How to counter the tribalism engulfing America and much of Europe at the moment, which is fomenting racism and huge civil unrest? An excellent article just published in Aljazeera by William G. Moseley, a professor and chair of geography at Macalester College in Minnesota, argues that in promoting tribalism, Trump and the current Republican party in America are overtly tapping into and exploiting our fear of ‘the other.’
In thinking about the fastest route away from this kind of prejudice and the violence occurring from it, I’m drawn to a phenomenon called ‘the contact hypothesis,’ an idea devised by Gordon Allport, a towering figure in psychology, in 1954.
One of the founders of personality psychology, Allport believed that managed contact between members of different groups is the best means of reducing prejudice.
Allport specified four specific conditions for ensuring that contact between different groups works: equal group status in the situation; intergroup cooperation; the support of authority figures; and finally, and most importantly, a common, overarching goal.
Psychologists call this a ‘superordinate’ goal – a goal only achieved by large cooperative teamwork of two or more people. Engaging in sharing and teamwork tends to transcend differences, because it emphasizes the very heart of humanity — we are all in this together. And if we are all in this together we are no longer competing for scarce resources.
The contact hypothesis has been tested in a variety of settings, and found to be a powerful tool to lessen discrimination against many groups, from Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland to homosexuals at universities.
Sports teams, management teams, schools with new members, and even prisons make use of this idea of working toward superordinate goals to alleviate rivalry and encourage a team spirit.
In 2006, a review of 525 studies of the contact hypothesis in action confirmed that contact between different groups of any variety successfully reduces intergroup prejudice and increases cooperation, particularly when Allport’s four conditions are met.
All of this suggests that coming together in small groups with a superordinate goal provides a social cohesion beyond money, job or size of property.
You see this we’re-all-in-this-together spirit during a war, as you did with the British when fighting the Nazis in World War II. You see this during calamity – such as the recent fires in California, when people spontaneously helped each other, regardless of personal risk.
But you don’t need an emergency to unite different type of people. All you need is, in some way, is a barn that needs raising.
Better water, better town
Take the tiny town of Tailholt, Oklahoma. The citizens of Tailholt had been trying and failing to get fresh water every year since 1999. Tailholt residents were also desperate for a large community center as a central meeting place for organized activities, but every annual application for both projects had been rejected on the grounds of expense. There was just too little federal money to go around.
The Tailholt community then discovered that they could qualify for enough points to get some federal money, depending on how much of the project they were willing to do themselves.
During a town meeting, a core group agreed to work on the community’s goals of a town meeting center and digging the ten-mile pipeline into a four-foot ditch, with the county’s water department overseeing the project.
Because of Tailholt’s willingness to invest in “sweat equity” to build the community center as well, the government offered small amounts of federal funding for the materials.
The building and pipeline were both operational by 2006. Tailholt had clean water and a community center with a library, with free computer use and a place for everyone to meet.
But the bigger payoff in Tailholt was the effect on the community of engaging together in a common goal.
Before the building work had begun, the town’s population – made up of working class whites and Native Americans – had felt isolated from and suspicious of each other. During construction, while the men showed up with hammers, squares, and levels, the women from the community would show up at the site every day to cook lunch for the volunteers.
As soon as it opened, the center immediately became a fulcrum for the entire town. The town found a soul it never thought it had.
Thinking in tune
The power of coming together as a group to achieve a superordinate goal stems from a collective resonance effect.
Psychologists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, and the University of Salzburg, Austria, once studied the brain activity of pairs of guitarists playing a short melody together by placing an EEG cap on each of the musicians as they played together as a group and recorded each individual’s brain activity.
Entire areas of the brain had synchronized patterns, with the frontal and central regions the strongest, but the temporal and parietal regions also showing high synchronization in at least half the guitarist pairs.
The parietal regions govern our sense of self in space, and in this instance, the synchrony suggests a move toward oneness. These results demonstrate that we move beyond the self when we are working to create something together.
Like a jazz group working together as a superorganism to produce a common sound, we get on each other’s wavelength whenever we’re working together to produce a common result.
All we need now is a giant barn that needs raising.