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Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind Hardcover – Bargain Price, October 24, 2005

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Hardcover, Bargain Price, October 24, 2005
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With this impressively well-researched work, Berreby attempts to apply the tools of science to an impossibly large question: what is it about the human mind that makes us believe in categories like race, gender and ethnicity? Spanning countless disciplines, Berreby draws on a staggering variety of sources, from St. Paul's epistles and the philosophical essays of David Hume to the evolutionary theory of Stephen Jay Gould and the evolutionary psychology of Cosmides and Tooby. Yet, structurally, the text feels rather scattered. It moves breathlessly from one citation or example to another without any clear indication of where it's headed or what the overall point is; often, it reads less like a deliberately argued work than a collection of anecdotes, musings and insights. Fortunately, Berreby, who has written for various publications including the New York Times and the New Republic, has a casual and conversational style that makes even his most complicated points straightforward and commonsensical: at the most scientific moments, such as his thoughtful explanation of the physical effects of stress and stigma on the brain, Berreby still requires no specialized knowledge from the reader. And he illustrates other points, like the role food plays in the perception of difference, with revealing and amusing examples. The book may not break any new intellectual ground, but it does offer an entertaining survey of a vast, and vastly important, topic of study. (Oct. 24)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From 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."

Richard Lipkin


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (October 24, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316090301
  • ASIN: B0046LUHXE
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,602,395 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Berreby writes the "Other Knows Best" blog and is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." His writing about human behavior and other topics has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Nature, Slate, Aeon, Nautilus, The New Republic, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them."

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on June 27, 2006
Format: Hardcover
"Prejudice", we are told, isn't "reasonable". "Race" is an "illogical" or "unscientific" concept. Christians tell us we must "love all others as our brothers" - and sisters in a more ecumenical world. Yet Chief Executives can label entire nations as elements of an "Axis of Evil" and make or threaten war with impunity. And masses of the population support them. Why should this be so? David Berreby sought out philosophers, psychologists and other scholars in an extensive quest for some answers. He found a good many and recounts them in this nearly exhaustive study. In a well organised and captivating account, he weaves together many threads in building a picture of how we view ourselves and others.

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".
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful By J. Butler on June 26, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Us and Them by David Berreby is an attempt to understand the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of intergroup conflict. As such, it is only partly successful. Berreby begins with a discussion of "human kind" which covers everything from race to nation to a happenstance group of strangers in a woman's restroom. This is an overly broad definition that conflates true social groups with temporary collectives or "aggregates." The former develop identity, structure, and rivalries, while the latter do not. This broad beginning foreshadows a book that tends to lose its focus from chapter to chapter. Berreby leaves his thesis for pages at a time, often to discuss irrelevant though admittedly interesting neuroscience research. Nevertheless, the reader is often left wondering what happened to the tribal mind. Truth be told, neuroscience cannot yet explain the area of group conflict. Don't let yourself be dazzled into persuasion.

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.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By P. J. Jordan on December 30, 2006
Format: Hardcover
As an academic researcher and a lawyer, I admit I am biased in favor of a more scholarly presentation. I agree that this book is informative and I have found it helpful as a gateway to the professional literature. However, Berreby has made my task doubly difficult by his inexplicable failure to use footnote numbers for his references, instead organizing the references by page number and phrases at the end of sentences; thus giving no indication in the text that a reference even exists, and forcing the reader to labor mightily to locate his authority. Further, some studies he discusses are not even given a reference -- at the very least, a footnote should indicate the study is unpublished and where it might be located if a person needed it. If this information is summarized in any other book, I would buy it instead of this one.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Kare Anderson on January 17, 2006
Format: Hardcover
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, isolation, craving for community, smart mobs, the "power of us" trends made possible by technology ...) ... like Freakanomics it offers breakthrough insights on how our behavior gets in our way and protects us...... I bought ten of these books as holiday gifts, wrote about it in my newsletter and speak about it. Along with Learned Optimism, Blink, Smart Choices, Illicit and other books it offers insights on how we can be more capable and caring, wise and collaborative in this seemingly disjointed world.

- Kare Anderson, author of SmartPartnering, LikeABILITY, Resolving Conflict Sooner, Getting What You Want, Walk Your Talk and Beauty Inside Out and publisher of the Say it Better newsletter
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