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Roya R. Rad, MA, PsyD Headshot

The Psychology of 'Us' vs. 'Them'

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Except those who are suffering from some form of radical fixations, psychopathology, trauma, personality disorders, or those who are simply uninformed or have some form of hidden agendas, the rest of humanity usually is not looking forward to discord, tension, destruction and innocent people suffering.

Therefore, psychology is stepping into an area where it needs to define what it means to live in a peaceful world, what needs to be done, and how it can be accomplished. While more research and study need to be done to bring this issue to the surface, the focus could shift more toward how these elements can affect all of us whether in the short or long terms. Either financially, emotionally or mentally, the effect of tension and conflict on all people across the globe is something that cannot be denied or hidden anymore. Furthermore, in order to understand what peace means, we need to understand what a conflict is and how it is formed.

When we discuss conflict, identity formation is a big part of the root of many conflicts and the first thing that comes to mind is the religious identity. A number of personality theorists have something to say about religion. But the subject that has not been studied as much is how religious beliefs might influence individuals' view of human nature. What seems more obvious is that all religions offer an element of implicit ideas regarding personality and how it needs to be shaped that impact individuals' behavior whether it is motivation, personality development, self growth, unconscious mind, psychological well being and society.

Identity formation is a crucial element for a mature person. Forming a self conception is a unique process composed of a number of elements one of which, for some, may be the concept of religious beliefs. But what is worth noting is that identities can be as wide as we want them to be. In addition, we can go beyond and above any particular element once we learn about it and digest it. But again the importance here is learning and digesting not denying and avoiding. What we avoid and deny gets repressed. What we learn and digest gets processed, adds to us, and if chosen can be released.

When it comes to identity, it is important for any society to encourage and support its members including children in forming a healthy form of identity to help them in becoming comfortable with who they are. A repressed individual may become counterproductive and that can affect not only the individual himself but the society he lives in. For example, if a teenager is not encouraged to experience and accept all his identity elements, he will experience an identity conflict. An identity conflict is created when a child rejects or escapes a part of himself rather than trying to understand. That creates confusion, low self esteem, and inner anger and may even result in outer acting out behaviors and if it continuous it can turn into some form of violence.

We have two general types of identities; one is on an individual level and one on a collective one. As we grow, our sense of identify also grows. We have seen cases in which individuals are willing to let go of their individual identities to make a sacrifice for their collective ones. People who share the same collective identity think of themselves as having a common interest and a common fate. For example, liberty lovers vs. extremist, republicans vs. democrats, Israelis vs. Palestinians, India and Pakistan, government and insurgents, the list can go on and on forever. The more progressed a sense of identity, the less there is a sense of separation.

In addition to the above, there are geographic identities, for example, I may identify myself both with United States (my home country) and Ashburn (my home city). I may also identify a part of myself with Iran since my childhood was spend there. In addition, sometimes elements of identities may compete over other elements to gain a status. Therefore, I may move above all of that and just look at myself as an individual who is trying to act locally but think globally. But, first I need to understand them in order to be able to move beyond them. This way, the element still exist and is not denied, but it is not the only motivating force.

Characteristics of identity are open to interpretation and are becoming more of an individualistic choice as we find ourselves more intuited with our free will. More people are widening their sense of collective identity to a more global scale rather than specific to one thing or another. More people are forming a sense of global fairness, cooperation and liberty rather than focusing on what seems closer to their conditioning. This is due to the realization that as we are progressing in life, we are more and more connected.

It is also worth noting that when it comes to identity, while some traits are fixed at birth such as parental religion or place of birth and the color of skin, some others can be modified later in life such as religion practiced or language spoken. So it can be ascribed or achieved. Therefore, many identities are gained by choice or expanded upon by the individual's perception and self growth process.

Now the question would be why and when identities contribute to inflexible conflicts? If there is discrimination and exclusion of an ethnic group by other groups, then identify becomes more persistent to one specific trait. For example, the survival of Jews as an ethnic group which came from a history of antisemitism.

