Try these two statements. “People who ride Barley-Smithasons are morons.” – “People who ride ABC GSs are idiots.”
Pretty objectionable things to say, right? Here’s the problem: the statements are also perfectly natural when it’s the “ABC” riders talking about the “Barley” owners and vice versa. Natural? How can that be? Surely they are expressions of deep prejudice. That’s true. But they are expressions of natural, automatic prejudice.
Primatologist Robert Sapolski points out that a common saying is “there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t”. He also says that there are far more of the former. The main division these people make, says Sapolski, is “into Us and Them, ingroup and outgroup, ‘the people’ (i.e., our kind) and the Others.” He goes on to say that the core of this Us/Them division is emotional and automatic – and natural.
We all make Us/Them divisions along more lines than just motorcycle choice, all the time. Whether it’s ethnicity (let’s leave ‘race’ out of this because there is only one human race these days), gender, language group, religion, age, wealth, and so on. We do so with remarkable speed and efficiency. How can we know this? With one of the more amazing pieces of recently developed technology, the ‘functional MRI’ — a brain scanner that clearly shows activity in various brain regions.
This allows scientists to detect Us/Them differences with stunning speed. Show someone in a functional MRI unit pictures of faces for 50 milliseconds—a 20th of a second—at a time, barely at the level of detection. The brain will process these differently. When the picture is a Them it activates the amygdala, a brain region associated with fear, anxiety, and aggression.
As well, Them faces cause less activation than do Us faces in the fusiform cortex, a region specializing in facial recognition; along with that comes less accuracy at remembering Them faces.
You have almost certainly read or heard about the hormone oxytocin. It’s often called the ‘love hormone’ for its pro-social effects. Oxytocin prompts people to be more trusting, cooperative, and generous. But, er, there’s a problem. Oxytocin influences behaviour this way only toward members of your own group. When it comes to Them, it does the opposite.
Watching a film of a hand being poked with a needle causes an “isomorphic reflex,” where the part of the motor cortex corresponding to your own hand activates, and your hand clenches—unless the hand is of a Them person, in which case less of this effect is produced.
This explains a lot of things; it is fascinating, though perhaps esoteric. And it plays out in the most surprising settings.
“As a kid,” Robert Sapolski says, “I saw the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes… Years later I discovered an anecdote about its filming: At lunchtime, the people playing chimps and those playing gorillas ate in separate groups.”
We don’t just eat lunch together with our ingroup. We also feel more obligated to help other members. I’m not aware of any studies done to establish whether sports bike riders are more likely to help other sports bike riders who have a flat tire than they are cruiser riders in the same predicament (although it would be a fascinating study to do), but similar experiments have been performed.
In studies in sports stadiums, researcher found that if they posed as a fan of one side, complete with clothing supporting that team, they were more likely to be helped out of some kind of difficulty by a fellow fan than by an opposing one. If you break down on a Ducati 916, you better hope that the road you’re on is popular with sports bike riders and not just cruiser folks.
There is hope, however. We all carry multiple Us/Them divisions in our heads, Sapolski says. A Them in one case can be an Us in another, and it can only take an instant for that identity to flip. I pulled into a roadside café in Camarillo on a Honda Fury road test bike, before they were released onto the market, and a couple of CHiPs patrolmen came over to admire the bike. They offered good advice, like “you need to get a louder pipe on that, man”. They had placed me as an Us, a motorcyclist, not a Them, a potential miscreant.
This effect can also be relatively benign. In a sporting contest, a loss for the hated rival to a third party is as good as a win for the home team, and both outcomes similarly activate brain pathways associated with reward and the neurotransmitter dopamine. “I don’t care who wins, as long as Australia loses,” – said a T-shirt I saw in Auckland, New Zealand.
The core of Us/Them division is emotional and automatic. Jonathan Haidt of New York University has shown that often, divisions are post-hoc justifications for feelings and intuitions, to convince ourselves that we have reacted rationally. This can also be shown with functional MRIs. When fleetingly presented with face of a Them, the amygdala activates long before more cognitive, cortical regions are processing the Them. The emotions come first.
Perhaps the most important conclusion I draw from this analysis is that the ‘friendly joshing’ that takes place about other people’s choice of motorcycle marque is not a good idea. This is not a matter of political correctness. What it does is reinforce the ‘natural’ but unpleasant and unproductive division of motorcyclists into Us and Them, and that’s something we don’t need. After all, it plays into the hands of Them, you know… the cagers. Yuck.
(Based on a paper “Why Your Brain Hates Other People and how to make it think differently,” by Robert Sapolski, December 14, 2017. Photos The Bear)