How ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ Thinking Affects Sport, Politics, Business and Life

Humans want those in their tribe to succeed, we often have strong associations or feelings for a certain team or athlete and negative feelings toward a rival. Think of your favourite team or athlete in your teenage years - were you overcome with joy when they won and seriously gutted when they lost?


When they won we felt the emotions of them being one of us, so our collective status and internal heiracachic mechanism increased and we all got a dopamine and adrenaline hit as a group. Studies show that testosterone increases in a team that is on a win streak, and interestingly testosterone also increases in their fans.


Although it also works the opposite way when our team loses because we often subconsciously associate our self worth with how well our team does, think English soccer fights, and a national mourning at the All Black world cup defeats in the 1990’s. These are not the behaviours of people who have control over their mindsets.The collective psyches of cultures and nations can be affected.



So What’s Going On With Sports Fans?

We are totally oblivious to what is going on in the automatic/prehistoric/subterranean/faster parts of our brains but we all walk around the next day with more swagger or less swagger depending on whether “our” team are heroic champions or miserable failures. As if we had something to do with the result.


If we engage the prefrontal cortex or slower system (thinking brain) when watching sport, then we are less tunnel visioned and one eyed with refereeing decisions, and we can watch to appreciate the skill sets and strategy of both teams, not just ‘your’ team. There are lots of ways you can do this but the first step is to be aware of the trap.


What’s that got to do with politics?

Now the same can be said for partisan politics, Labour v National, Democrat v Republican, Liberal v Conservative, Red v Blue, Black v White, Aryan v Jew, Hutu v Tutsi, your business v their business, your team v their team. We have a tendency to ignore the good points of the opposition because we are not engaging the prefrontal cortex or slower system, we are literally on auto-pilot using the subterranean, preprogrammed and faster parts of our brains. Our fast automatic brain is biased towards what it thinks is for your own best interests and to keep us safe, it doesn’t have time to think “others” or “thems”, it is only concerned about “us” or our group.

Studies show that when we flash an image of different race or group up, then it activates the amygdala, whereas if an image of the same race is flashed up then there is no activation.


So what do I do?

Next time you think about your rival team, rival political orientation, rival business, rival culture you may find that you feel negatively towards them, so why not challenge yourself to catch yourself when this happens, the next step is to ask yourself this question. “If I were them right now, how would I be feeling?” By asking this question you have now put yourself in their shoes, and you have dissociated yourself from your own internal cocktail of emotions and bypassed the autopilot/subconscious/fast brain. From here you will have better impulse control, sustained attention, abstract reasoning, rational thinking and insight. And this is clearly a good thing, unless you are in the middle of a life and death situation like running from a sabertooth tiger, but guess what?……..Sabertooth tigers don’t exist anymore so we can make some upgrades to the software in our heads.

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