The Self Illusion

Do you seriously – to an absurd degree of confidence – understand why you wake up and do what you do, and believe what you believe?

As someone who wishes for us all to deeply understand our circumstances both as individuals and a species, this is one of the most satisfying books I’ve ever encountered. I am convinced we are meat computers – walking bundles of behavioral complexes and impulses, perpetually responding to stimuli in our paths… in ways we have zero awareness off, in ways we will never fully consciously comprehend.

This is not my opinion and I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Spend some time with Bruce Hood, psychologist, philosopher, whose roots span MIT, Harvard, and University of Cambridge, who created a terrifically succinct and head-shaking tour of what makes us tick – citing hard scientific research from the most prominent and trusted institutions in the world.

Why does this matter?

The mind that is reading these words – your mind – is mysteriously entangled with one of the most complex organisms in the universe – the human brain. Is it not fascinating to give your brain this opportunity to learn about itself?

The conclusions in this book do not diminish my experience as a human being, or make me feel less real. They deepen it. They increase my humility, my empathy, and help me fully appreciate the roots of my drives, cravings, and feelings… relative to the relentlessly changing environment in front of me. They help me understand that my wellbeing, that our collective wellbeing, is constantly vulnerable and should be cared-for very carefully.

What makes you tick? If you have any interest in exploring this question, I highly suggest The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood.

The following are my favorite highlights from the book, which I intend to reflect on and return to again and again. These excerpts are a very small sample of what’s inside.

Do We Carefully Design Our Own Personality?

The core self, wandering down the path of development, enduring things that life throws at us is, however, the illusion. Like every other aspect of human development, the emergence of the self is epigenetic—an interaction of the genes in the environment. The self emerges out of that journey through the epigenetic landscape, combining the legacy of our genetic inheritance with the influence of the early environment to produce profound and lasting effects on how we develop socially. These, in turn, can shape the way we interact with others and raise our own children. These thoughts and behaviors may seemingly originate from within us, but they emerge largely in a social context. In a sense, who we are really comes down to those around us. We may all be born with different biological properties and dispositions, but even these emerge in the context of others and in some cases can be triggered or turned off by environmental factors. The extent to which and how this happens is what scientists are trying to discover. We may feel that we are the self treading down the path of life and making our own decisions at the various junctions and forks but that would also assume that we are free to make our choices. However, the freedom to make choices is another aspect of the self illusion.

Are We a Soul Within a Body, or is the Brain Itself Our Essence? Consider the Texas Massacre.

For 96 minutes on a hot summer’s day, around noon in 1966, ex-marine Charles Whitman, positioned high up in the tower building of the University of Texas in Austin, fired 150 rounds killing 14 people and injuring another 32 before he was finally shot dead by the police. The University of Texas massacre was one of the first examples of a modern-day phenomenon of mass shootings. Dunblane, Columbine, and Virginia Tech are just a few of the recent atrocities in a growing list of senseless killing sprees that beggar belief. Every time one of these horrors happens, we are left asking the same question—why? In the case of Charles Whitman, we have an answer. He probably wasn’t his usual self.

In his prospective suicide note, Whitman wrote about the impulsive violence and the mental turmoil he was experiencing. He had a history of aggressive outbursts and a troubled family life, but in the months leading up to the Austin rampage, Whitman thought things were getting worse. He wrote, “After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed to see if there is any visible physical disorder.” He also asked that after his debts had been paid off, any money left over should go into research to find out if there was some explanation for his actions. He knew that something was not right. And he was unfortunately correct. Deep inside his brain was a sizeable tumor in the region of his amygdala.

The amygdala is part of the brain circuitry responsible for emotional behaviors: damage to this region can cause excessive swings in rage and anger. Overstimulation of the amygdala will cause both animals and humans to lash out violently. Whitman’s tumor could have been responsible for his impulsive aggression throughout his life. Together with the fact that his family life was troubled, he abused amphetamines, and he had been under a lot of stress in the summer of 1966, having a tumor of his amygdala would have impaired his ability to remain calm.

