By M. S. Thambirajah –
A Facebook friend of mine shared a piece of information that shocked me to the core. It was an extract from about Martin Wickramasinghe’s autobiography where he describes vividly how he joined a crowd of people ‘with a knife in hand’ to attack the Muslims in Weligama during the 1915 anti-Muslim riots (Upan Da Sita, First Edition 1961, Pages 199 – 206). My opinion of the esteemed writer took a nose drive. I could not imagine that a sensitive man who portrayed the transition from a feudal society to a semi-colonial one with sensitivity and empathy in Gamperaliya could have harboured such hostile and malevolent feelings towards members of a minority community.
After a period of quiet reflection, I turned to science, in this case social psychology, to make sense of the apparent paradox. Permit me to deviate a little in order to explain what I discovered. An important finding from research into social groups is that there is a marked distinction between the way individuals think, feel and behave and the way one thinks, feels and behaves when acting as a member of a group. As much as the properties of water are different from those of its constituent elements, Hydrogen and Oxygen, social cognition is different from those of individual cognition.
The human mind, they say, tends to categorise people into groups so as to make sense of the social world around us. The basic form of social categorisation is into ‘us’ and ‘them’. Social categorisation is the foundation on which social identification is built. The group that you belong to is the ingroup and the other is the outgroup. Social categorisation, is invariably followed by social comparison. Of course, when you start comparing you want to see your group in positive light in relation to the other. This is because your self-esteem depends the group that identify yourself with. It starts with the simple notion, ‘we are better than them’ and swells into, ‘we are superior to them’. Thereafter, evidence for this is saught by reference to history, culture, religion and language to support this outlook. Myths and legends are created, history is revised, rewritten and reworked to back the assertion. Feeling good about one’s own social group is important for everyone because it forms a part of one’s self esteem and positive self-concept. It is an extension of the self. Tajfel, one of the most famous social psychologists defines social identity as, “that part of the individual’s self-concept which derives from the knowledge of their membership in a social group together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership”.
Looking at the literature on intergroup phenomena one discovers that when we think as member of a social group we are liable to commit certain errors of judgement. These cognitive biases tend to impair critical thinking and distort social perception. Such cognitive errors are often preconscious and are not accessible unless one is introspects over them.
Let me give you a few examples of such errors. One is the the homogeneity effect. This is the the tendency of groups is to minimise the differences in the outgroup and perceive it as an undifferentiated entity (“They are all the same”). We perceive a lot of diversity and vibrancy in our own group, but perceive all the members of the outgroup to behave and think the same.
Another characteristic of social groups is the tendency to overestimate the differences between groups and amplify group differences. This is called the accentuation effect.
A field experiment conducted in Sri Lanka during the time of Norway sponsored peace process provides objective evidence of the accentuation effect. The study was carried out by Mark Schaller, a Canadian social psychologist and Nilanga Abeysinghe, of the University of Peradeniya at the time of ceasefire between the government and Tamil rebellion forces. Participants were 100 Sinhalese male students. The researchers tested the attitudes of the boys towards the Tamils under two different conditions. In the first they were given information about the population of Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka and their distribution in the island. In the second condition they were instructed about the populations of Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka and South Asia including India. In the first condition the participants adopted a conciliatory view and considered that devolution of power a reasonable solution the conflict. In the second condition (within which Sinhalese are outnumbered by Tamils) the attitude of the subjects was one of antagonism towards the Tamils and opposition to devolution of power for the Tamils. This is the first objective confirmation of the oft stated view that Sinhalese behave like a minority vis a vis the Sri Lankan Tamils.
The authors conclude, “In many parts of the world, everyone—no matter what ethnic group they might belong to—can justifiably perceive their own group to be an outnumbered minority. The phenomenon may pose a psychological obstacle to conflict resolution”. Very prophetic indeed!
Another such bias is ingroup favouritism (“We deserve more”). A number of experiments have demonstrated that social groups show a tendency to favour their own group. For example, in one experiment participants (school children aged 14 and 15) who did not know one another previously were categorised into two discrete groups on trivial criteria such as preference for the paintings of two painters (in later experiments they were categorised based on toss of a coin). Next, the participants were asked to distribute rewards or points to each of the two groups. Each group was found to consistently allocate more points to those belonging members of their own group although they were selected on the basis of arbitrary criteria and had no contact with members of their own group. Their understanding, it was found later, was that the points would be converted into rewards of some sort. These experiments clearly demonstrate the phenomena of own group (ingroup) favouritism. Please note that the outgroup did not get their fair share, i.e., they were being discriminated against.
It used to be thought that positive feelings towards one’s own group went hand in hand with outgroup derogation, vilification and hatred. But recent research shows attachment to one’s own group does not necessarily require hostility towards the outgroup. Marilynn Brewer, professor of psychology at Ohio State University has conducted a series of field experiments in which she convincingly demonstrated that ingroup love and outgroup hostility are independent of each other. This finding was considered a significant advancement of our knowledge for intergroup relationship that she was honoured with the Award of Distinguished Scientific Contributor in 2007 by the American Psychological Association.
Thus, attachment to one’s own group does not necessarily require hostility towards the outgroup. This differentiation between ingroup love and outgroup hostility is good news for interethnic relationships because all too often affection towards one’s own group is equated with animosity towards the outgroup. This was the cognitive error that Martin Wickramasinghe displayed. For all his merits as a perceptive storyteller of Sinhalese society it is unfortunate that he fell into the trap of associating ingroup love with outgroup hostility. Unfortunately, this appears to be true of many people in Sri Lanka irrespective of their ethnic group.