Professor, social scientist and author of “The Power of Us” Jay Van Bavel on how who we are, and how we behave, is formed by the groups we belong to — or are told we belong to.
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Jay Van Bavel isn’t an expert on the stock market and he doesn’t know much about investing. But Van Bavel, a professor of psychology and neural science at NYU, has a unique perspective on the forces that drive them. Over the past decade, Van Bavel has published more than 100 academic papers, based on extensive research, about the hidden influences that guide our decisions and shape our daily lives. His recent book, “The Power of Us,” is focused specifically on the impact of groups that we belong to — how membership in a family, a community, a political party, or even a weekly D&D game rewires the brain in fundamental ways. We asked Van Bavel to explain his research in layman’s terms, so we can better understand how those influences take hold, how we can recognize them in ourselves, and manage their subconscious impact on our lives.

You study the way that people are influenced by the groups they belong to. What got you interested in that?

My first job after college was working with a company to go into schools and talk about racism. We would ask a kid to express a stereotype about a group, and then we would try to debunk it. So we’d say, “That’s not true, and here’s why.” But it didn’t actually change their minds. As soon as we addressed one stereotype, they would shift to another. It was like a game of Whac-A-Mole, and it got me interested in what really drives those beliefs.

Most people would say their beliefs are based on their values and experiences.

Yeah, a lot of people think of themselves as the protagonist in a story. Each phase of their life is like a new chapter, but it’s the journey of a single person. In reality, our sense of self is constantly changing, and some of the most profound changes are determined by the groups that we end up stumbling into, or being assigned to, or being told we belong to. So in many ways, it completely reverses the script. The self is determined by the situation, more than the self determines the situation.

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How does membership in a group change our sense of identity?

I’ll give you an example from a very famous study on bankers. A lot of people think of bankers as very greedy, corrupt individuals, so this study was done to see if bankers are actually less trustworthy than people who aren’t bankers. And what it found is that they’re not… except when they were thinking of themselves as bankers! As soon as you activate their banker identity, they’re more likely to cut corners to try to increase profit. But when that part of their identity isn’t active, their behaviour is guided by different identities, whether it’s mothers or daughters, sports fans, or Americans. When those identities are floating around in their mind, they are no more likely than anyone else to cut a corner to make some money. So it’s not that people who work as bankers are intrinsically like this, because they show very different behaviour, when you activate a different identity in them.

Do you see the same thing when people tap into a more positive part of their identity?

We see this in all kinds of situations. A person’s group identity can even change their sense of smell or taste.

What do you mean?

For one study that I ran in Switzerland, we asked some of the participants, “What books do Swiss people like?” and “What movies do Swiss people like?” But we asked the others, “What books do you like?” and “What movies do you like?” So that activated the Swiss identity of the first group and not the second. Then we gave them all scented markers that were designed to smell like chocolate, because a big source of pride for many Swiss people is their chocolate. We found that the smell of chocolate became much more intense for the participants whose Swiss identity had been activated. If we made them smell it 20 times, it was just as strong at the end as it was at the beginning, which wasn’t true of the other participants. So when you cue people with a certain aspect of their identity, they become attuned to the symbols of that identity to the point that it literally heightens their senses.

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How much impact does this have in everyday life?

It’s one of the most important factors in how we think and reason. For example, another study asked participants to solve a math problem. You would think that a person’s skill in math would determine whether they could solve it. But the question was designed to activate partisan identity, and it turns out that your ability to solve a problem is affected by what you think the answer will mean. So when participants were given numbers to show that a gun-control policy was effective, Democrats were much better at solving it. When you changed the numbers to show that the same policy was ineffective, Republicans were better at solving it. But when you gave participants the same numbers for a question about skin cream, there was no difference between Democrats and Republicans. So these identities can be really toxic. They can stop you from reasoning clearly.

If group influences are so powerful, why is it so hard for us to see them?

There’s a great term for this called naive realism. We naively assume that we’re seeing the world for what it is. And, of course, it has to be like that. Because if you didn’t think you were seeing the world the right way, you would change how you thought about it. So from your own mind’s eye, at any given moment, you think you’re seeing things the right way. But your perspective might be relying on misinformation, or rumour, or theories that are completely false. This leads to another phenomenon called “bias blind spot,” where you can see other people’s biases, but can’t see your own. And so this makes it very hard to correct people, because the normal self-correction process is gone.

It sounds like being a member of a group has a lot in common with joining a cult. Not to the same degree, of course, but some of the same mechanics.

