Us and Them: The Science of Identity

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Us and Them: The Science of Identity [Paperback]

David Berreby
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews


"At over 300 pages of densely packed, scholarly-yet-accessible text Us & Them takes focused attention. Bereby takes his time and makes his case. If you read Malcolm Gladwell's breezy bestseller, Blink, and wanted a meatier discussion of the same points, Us & Them will satisfy."
(Jodi Forschmeidt Metapsychology)

“What exactly is this seemingly natural tendency to sort others into ‘kinds’? This question forms the core of Us and Them, which explores the conscious and unconscious ways in which people classify one another—and more important—why.”
(Richard Lipkin Scientific American Mind)

“We leap to categorize people. . . . Berreby uses mind and brain science to investigate why the human tendency to typecast is so powerful—and apparently so automatic.”

(Psychology Today)

“[A] brave book. . . . Berreby’s quest is to understand what he sees as a fundamental human urge to classify and identify with ‘human kinds.’”
(Henry Gee Scientific American)


Each of us has experienced a feeling of kinship with someone who shares a love of chocolate, a passion for foreign films, or perhaps an affinity for a person with the same skin color or ethnic identity. We might also feel alienated from someone with the same qualities if he or she belongs to a "group" we do not like.

But what exactly is this seemingly natural tendency to sort others into "kinds"? This question forms the core of Us and Them, which explores the conscious and unconscious ways in which people classify one another--and more important--why. How humans can use this propensity constructively, rather than destructively, remains a central issue of our time, argues David Berreby, a veteran science journalist. Although this penchant may be hardwired into our brains, ultimately we choose how to live. Religious strife, political conflict and clan rivalries boil down to individual behavior.

Berreby says the sciences of brain and mind offer "a new way to look at love of country, at culture, at religion (and at hatred too)." Researchers are starting to understand "how and why people think and feel in tribes, and why all of us are capable of both tribal good and tribal evil." Advances are allowing scientists to grapple with such questions as "Why can't we all get along?" Berreby investigates the social, psychological and neurological mechanisms that move humans to categorize. For example, he considers how codes in the nervous system predispose us to organize perceptions, including ones that help us feel how other people feel. Science's assault on our beliefs about race, religion and nationalism has shown that even much of "common sense" is both blind and cruel. Berreby reminds us that not long ago North Americans held by common sense that slavery was natural, women should not vote and only heterosexuals deserved respect. "Good riddance to all that," he says. Still, attitudes die hard. "A white person and a black person in today's New York City can agree over coffee that race is `all in your mind,'" Berreby contends. "But when they leave Starbucks and raise their hands to hail a taxi, the white person is more likely to get a cab. In that moment, race is as real as gravity."

Given our drive to categorize, Berreby reflects thoughtfully on how to do so responsibly. "The Us-Them code does not own you," he concludes. "You own it."


Berreby's aim is to demonstrate how greatly what he calls our "tribal" nature--the tendency to judge others according to categories, such as Muslims, lawyers, whites--governs our lives. Drawing on such diverse disciplines as psychology, genetics, and social neuroscience, he demonstrates both the frequent instability of such categories--for instance, the idea of Type A and Type B personalities, once influential in psychology, has been discredited--and their power. Berreby's thesis is often clouded by a superabundance of examples, but it is nonetheless a stimulating tour of a fascinating topic. He is particularly trenchant on the subject of race, a category more or less abandoned by geneticists but inexorable at a social level. He notes, "Racial and ethnic groups are real the way money is real--because people believe they are and act on their beliefs."


" ... fascinating ... Not since Gordon Allport's Nature Of Prejudice has . . . belonging and not belonging received such serious treatment."

About the Author

David Berreby has written about the intersection of science, culture, and politics for The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Slate, Discover, Smithsonian, The Sciences and many other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.  
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