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A couple of days ago I was heading down Ginninderra Drive doing the regulation 80 kph, when an 80s Volvo station wagon sped past at probably 90km or so. As soon as he cleared me, he partially pulled back in front, but sat with one hanging over the lane divider, and then proceeded to slow to 75 kph. Every now and then his left wheels would drift over the cat’s eye bumps and then he’d pull over fully into the right lane, but it wouldn’t last and within what seemed like seconds he’d be straddling the white line again. I decided discretion was the better part of valour and gave him a wide berth until I could escape to the right. We came to rest parallel at the lights and I saw it, there on his head.

You guessed, probably from the title. A freaking fedora. A chit-brained semi-conscious huck-knuckle in a freaking hat. Every warning I’d ever had about hat wearers being crap drivers came back – they’re just terrible, they can’t really see what they’re doing, they’re usually old farmers not used to city driving…clearly this was a relatively young guy but the fact that he had a hat on said it all.

Of course that’s nonsense. But it sounds like it might be true, and a lot of people of my generation believe headgear predicts cruddy motoring technique.

So why has this myth formed? As humans, we’re primed to believe bad things of certain people we don’t identify with, and that is down to two human cognitive characteristics: firstly, group dynamics and secondly, categorisation.

Let’s start with group dynamics. How social groups form and share beliefs belongs to the field of social psychology. Social psychology has existed for 200 years, with roots in books like Charles Mackay’s 1841 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and Gustave le Bon’s 1895 The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. It has progressed as a sort of poor relation of psychology, lacking the glamour of abnormal psych but with more scientific rigour and study of structure than sociology.

What has emerged from those two centuries of study is a good description of how social groups form, how members of those groups develop norms and mores in common, how those norms and mores are maintained, and who is able to influence within the group.

Social groups are defined as collectives of people who self-identify as belonging to that group. There are myriad studies demonstrating that people will tend to conform in all kinds of behaviour, from opinion to dress sense, manners and morality, with others within the group. For that reason, people belonging to a group will come to resemble each other in various ways. The most influential members of the group are those identified as leaders–the cool people, the ones everyone looks up to. Or, they can be a prototypical member: a non-existent ideal with every characteristic that that group defines as being the perfect member. The set of beliefs held by the group are known as their norms and mores.

Social groups are tribal: they form enemies of rival communities – be that a rival sports team, or an entire culture. The intergroup hostility can extend to treating members of entire other groups as not human – and that’s basis of racism. Someone from a disliked out-group will find it very difficult to win an argument with an in-group, as their opinions will be dismissed out of hand.

These norms arising from the groups have some interesting properties. There’s very little within the norm itself which needs any external validation, meaning they can be entirely arbitrary, for instance why do we cover our breasts in Australia, while the people of Papua New Guinea see no reason to do so? All humans are capable of rational reasoning, but it is treasured in certain groups more than others.

People can be members of as many social groups as they self-identify with, and humans are entirely capable of holding self-contradictory norms derived from different social groups. The group that is salient in the minds of two people arguing will effect whether the arguments are seen as valid. So if a racist white mother is talking to a muslim woman, also a mother, the shared identity of “mother” may override the racist woman’s prejudice.

But what happens then when the racist woman returns to her racist cohort and reports that she’s had a lovely time with a Muslim woman? Empathising with someone from an enemy group can be seen as traitorous. Depending on how threatened by Islam this group is, she may be brutally ostracised from that group for fraternising with the enemy. (This effect is covered in two case studies from NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast).

It’s a massive subject, but for the purpose of this exercise, concentrate on the idea that in general what produces unanimity within a specific social group is the members self-identifying with that group.

(It is possible that other circumstances may create similarities between members of a group, for instance sharing a physical or mental illness, or being part of a specific cohort sharing life events. In general though, those will be less marked than the effects of self-identifying within a society, and often will overlap with group formation.)

So to the second point, the human cognitive ability that is categorisation affects how we see others. At a fundamental level, “categorisation” is the basic capacity that allows us to distinguish objects. A cup in our culture is something we know will hold liquid for drinking purposes. Other cultures have other categories, but they all have the capacity to name things.

When we see something or someone that annoys us, the natural thing to do is to try to make sense of it and predict future behaviour by creating a category.

It’s bad enough when we create categories of existing groups. Existing groups will have similarities and shared experiences, but if we see them as a rival, we will distort characteristics, at best getting them slightly wrong and at worst creating awful caricatures which insult, degrade or otherwise demean the rival group members.

But what happens if we decide to conjure out of nowhere a group that doesn’t even exist? Well, firstly, it’s usually done to disparage those people. It’s a way of making an enemy who can be wrong, so that you, the definer, can be correct. Being right is an ego boost, a way of making yourself and your peers feel better about themselves by being superior to those who have defined as being bad.

Take the hat-wearing driver of my initial example. They will not self-identify as a group of hat-wearing drivers, so they don’t have a norm that includes bad driving. It’s possible that older or rural men wear hats, and older or rural men are have poorer driving skills, but in reality it’s probably just an old, fairly random stereotype which has never and will never be empirically tested. I don’t know what it was about the aggressively poor driver I encountered, but suspect that the hat was the least of his issues.

Now to take this further, something I have seen a lot of on my carefully curated twitter feed of mostly young, left-wing, lower-middle-class folk is a tendency to berate the attitudes of a specific age group- the baby boomers.









Disclosure: while I’m not technically a boomer, I did marry one.

So what’s happening here? Let’s plug it into the social identity formula above and see what falls out. Firstly “boomers” are being accused of thinking “millenials” are lazy, and this is unfair because “boomers” screwed the economy and now “millenials” can’t afford houses.

First of all, there’s clear evidence of group blame. Boomers are not a homogenous group. It’s likely they will have a million different social identities before they name “boomer” as something they are. It is true that boomers benefited from the post-WWII economic growth. Anyone who owned property outright before the insane boom of the early 2000s lucked out. Anyone who didn’t would find it far more difficult to buy a house, and rent is ridiculously expensive.

But is this the fault of the older generation? In the 1980s, market rationalism became the dominant economic ideology. This was driven by economists and adopted by governments world-wide, no doubt encouraged by business and industry who saw the benefits for them. Sure, the boomers may have voted for these people, but they certainly did not all create the prevailing academic economic theories of the time. Nor can they be held responsible for the house-price boom and subsequent sub-prime crash.

No, what is happening is the same old finger-pointing blame game which solidifies group boundaries and makes enemies where there should be none. When a group is accused of something, however valid that accusation, they will tend to throw up the barricades and return fire. It becomes non-productive exercise that does nothing other than bolster the egos of those who believe they are in the right. The fight feels great! But who does it help?

As a small exercise to the reader: have you seen any other irrational intergroup rivalries? What happens when people start identifying themselves with various idea-based political philosophies? Do those ideas stay rational, or do they begin to morph into group norms? What is the effect of social media on these groups, both helping people to form like-minded cohorts and amplify their norms, and to ostracise?