Yeah, it has some of the same elements. People who are deeply committed to a group often share a worldview and have a hard time letting go of it. There’s a social psychologist who did research on this by going undercover with a doomsday cult. They believed that on a specific night, the world was going to be destroyed and believers would be rescued by an alien ship. He wanted to see what would happen when the prophesy failed. And at first, people just sat in silence as the clock got close to midnight. But what happened, of course, is that the clock struck midnight and no spaceship came. The world was not destroyed. Then all of a sudden, the members of the cult realized there was a clock in another room that was running a few minutes late, so everybody started watching that clock. But eventually, it’s a couple hours later, and they have two choices. They can admit the prophecy was wrong, go back to their old jobs and lives, and try to get back to normal — or they can find a way to rationalize the failed prophecy. And it turns out, almost everybody did the second.

It’s difficult to abandon your beliefs when you have other people helping to rationalize and reinforce it. So you can think of that with all kinds of political situations, where a politician makes a claim that turns out to be false. You can decide that you don’t like that politician anymore, but if you don’t want to, you have to double down. That’s what these cult followers did. After the prophecy failed, they started proselytizing about the cult. They hadn’t really done that before, going around and trying to convince other people. But the cognitive dissonance had become so strong that they needed to do this extra thing to reaffirm their belief. These dynamics happen in a lot of groups. There was a great analysis by some organizational researchers who looked at the culture of Enron before the collapse, and they found a very similar type of psychology, where there was no questioning of leadership. It was a cult-like situation, where they only kept true believers in the organization, and they made outlandish prophecies and promises about how they were going to be the biggest organization in the world. And then of course, it collapsed, in part because people didn’t feel comfortable questioning it, and anybody who did was kicked out.

Is there a tendency for people who believed one crazy claim, to start believing others?

Yes, because one of the reasons people are drawn to a group is because it provides a sense of community. And many groups, like a cult, reduce the exposure of their members to other sources of information. So a cult will literally separate you from family members who disagree with the cult, but social pressures within any group can have a similar effect. You know, the left gets criticized for “cancel culture,” but the right has the same dynamic — it’s just around loyalty to the last President. If you’re not loyal to the covenants, or you question his role in these various things, you’re going to be primaried or lose your position like Liz Cheney. So if you’re a member of a small-town Republican Committee and you don’t believe in this, it’s hard for you to speak out against about it because you feel like you’ll lose friendships and connections and opportunities if you do. You’ll get people in the room who disagree, but don’t feel like they can say anything. The majority of Republicans have gotten vaccinated, or plan to, but it’s very hard for them to post that on Facebook to their family and friends, because they’ll get piled on. So even when there’s polarization within groups, you can get a false consensus. People who disagree can’t speak up, because loyalty is so valued.

So we’re really talking about two different things. One is the way that actual beliefs are influenced by group identities, and the other is the way that we perform beliefs to keep our group identities.

Yep. They are obviously very different, but in many cases, they end up being the same. If you don’t really believe you should storm the capital, but you do it anyway, you’ve still stormed the Capitol.

You mentioned Facebook, and I wonder if you can explain how social media alters the nature of group identity.

One of the things is that you can publicly ostracize people at scale you never could before. Shaming has been around for a long time. In a traditional community like the Amish, it’s one of the primary tools of social reinforcement. But now, you can do this at such a speed and scale. I grew up in a small town, and rumours flew around. But even if the rumour was founded, you could move beyond it. Or you could at least move out of town. Today, you can never leave it behind. Some stranger can start a rumour, or take a quote out of context and can tag your employer, and 10,000 other people jump on. And that will show up in Google searches no matter where you go or how much time has passed. That can be a tool for holding people accountable, for sure, but it can also be a tool for just harassing people.

So it’s not just social media; it’s the internet itself. The more information people can see about you, the more reasons you have to stay within the boundaries of your social group. Do you see that happening everywhere, or have some countries been able to mitigate it?

In Canada, there was a really cool study that analyzed the rhetoric of political leaders. You know, polarization has been increasing in Canada for the last 10 years or so, but the rhetoric of leaders on social media is similar across the spectrum. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, your party leaders took the pandemic seriously and framed the issue in a way that wasn’t polarizing. So I think the rhetoric of leaders matters an enormous amount. I saw an interesting analysis for a medical school at Penn, saying that if the U.S. had done just as good a job with Covid as Canada, it would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. So that tells you the impact of things like leadership, and the media sharing high-quality information.

You know, most people think the key to democracy is a robust public sphere. We debate our differences until we come to a rational agreement. Your research seems to suggest that isn’t possible. Reason doesn’t change our beliefs. Our sense of identity does. What does that mean for politics?

It means that this is within ourselves. At a local high school football game, you don’t know the political party of anyone else. We bridge those differences by focusing on a different group identity. If we can get people to think of themselves as global citizens, a lot of our divisions go away. The question that we face as humans is: what part of my identity do I take into the world?

Wil S. Hylton is an American writer. His last book was VANISHED.

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