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Just Like Me: Understanding the Common Human Condition

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At a time when the news offers a steady stream of ways people battle because of the differences between them, there's an antidote sorely needed: an understanding of the ways someone else shares our common human condition. Call it "just like me."

That's the attitude that counters the we-and-they thinking epidemic in the kind of cliques in schools that foment fights or bullying, in the biases against diversity in the workplace and in the wars being fought between groups worldwide.

It was called the "narcissism of small differences" by Freud. Vamik Volkan, a Turkish psychiatrist, saw this at work in his native Cyprus, where for generations, Cypriots and Turks waged a war against each other when, to the eye of someone just visiting the island, they were one and the same people. He recognized that each group had seized on some small custom unique to the other group and demonized them for it, all the while ignoring the vast number of ways they were similar.

That's the story of all too many wars throughout history, of too many arguments against letting people of all backgrounds have a fair chance, and of too many instances of bullying in high school hallways.

The problem comes down to attitudes, often learned in the home. Dr. Volkan could name the moments in his childhood he was taught to hate some minor trait of the other culture. He devoted much of his career to finding ways to inoculate against such toxic biases; he saw that just as prejudice can be taught, it can also be unlearned.

One of the more powerful means to counter the toxicity of such intolerance is reflecting on all the ways someone else, particularly someone from an "other" group, is "just like me." Making that reflection a daily practice primes our minds to focus on similarities, not differences -- a practice that could be useful for any program in diversity training in the workplace or tolerance and anti-bullying in schools.

Another way: encourage friendships and contacts of all kinds across the boundaries between such groups. Getting to know someone from another group both lowers anxiety about that group and enhances empathy toward them. The strength of contacts in countering prejudice was confirmed in an analysis of 515 studies involving a total of 250,000 people by Thomas Pettigrew, a social psychologist.

He found that prejudice against another group is lowest among people who have friends with or grew up among people from that group -- and learned that "they" are "just like me."

Daniel Goleman's new book FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, and CD FOCUS for Teens: Enhancing Concentration, Caring and Calm, are now available.