Free Will – Do We Truly Decide Anything?

Most of us believe that, unless we are under duress or suffering from some form of mental disorder, we all have the capacity to freely make decisions and choices. This is the common belief that our decisions are not preordained and that we can choose between alternatives. This is what most people mean by having free will—the belief that human behavior is an expression of personal choice and is not determined by physical forces, fate, or God. In other words, there is a self in control. However, neuroscience tells us that we are mistaken and that free will is also part of the self illusion—it is not what it seems. We think we have freedom but, in fact, we do not. As such, we need to start rethinking how we apply the concept of free will or, rather, the lack of it as an excuse for our thoughts and behaviors. For example, I believe that the sentence that I have just typed was my choice. I thought about what I wanted to say and how to say it. Not only did I have the experience of my intention to begin this line of discussion at this point but I had the experience of agency, of actually writing it. I knew I was the one doing it. I felt the authorship of my actions.

It seems absurd to question my free will here but, as much as I hate to admit it, these experiences are not what they seem. This is because any choices that a person makes must be the culmination of the interaction of a multitude of hidden factors ranging from genetic inheritance, life experiences, current circumstances, and planned goals.


Our belief in free will not only reflects our personal subjective experience of control over our actions on a daily basis, but also our own ignorance of the mechanisms, both conscious and unconscious, that determine our decisions. Many people find such a conclusion deeply disturbing, as if their life is already predictable. Dan Dennett is quoted as saying, “when we consider whether free will is an illusion or reality, we are looking into an abyss. What seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair.”

But why should that be upsetting? Many things in life are not what they seem. Arguably, all of our perceptions are illusions because we don’t have any privileged access to reality. Our minds are a matrix simulating reality. Even the physical world is not what it seems. Quantum physics reveals that a solid brick is made up of more space than matter. Does a deeper understanding of the nature of the brick undermine how we should behave when someone throws one at our head? Clearly not.

So You’re Saying We’re Merely Meat Computers?

Despite the complexity of the mathematics of brain activity, many are still deeply unsatisfied with a materialist account of the mind, even if it is not predictable. We want to believe that we are more than fleshy computing devices that have evolved to replicate. We are not simply meat machines. Maybe there is some as yet undiscovered force at work? After all, we are continually reminded that most of the universe is made up of stuff that we know is there but cannot measure. How can scientists rule out the nonmaterial explanation for the mind and free will if they themselves admit that they do not know everything?

The answer is they can’t. Science can only investigate and evaluate different models of the world, and those models are only going to be approximations of the true state of the universe—which, frankly, we may never know. But science is continually moving forward and progressing by refining the models to better fit the evidence. And the evidence comes from our observations. However, sometimes observations are wrong. The big trouble with free will is that it just feels so real. All of us think that our thoughts happen in advance of what we do. Time moves forward, and we experience that our thoughts cause actions. It turns out that this is wrong.

Split Brains – A Glimpse At Our Multiple Selves

Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has shown split-brain patients can effectively have each half of the body thinking and acting in a different way. One of his most dramatic observations sounds very similar to the Dr. Strangelove syndrome. He gave one of his split-brain patients a puzzle to solve using only his right hand (controlled by the language-dominate left hemisphere). However, this was a spatial puzzle in which the blocks had to be put in the correct position (something that requires the activity of the right hemisphere). The right hand was hopeless, turning the blocks over and over until, as if frustrated, the left hand, which the patient had been sitting on, jumped in and tried to take the blocks away from the patient’s right hand. It was if the hand had a different personality.

