We Are Not Lemmings – Wake Up to “US-THEM-ing”


I keep seeing the phrase “We are not born to hate” pop up on social media and on posters, etc. There is a real opportunity to evolve and enter into a more intelligent conversation on divisiveness.


Robert Benchley said, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.” This is at the heart of “US vs THEM,” which I introduced to you in a previous blog, Fear 2.0 = Stop Surviving, Start Evolving.

We are not born to hate – we are born to survive. What do I mean by that?

Since the day we are born, our nervous system’s number-one desire is to survive, and it constantly scans our environment for danger. You have probably heard of the nervous system watching out for “friend or foe” – this is a survival mechanism.

Now enter biology and neuroscience:

Our brains form US/THEM dichotomies with stunning speed. …Fifty-millisecond exposure to the face of someone of another race activates the amygdala while failing to activate the fusiform face area as much as same-race faces do – all within a few hundred milliseconds. Similarly, the brain groups faces by gender or social status at roughly the same speed. (1)

So, what happens? When we see another person’s face, the nervous system and the brain differentiate and divide like this:

  1. There’s ME, who is a part of US – and then, automatically, it’s US versus THEM.

  2. This ME and this US must survive – therefore creating a THEM to survive against.

  3. ME then favors all who are among US, also known as our in-group –US (our in-group) vs THEM (our out-group)


We become unconscious lemmings by subscribing to this instinctual “caveman” way of being. This prosocial group identification leads to inflating everything about US while downgrading all of THEM. This happens at a very early age – by the age of four, children are already favoring their US.

No discussion of the oddities of human Us/Them-ing is complete without the phenomenon of the self-hating (take your pick of the out-group), where out-group members buy into the negative stereotypes and develop favoritism for the in-group.

This was shown by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in their famed doll studies, begun in the 1940s. They demonstrated with shocking clarity that African American children, along with white children, preferred to play with white dolls over black ones, ascribing more positive attributes (e.g., nice, pretty) to them.

That this effect was most pronounced in black kids in segregated schools was cited in Brown v. Board of Education. Roughly 40 to 50 percent of African Americans, gays and lesbians, and women show automatic IAT biases in favor of whites, heterosexuals, and men, respectively. (2)

It is absolutely okay to want to be part of any group – we are social animals. However, when the cost of being part of the group is your integrity, values, truth, and the well-being of all, then being a part of anything exclusive has the potential for toxicity and harmful behavior. Ultimately, too, your self-esteem and the self-esteem of others around you is a causality.

Here are some other tidbits to wake up to and evolve beyond:

  • One way we favor US is to put down THEM.

  • We more readily forgive US for mistakes and are harder on THEM.

  • We will tolerate circumstances in favor of loyalty to US.
    (Inequality is an example.)

  • We view any THEM as downright bad, evil, and not to be trusted.

  • Either group mocking the other perpetuates this contentious, harmful relationship.

  • We form US vs THEM hierarchies to distribute power and authority – usually unequally.
    (Hierarchies are useful for a stable social system, but not when they’re born from fear. Note, too, that individuals more interested in power are less likely to have compassion for the less fortunate.)

  • We channel more resources to US and don’t give resources to THEM.

  • We are more open to and let our guard down around US and close ourselves off from THEM.

  • We hire US and not THEM.


We label people as THEM by stereotypes. We all have biases, and we all stereotype. It’s part of the human condition. Here is the definition of a stereotype:

A standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment. (3)

This is what our brain does. It thinks in stereotypes, and this is necessary for ordinary living and functioning. Our brain automatically categorizes everything and uses the categorization as the basis for normal prejudgment. No one is exempt from this process. In fact, if our brains did not automatically categorize, we would not be able to function.

Here is more biology and neuroscience on how we are programmed:

  1. We see someone.

  2. Our brain assigns them to a group and categorizes them.

  3. Then it assigns the perceived and assumed behaviors of that group to the individual.

  4. Our brain stereotypes the individual as part of that group and expects that they will act in alignment with those behaviors. We create a personal – and sometimes unreasonable – judgment, bias, or implicit association about them.

  5. When they act in accordance with our bias, we are comfortable. When they don’t, we are uncomfortable. We get scared, and fear takes over, and anyone in this category is automatically a THEM.

We unconsciously subscribe to the beliefs of others like us – our US, our in-group – without investigating what’s really true. (It’s easy to see how this is coming to light in our current political landscape).

Here are some examples:

  • Republican vs Democrat

  • Conservative vs Liberal

  • Male vs Female

  • White vs Black

  • Rich vs Poor

  • Urban vs Rural

  • And in the workforce:

    • Engineers vs Designers

    • Sales vs Human Resources

    • Academics vs Business Leaders

    • Upper Management vs Lower Management

    • Culture Fit vs Non-Culture Fit

I am amazed by how people “silo” other people within their own company and can’t see the benefits of learning from another. This reaction immediately eliminates the benefits of diversity.


It’s time to be more intelligent and really grok the difference between Liberal and Conservative. Never in my lifetime did I resonate with the Liberal and Conservative labels, and I’ve always wondered why people get so hooked by them.

When people ask me, “Are you a liberal or conservative?” my response is, “It depends on what we are talking about, and I believe in doing what’s best for people, and this can be very complicated. What I do know from the research is that labeling is very limited and driven by fear.”

Then I always see anger in the person, see that they want me to pick sides, and see how they’re not open for a discussion. There is always an urgency to classify me as an US or a THEM.

Time for a more intelligent conversation, and this is where science is our friend. We can be more evolved human beings. Studies show the differences between being Conservative or Liberal actually have nothing to do with political issues.

The difference between Conservative or Liberal has to do with:

  • Intelligence

  • Intellectual style

  • One’s relationship to change

  • How one deals with ambiguity

  • Psychological differences, and

  • Different views of morality

Finally, it all comes down to biology, for if you make either a Conservative or a Liberal’s brain work hard, they will “switch teams.”

As you are reading this, you may doubt me. Check it out right now – check out your desire to categorize.


We are now an open and global economy and society, and all of this US-vs-THEM-ing and stereotyping is an old mode of operating.

The good news is that we don’t need to get rid of US vs THEM. Instead, there is an invitation to wake up to how much fear drives our behavior. This isn’t necessary in a modern world. As I said previously, US vs THEM is all about fear, and you can rewire your brain to manage fear differently.

When you are feeling scared, stop and ask yourself if you are US-vs-THEM-ing. Those actions will allow your prefrontal cortex to re-engage – your prefrontal cortex can mediate the uncomfortable feelings you experience around the supposed THEM.

What is required is to stop and ask yourself:

  • What’s going on with me?

  • Am I stereotyping?

  • Am I seeing this other person(s) as a THEM?

  • What’s going on in my nervous system right now?

  • Do I feel scared or anxious?

Breathe and check it out, and you will soon discover how prevalent this is. From there, you can act consciously for the greater good.


1, 2 Sapolsky, Robert M. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York, NY. Penguin Press. 388, 415

3 Merriam-Webster: Stereotype. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stereotype