In order to survive the potential chaos of our physical and social worlds, humans have developed a tremendous ability to find order in the chaos.
We do this by using the simple strategy of sorting information by looking for similarities and differences.
Whether it be the stars in the night sky above us, or the people who live around us, we are constantly grouping things animate or inanimate (a classic example of grouping).
We group others according to markers like species, age, apparent sex, skin colour, weight, facial features, and clothing. When we use these cues, we will perceive another as being similar or different.
Human enterprises such as the media and the social sciences also rely on sorting information according to similarity and difference. The end result is that we are constantly exposed to information through the lens of social groups, and more often than not, in terms of “us and them.”
The problem is that once things are categorised into social groups, there is a bias towards focusing on difference rather than similarity.
Media help propagate the cult of difference
The media, for example, tends to focus on how groups are different rather than similar to each other.
If we use recent media accounts to process information about Americans, we would think that are two basic types – Republicans and Democrats. They even have their own colours – red and blue.
Many media stories lead us to believe that there are huge differences between these two “types” of Americans, because they are focusing on their differences rather than their similarities.
Social scientists also search for differences, often neglecting larger similarities
And what about the social sciences? The science of psychology has developed to favour difference over similarity.
We set up studies to look for differences between experimental and control groups or between people from different existing social groups (e.g., Australian vs. Chinese). We are trained to conduct statistical analyses that involve testing for difference, but not for similarity.
Publications also tend to report studies that found “significant” differences between groups rather than studies that found no differences (i.e., the file drawer problem). The bigger the difference the better and so we often see visual representations of data that make differences appear larger than they are!
How can we focus on similarities?
Our paper concentrates on research and writing strategies that focus on similarities (without ignoring differences). Focusing on similarities is healthy for science and for the promotion of peaceful intergroup relations.
Following are a few research and writing strategies we highlight in our paper. We illustrate these strategies using some of our own cross-cultural data.
- Richard Lalonde
Read full article:
Lalonde, R.N., Cila, J., Lou, E. & Cribbie, R. A. (2015). Are we really that different from each other? The difficulties of focusing on similarities in cross-cultural research. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 21, 525-534.
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