Toxic Social Identities

What makes people prejudiced or exhibit bigoted behavior toward others? For the longest time, psychologists that have said that such behavior resulted from personality factors that they were predisposed to. Henri Tajfel, a Polish psychologist felt otherwise.           

Henri was Jewish and when World War II broke out, he volunteered to fight for the French Army. He was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. When he returned home after the war was over, he discovered that all of his family and few of his friends had survived.           

Henri studied social psychology in England and his career eventually led to him becoming the Chair of Social Psychology at the University of Bristol. His research was stimulated by his experience in the war. Was it possible that the vast number of Germans had a personality type that led them to commit atrocities during the war? 

Henri developed the concept of social identity theory which states that social behavior is influenced by groups a person belongs to. Individuals within a group identity where their group is distinctive giving them a positive self-image. They contrast their group with others who are outside their group, often with disdain. 

Social identity theory is an explanation of how a leader like Adolf Hitler could foster a national hatred towards Jewish people. Social identity theory is also an explanation for the genocidal actions occurring in many parts of the world today. 

The internet has turbocharged the application of the social identity theory to manufacture social groups where hatred, prejudice, and abusive behavior have become the norm. Social media companies have created algorithms which encourage people to join these social groups in order to drive participation on the sites and increase their revenues from advertising. 

Just imagine a world which tolerates anti-social behavior which is accelerated by advances in technology and the profit motives of social media companies. Have we come to a world view that we no longer have any ability or desire to limit the encouragement of hatred? 

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“Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community… but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of idiots.” – Umberto Eco

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