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

4.3 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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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
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316090308
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #664,018 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Hardcover
"Us and Them" by David Berreby explores the human faculty for seeing other people as members of groups with group characteristics, or as Berreby calls them, Human Kinds. The book examines classic results of social psychology, such as Sharif's Robber's Cave experiment and Tajfel's arbitrary groups. He tries to present the current evidence for the faculty being an unconscious module in the mind that automatically places people in groups and attaches group qualities to Them.

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.
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