Dr. David Myers: Psychology of Sunni-Shi’a division is wisdom we all can use

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David Myers

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HOPE COLLEGE Professor of Psychology DAVID MYERS is a household name among college students and teachers, because he is the author of textbooks widely used on college campuses. His scientific writings, supported by National Science Foundation grants and fellowships, have appeared in three dozen academic periodicals, including Science, the American Scientist and the American Psychologist. Myers recently wrote a fascinating column on psychological principles behind Sunni-Shi’a conflict within Islam. He invited us to share his thoughts …

Psychology of the Sunni-Shi’a Divide

Why is there so much animosity
between groups that seem so similar?

This excerpt is used with the author’s permission. The full text originally appeared in POLITICO magazine, where you can read Dr. Myers’ entire column. Dr. Myers opens his column by explaining that Sunni-Shi’a divisions do have deep historical roots—but, he notes, so did the long and brutal Catholic-Protestant conflicts in Ireland. In addition to historical factors, Myers suggests four psychological principles are at work in such divisions. Thoughtful readers will realize that these factors are crucial for understanding a wide range of inter-religious and cross-cultural conflicts. Myers writes …

1) No matter our similarities with others, our attention focuses on differences.

In the 1970s when the Yale psychologist William McGuire invited children to “tell us about yourself,” they zeroed in on their distinctiveness. Those who were foreign-born often mentioned their birthplaces. Redheads volunteered their hair color. Minority children mentioned their race. “If I am a Black woman in a group of White women, I tend to think of myself as a Black,” McGuire and his colleagues observed. “If I move to a group of Black men, my blackness loses salience and I become more conscious of being a woman.” Straight folks sometimes wonder why gay folks are so conscious of their sexual identity, though in a predominantly gay culture the sexual identity self-consciousness would be reversed.

So when people of two subcultures are nearly identical, they often overlook their kinship and become laser-focused on their small differences. Freud recognized this phenomenon: “Of two neighboring towns, each is the other’s most jealous rival; every little canton looks down upon the others with contempt. Closely related races keep one another at arm’s length; the South German cannot endure the North German, the Englishman casts every kind of aspersion upon the Scot, the Spaniard despises the Portuguese.”

2) We naturally divide our worlds into “us” and “them,” ingroup and outgroup.

We inherited our Stone Age ancestors’ need to belong, to live in groups. There was safety in solidarity. Whether hunting, defending or attacking, 10 hands were better than two. Like them, we form social identities.

But the benefits come at a cost. Mentally drawing a circle that defines “us” also defines “them.” Moreover, an “ingroup bias”—a preference for one’s own community—soon follows. In experiments,even those in arbitrarily created groups tend to favor their own group. In studies by Henri Tajfel, Michael Billig and others,people grouped together by something as random as a coin toss or the last digit of their driver’s licenses felt a twinge of kinship with their number-mates, and favored their own group when dividing rewards.

3) Discussion among those of like mind often produces “group polarization.”

In one of my own early experiments, George Bishop and I discovered that when highly prejudiced students discussed racial issues, they became more prejudiced. When less prejudiced students talked among themselves, they became even more accepting. In other words, ideological separation plus conversation equaled greater polarization between the two groups.

So it goes in real life too. Analysis of terrorist organi­zations, for instance, has revealed that the terrorist mentality does not erupt suddenly, on a whim. It begins slowly, among people who share a grievance. As they interact in isolation, their views grow more and more extreme.

By connecting like-minded people, the Internet’s virtual groups often harness group polarization for good purposes, as when connecting and strengthening fellow peacemakers, cancer survivors and rights advocates. But the Internet echo chamber also enables climate-change skeptics and conspiracy theorists to amplify their shared ideas and suspicions. White supremacists become more racist. Militia members become more hostile. For good or ill, socially networked birds of a feather gain support for their shared beliefs, suspicions and inclinations.

4) Group solidarity soars when facing a common enemy.

From laboratory experiments to America immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, shared threats foster unity. During conflict, we-feeling rises. During wars, patriotism surges.

In one of psychology’s famous experiments, the psychologist Muzafer Sherif, in 1954, randomly split Oklahoma City boy campers into two groups for a series of competitive activities, with prizes for the victors. Over the ensuing two weeks, ingroup pride and outgroup hostility increased—marked by food wars, fistfights and ransacked cabins. Intergroup contacts yielded more threats—and stronger feelings of ingroup unity—until Sherif engaged the boys in cooperative efforts toward shared goals, such as moving a stuck truck or restoring the camp water supply.

YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY reading David Myers’ online columns with Dr. Nathan DeWall in Talk Psych.

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