Updated: Jan 8, 2022
Today, more than ever, we must all accept the responsibility to be the change we want to see in the world.
The massacre of 11 people in the Jewish enclave of Squirrel Hill on October 27, 2018 brought most of us to our knees. I struggled to wrap my head around the overt demonstration of pure hate and evil. The extreme polarization and vitriol that currently blankets our country has become both incomprehensible and normalized.
The hateful gulf between left and right in American politics highlights the volatile results of such polarization. Those with extreme attitudes voice them loudly and science tells us that the more familiar something is, the more credence we give it. It's called the illusory truth effect and it's why fake news is so pervasive.
Scientists have also investigated the brain processes that drive conformity as well as deviation from our ingroups and outgroups. An ingroup is a social group to which a person psychologically identifies as being a member. By contrast, an outgroup is a social group with which an individual does not identify. The research explores how people deal with conflicts with our outgroups and why we sometimes conform to our ingroup even when we disagree. For example, juries may reach a unanimous verdict because one or two people on the panel feared disagreeing with the others, a man may laugh at an offensive joke because his friends are laughing, and teens often make bad choices because their friends "are all doing it." This power of conformity also explains why groups grow more entrenched and further apart from each other.
But the power of conformity can just as easily drive compromise, tolerance, and kindness.The battle between conforming to good or evil often depends on the cultural norms we witness most often. Someone who continually witnesses hostility and divisiveness will tend to exhibit hostile and exclusionary attitudes. Conversely, someone who is surrounded by empathy and inclusion and tolerance will demonstrate those attitudes even with people who hold differing viewpoints.
Jamil Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, has spent years studying the power of kindness and social influence. He found that people imitate not only the particulars of positive actions, but also the spirit underlying them. For instance, people who believe they live in a generous world are more generous than those who believe they live in a stingy world. People who had watched others donate generously wrote friendlier, more empathic, and more supportive notes than those who had watched others behave greedily. This suggests that kindness evolves as it diffuses, “infecting” behaviors through which new individual can express it.
Witnessing kindness inspires kindness, causing it to spread like a virus. And right now, when it comes to healing our country and mending ideological divides, we need every strategy we can find. Today, be the change our country needs and invite someone else to join you.