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Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind Hardcover – October 24, 2005
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From Scientific American
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 anotherand more importantwhy. 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 cant 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. Sciences 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 todays 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."
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Top Customer Reviews
Biology tells us that our DNA makes us one with our fellows. Yet, somewhere between conception and our ability to distinguish ourselves from others, we begin to categorise those "others". We may find them acceptable, and join their company. In other cases, we deem the differences unacceptable. "Us" and "Them" become the basis for value judgements. Berreby recognises that the distinctions are in our minds. He asks how they come to be there in the first place. He examines the various forms of prejudice, both positive and negative, in tracing both their histories and manifestations. Heart disease, for example, was once considered more prevalent among the rich and powerful. Now, studies show that those carrying burdens of pressures from "above" feel more stressed. Hence, their bodies react and heart problems follow. Classes of people, often the poor and ill-considered such as the "cagot" peasants in France, were despised and relegated to menial roles in society. Over time, the classification fell into disuse. In Berreby's words, they were "recategorised".Read more ›
In addition to being overly broad and unfocused, at times Berreby is simply wrong. On page 36 he refers to the "flawed" research on similarity and interpersonal attraction, suggesting that people may join a group and then begin to act like them. This may well be true (due to various social influence effects), but the observation that people seek out similar others is one of the most robust and replicated findings in social psychology. Berreby is a little too eager to prove his point, and this leads him to distort and go beyond the evidence throughout the book.
I don't want to be completely negative in this review. Certainly, Berreby is a competent writer, and to some extent, this book fills an important niche. Still, I wish he had gone about it in a different way. There is plenty of good research on group relations that he ignores. His neuroscience approach is clever, but ultimately futile as an explanation.
The book is well written and has many vivid examples of how people stereotype and why those stereotypes are not reliable guides for rational human behavior. Although he occasionally dives into brain architecture and evolutionary theory, it is not too overwhelming for the intelligent lay reader (that all important Human Kind). The topic is very important, considering that issues of race, gender, religious conflict, and injustice based on economic class dominate our political scene. This book helps the reader get a better scientific footing on the psychological basis of those issues.
By exploring how our human minds--and by extension our brains--process group identity, the author is in an area that has been popular lately due in part to Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works." This research area is called the modular theory of the mind, pioneered by people such as Jerry Fodor and Noam Chomsky. However, Berreby is wary of Pinker's complete programme. He explicitly criticizes Pinker. Never in this book does Berreby refer to a brain "module." Instead, he refers to the mind's code for processing human kind thinking, called kind-sight. To this reader, it amounts to the same thing. A module is a module. Berreby does make the point at length that there is no single chunk of brain that does all human kind code processing.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I bought this to replace my prior copy that I'd lent out to who-knows-whom. It was one of the most influential things I've read in the last 10 years.Published 12 months ago by marty
I've had this book on my shelf since the fall, waiting until the school year was over so I could get to it and several other books. Read morePublished on June 15, 2008 by Nate McVaugh
As an academic researcher and a lawyer, I admit I am biased in favor of a more scholarly presentation. Read morePublished on December 30, 2006 by P. J. Jordan
There is plenty of excellent material to read here. The substance is good, but the form is bad. Major areas of concern:
a. Read more
This book opened my eyes to the extraordinarily inherent propensity for people to accept stereotypes uncritically. Read morePublished on May 24, 2006 by M. A. Rivera
Us And Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind isn't the New Age title it sounds to be: it's a survey of how science addresses issues of group identity, using new findings from... Read morePublished on March 2, 2006 by Midwest Book Review
The book is a sleeper hit that is so timely and valuable to our understanding of why we do what we do (make enemies or friends) in the midst of the world today (wars, loneliness,... Read morePublished on January 17, 2006 by Kare Anderson