and beliefs you prefer (your frame of reference) came about in much the same way as theirs did.

  2. You can recognise the workings of system 1 in yourself. It is by nature that you think and act in system 1 just like everyone else. Only when you recognise this can you try to scrutinise your own behaviour and think more consciously: is it right what I think? Is it fair what I am doing? Do I consider other people? Do I imagine myself in their situation? Do I know enough about that situation? Or is it perhaps time to inquire?

  3. Be curious about other people’s beliefs and habits and particularly about the background. Why is someone behaving this way? Why does someone believe that? Their reasons and backgrounds may be similar to yours, even if your habits and beliefs differ greatly. And maybe you will come across different ideas and habits that you find attractive.

  4. Look for resemblances. Perhaps you like the same music. Perhaps you both like cooking and good food. Perhaps you both have difficulty … finding a job, aging, raising children, dealing with your parents, or whatever. Resemblances provide topics to talk about, opportunities to exchange ideas and experiences and openings for sharing things you have in common.

  5. Postpone your beliefs (prejudices) about other people. Do not think ‘you know’, only because the other person wears a headscarf, a stylish suit, a daring dress, has a long beard, a bald head, another skin colour, or speaks another language.

  6. Knowledge of cultures is useful, but individual diversity is always greater than cultural background can predict. Therefore, never accept culture (religion, ethnicity) as the only explanation of behaviours and beliefs of other people or yourself.

  7. Even if you keep disagreeing: find out how to allow each other to hold on to personal beliefs and habits, that is, as long as these beliefs and habits do not harm other people.

In short: get to know yourself and other people!


This text is based on Sanneke Bolhuis (2016). Leren en veranderen. Emotie, gedrag en denken.

(Learning and changing. Emotion, behavior and thinking). Fourth revised edition. Bussum: Coutinho