When “us” vs “them” becomes “we”: Overcoming biases towards the acceptance of information
Richard Lalonde recently discussed the dangers of focusing on the differences between groups. He says,
“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.”
Social Identity Theory states that we define ourselves in terms of the different groups that we belong to, for example our nationality, our profession, or our generation. Unfortunately, however, studies exploring Social Identity Theory have shown that we are less accepting of information when it comes from groups of people that we consider to be different to ourselves.
We are less likely to trust information that comes from “them” rather than one of “us”.
This can become a problem when an authority group, like scientists, try to provide information about an important topic, like climate change, to a community group and the community members do not identify with the “scientists”.
Moving from “us” and “them” to “we”
Thankfully, there is way to overcome this bias.
The common in-group identity model proposes that we can ask people to focus on the things that are the same between themselves and others, rather than the things that are different. We can do this by making them aware of a group identity that they share. For example, if “Queenslander” and “Victorian” represent distinct social groups, “Australian” would represent a shared identity.
Essentially, “us” and “them” becomes “we”, which leads to increased trust and more willingness to accept information from the group.
To show how this can work, I conducted a study in 2014 to test the acceptance of information provided by scientists. The information was telling community members from South East Queensland that it is safe to drink water made from recycled waste water. I was trying to see whether the information would be more acceptable when I highlighted that the scientists and the community members shared an identity (i.e., that they all resided in south east Queensland and were therefore all “South East Queenslanders”).
The results showed that it did make the information more effective for those people that identified strongly as “South East Queenslanders”. That is, by making people aware of a shared identity, they were more accepting of the information and were more supportive of the idea of starting a recycled water scheme in south east Queensland.
Create a sense of “we” when communicating information
The take home message? Next time you need to share information with someone, find a social identity that you have in common and make that shared identity obvious in your communications!
By creating more “we” situations, we can help overcome some of the biases to the acceptance of important information.
- Tracy Schultz
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