The Real World

November 2012 The Psychologist, 26 (2), 80.

In his 1929 book Civilization and Its Discontents Freud observed that “It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive manifestations of their aggressiveness”.  Over the intervening decades, history and psychology have generated a large amount of data that speaks to this observation.

Most notably, in order to make sense of the atrocities of World War II, two sets of classic social psychological studies produced evidence that ties to an ingroup go hand-in-hand with prejudice towards outgroups. First, Sherif’s Boy’s Camp studies showed that close friends could become bitter enemies once their relationship was defined in terms of competing group interests. Following on from this, Tajfel’s minimal group studies showed that discrimination against outgroups could arise from individuals’ mere assignment to groups — however meaningless the basis for intergroup division. 

The work of Sherif and Tajfel moved researchers in the social identity tradition towards the conclusion that love of an ingroup — and identification with its goals — was an essential underpinning of aggression towards outgroups.

However, this analysis remained at odds with conclusions drawn from other classic studies which argued that such aggressiveness is the consequence of people’s ‘natural’ tendency to go along with rules and roles associated with the social positions in which they find themselves. First, Milgram’s ‘obedience’ studies revealed the destructive lengths that people would go to in order to follow the instructions of an authority. Then, in Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison, guards appeared all too willing to buy into roles that involved crushing prisoners’ rights under the wheels of a collective tyranny.

The stories that these researchers told held little place for love of any form. Instead destructiveness and tyranny were seen to result from blind, mindless, conformity.

As it has evolved, together with colleagues like Phil Banyard, Rakshi Rath and Megan Birney, our own contribution to this debate has involved re-examining the latter paradigms in order to interrogate claims that the evils they document spring from processes devoid of thought and emotion. 

First, in our own BBC prison study we found that it was only when they identified with a brutal leadership that participants were willing to display the forms of enthusiasm and creativity necessary for tyranny to succeed. Our more recent work has also shown that willingness to follow the aggressive instructions of an authority is predicted by, and contingent upon, identification with it.  Indeed, in both the Zimbardo and the Milgram paradigm it appears that identification with the researchers’ scientific projects — and their leadership — was the crucial process that made destructive acts both meaningful and possible. 

In short, terror results not from carelessness but from commitment. It is a labour not of ignorance but of love.

At one level, the upshot of all this is to reveal a unity of process running through all these classic studies. This centres on the realization that identification with an ingroup is a necessary prerequisite for the forms of passion that justify and motivate oppression of outgroups. However, this analysis also takes us further by showing that there is no necessary link between love of ‘us’ and hatred of ‘them’. So Freud was certainly correct to observe that these can be two sides of the same coin, but they need not be. For while social identification underpins all forms of group behavior, work by Andrew Livingstone and others has shown that the form of that behavior depends critically on the content of social identity. 

If those we identify with espouse a vision of ‘us’ that requires love to be proved through hate, then we will move towards the dystopian worlds produced by Zimbardo and Milgram.  But as leaders like Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu have shown, when leaders define social identities which require love to be proved by love, this can be a royal road not only to reconciliation but also to social progress.