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    The power of us: How fostering a shared identity can lead to unity

    The human proclivity to divide the world into “us” and “them” can produce devastating divisiveness. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says social psychologist Jay Van Bavel, PhD.

    Research shows it's possible to promote unity over in-group favoritism, social psychologist Jay Van Bavel, PhD, told listeners at Learn Serve Lead 2022: The AAMC Annual Meeting in Nashville on Nov. 12.
    Research shows it's possible to promote unity over in-group favoritism, social psychologist Jay Van Bavel, PhD, told listeners at Learn Serve Lead 2022: The AAMC Annual Meeting in Nashville on Nov. 12.
    Credit: Richard Greenhouse

    A country, a region, a sports team, a political party — our connections to certain groups constantly shape our identities. And our feelings of connection with such “in-groups” deeply influence our beliefs, values, and behaviors, social psychologist Jay Van Bavel, PhD, told listeners at Learn Serve Lead 2022: The AAMC Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, on Nov. 12.

    What’s more, our group identities can be a powerful force for unity — or a dangerous source of divisiveness, Van Bavel went on to note at a session titled “The Power of Us,” echoing themes from his 2021 book of the same name.

    “[Group identity] is something very primitive in humans. It’s part of our nature,” said Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University (NYU). “We need to understand it if we are going to harness it for good and avoid having it lead to bad things that we see in society: conflict, discrimination, hostility, and violence, potentially.”

    In fact, research shows that dividing people into groups based merely on a coin flip is sufficient to stir in-group favoritism as well as discrimination, Van Bavel said in a robust conversation with the audience and session facilitator Danielle Lombard-Sims, PhD, vice chancellor/chief people and culture officer at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

    Turning to the political landscape, Van Bavel noted that polarization between Democrats and Republicans is higher than at any time in the past 40 years. But perhaps more worrisome is the moral indignation fueling those differences. “It’s not just that you disagree with people. It’s that the disagreements are such that you see [people] as good or evil.”

    Social media can fan those flames. “For every moral-emotional word like ‘disgusted,’ your message gets shared about 15% more,” he said.

    It is possible to build cooperation and a sense of unity, though, and neuroscience, psychological studies, and real-world examples provide insights into how.

    In one experiment conducted among NYU students, participants whom researchers determined were intrinsically selfish donated to other students infrequently. But when the scientists purposely stimulated those selfish individuals’ identities as NYU students, their willingness to donate to peers nearly doubled. “Even the most selfish people can become incredibly altruistic if you remind them that part of their self is that they are part of something bigger.”

    Creating that larger sense of “us” is a key feature of effective leaders, Van Bavel noted, pointing to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s success in getting her country to accept intense restrictions during COVID-19. Fueling that success were her verbal and visual cues of unity, calling the nation a “team of five million” and sharing images of herself hunkered down at home just as she was asking fellow citizens to do.

    Also central to boosting collaboration is establishing shared goals and rewarding everyone who contributes to success — no matter their status. Unfortunately, academia tends to fail at this, rarely rewarding mentoring and too often ranking faculty based on research productivity.

    Psychological safety is also crucial to forming cohesive, successful groups. In fact, when Google sought to identify which of its departments were most successful, only one trait emerged: psychological safety. What’s more, other research indicates that psychological safety particularly bolsters the success of individuals who come from historically marginalized backgrounds.

    Noting the value of diverse teams, Van Bavel went on to caution that diversity alone is inadequate. Without psychological safety, “people may feel like they are not valued and just leave. Without the inclusion piece, it’s not going to work,” he said. “A lot of organizations are leaning into diversity but they’re not thinking about, ‘What is our culture like? Are we bringing people into a place where they can flourish no matter their background?’”

    Ultimately, Van Bavel said, he hoped his work encourages individuals to move beyond, "Who am I?" or "Who do I want to be?" Instead, he hoped people would focus more on “‘Who do we want to be?’ ‘What group should I care about?’ and ‘How can I make the groups I’m part of healthier and more successful?’ It’s thinking about how you can harness that group identity in healthy ways.”

    Keep the conversation going

    Discuss this session and more by joining one of our virtual book club discussions focused on “The Power of Us” on Nov. 18, 21, or 30. Start networking with your peers in academic medicine by joining the AAMC’s virtual community. More than 3,000 of your peers are already there!