There are multiple theories as to why our identity formation may create conflict, discrimination, racism and all those negative concepts. One is that those people who have a sense of vague or unclean self esteem usually identify more solidly with a group to make themselves feel better. A sense of group attachment gives them a collective identity that is stronger than an individual self. And if they do not have positive sense of self, or if they have low or damaged self esteem, or if they feel insecure then that feeling of belonging to a group that they feel is superior or secure would be helpful to their sense of self esteem. They become intolerant and insensitive to the "other" group and act in ways that is far away from their innately designed integrity. For example, they may burn the other group's flag or holy book. The weaker this sense of self, the denser the sense of attachment to that one element and the stronger the feeling of superiority due to that element. It is also important to note that having a healthy connection to an element of identity is not the same as having an unhealthy attachment. While the first may bring growth, the second usually is counterproductive resulting in a black and white kind of thinking pattern and irrationality.

At the end, all people are driven to attain basic and universal human needs including recognition for their positive contribution, security and respect. Cultures and societies need to encourage their participant to start trusting members of other groups, to interconnect, to mix and match -- not to disparage or act violently or in hostility toward them. People need to start practicing accountability rather than blaming others. When a group feels inferior or experiences identify conflict due to repression, resistance and prolonged destructive struggle may arise. When a group feels a treat, they may react instead of respond.

Leaders both political and religious have an important role in shaping identities and should start putting forward more expanded identities that include everyone. Many leaders encourage strengthening of exclusive identities because of the emotions that is created against the "other" and the power that can be gained through this emotional vulnerability. For example, Hitler and the Nazis helped create an extreme racist German identity that contributed greatly to the destructiveness of the wars Germany undertook. But this is not limited to the Hitler; we see many examples like this happening all around us.

Having a large proportion of mutually gratifying interactions between different groups tends to mitigate and counter the destructive consequences of contentious interactions. It is important to note that discrimination and racism are not limited to a specific place. While in more technologically advanced countries we see it more actively due to the nature of immigration, research indicates that there is actually more racism and discrimination in more repressed and authoritarian countries. We just witness it more in the former because we are openly discussing it rather than avoiding or denying it. While in other parts of the world, the subject has not surfaced, in other places we are lucky enough to be honest about what is going on to be able to discuss and address it. So, this surfacing of the problem while painful but is not negative but positive and healing.

The exchange of cultural features that results when groups of individuals of different cultures contact each other depends largely on how the two treat this integration. Both will be altered by this process and how they deal with effects whether this will be a positive or negative alteration where either both benefit or both are harmed. These points need to be taken into consideration when cultures mix.

1. The hosting group needs to get educated about the value of different cultures and how cooperation can bring a more positive society. Resistance to reasonable change is counterproductive. Making settlers feel a sense of belonging encourages them to have a more positive sense of community.

2. The settler group needs to take steps to assimilate into the new society. Assimilation does not mean losing one's identify. One can have a solid ground with his identity while living in moderation according to the laws and rules of the society. If one is not a fit and feels unsettled with the blend in, then one must question his motives in moving. The settler group can educate themselves on the process of acculturation from the phase where there is a sense of elation (stimulating phase for newcomers) to resistance (home seems so much better) to transformation (feeling more comfortable with the new environment, getting to know it and learning skills to prepare to integrate) and finally integration (finding a bridge to any cultural barrier, acknowledging one's heritage while taking in the new life). Many settlers remain stuck in the second and third stage of this acculturation process which can create a number of problems for both them and the host country. The settler group's focus should shift on how to make positive contributions to the society in which they settled, to take responsibility, to go through a healthy acculturation process, to become productive members, and to integrating with the society in positive ways.

As always, I will end my article with one of my poems to mix a little art with the mind's science.

This may be a start of a familiarity
With an open heart and sincerity

People you didn't know may become alliance
Those you thought friends, an act of defiance

Paths cross each other every split second
You have to be aware of it and reckon

Life is a gift, heavenly and harmonious
With clear intentions not anything felonious


--Roya R. Rad