We Spin Our Own Stories – Part I

One of Oliver Sacks patients, a former grocer called William Thompson, had Korsakoff’s syndrome, which produced a profound amnesia so that he was unable to remember anything for more than a second or two—just like Clive Wearing, whom we encountered earlier. He lived in the eternal present and was unable to generate a stable sense of self. In one exchange, Sacks walked onto the ward in a white coat to see William, who greeted him:

Patient: “What’ll it be today?” he says, rubbing his hands. “Half a pound of Virginia, a nice piece of Nova?” (Evidently he saw me as a customer—he often would pick up the phone on the ward, and say “Thompson’s Delicatessen.”)

Doctor: “Oh Mr. Thompson!” I exclaim. “And who do you think I am?”

Patient: “Good heavens, the light’s bad—I took you for a customer. As if it isn’t my old friend Tom Pitkins … Me and Tom” (he whispers in an aside to the nurse) “was always going to the races together.”

Doctor: “Mr. Thompson, you are mistaken again.”

Patient: “So I am,” he rejoins, not put out for one moment. “Why would you be wearing a white coat if you were Tom? You’re Hymie, the kosher butcher next door. No bloodstains on your coat though. Business bad today? You’ll look like a slaughterhouse by the end of the week.”

It was as if William reeled effortlessly from one self-reflected identity to the next depending on who he thought Sacks was. He was oblivious to his circumstances. He had no awareness that he was a Korsakoff’s patient in a psychiatric hospital but rather, as Sacks put it, had to “literally make himself (and his world) up every moment.”

We Spin Our Own Stories – Part II

Constructing a plausible story is known as confabulation and is found in various forms of dementia as the patient attempts to make sense of his or her circumstances. We can all confabulate to some extent even though we are not aware we are doing this. These produce the biases, selective interpretations, reframing, and cognitive dissonance processes in which we are less objective than usual. We are all naturally inclined to interpret the world in terms of meaningful stories, and this probably reflects the activity of a system known as the “interpreter,” which appears to be localized to the left hemisphere.

We are not aware of this system normally as our brain processes are effortlessly and invisibly integrated below our levels of awareness. We simply experience the output of the interpreter as our conscious appraisal of our situations, our thoughts, and our behaviors. After all, we are our minds, and if that is largely constructed by unconscious processes, why should we ever become aware of the so-called interpreter? However, the activity of the interpreter was revealed by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga in his research on split-brain patients.

The normal brain is really a tale of two cities on the left and the right. Gazzaniga demonstrated that you could reveal the autonomy of the two hemispheres by selectively feeding different information to each. To do this, he presented words and images on the left and right side of a computer screen while the patient stared at a spot in the middle. This ensured that each hemisphere processed stimuli on the opposite side, and because they were no longer connected to each other through the corpus callosum, there was no exchange of information. For example, if the words “Key” and “Ring” were briefly flashed in the left and right halves of the screen respectively, the patient reported seeing the word “Ring” because this was processed by the opposite left hemisphere that controls language. However, if the patient was asked to choose the corresponding object from a selection on the table, he would pick up a key with the left hand that was controlled by the right hemisphere. Experiment after experiment revealed that the two hemispheres were functioning independently of each other. In one study, a naked man was flashed into the right hemisphere, causing the female patient to laugh but not be able to say what it was she was finding amusing. Her left hemisphere was unaware of the naked man and so could not explain what was amusing.

Sometimes, however, the patients make up a story to make sense of their unconscious activity. In one classic example told by Gazzaniga, one of his split-brain patients, Paul, was shown a snow scene in this left visual field and a picture of a chicken foot in his right visual field, and asked to choose the correct image from a selection on the table. He picked out a picture of a shovel with his left hand and a picture of the chicken foot with his right. When his attention was drawn to the discrepancy, and he was asked why he had chosen two different images, Paul replied, “Oh that’s simple, the chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need the shovel to clean out the chicken shit!”

What the split-brain studies reveal is that the self illusion is really the culmination of a multitude of processes. These usually work together in synchrony to produce a unified self; but, when inconsistencies arise, the system, strongly influenced by language, works to reestablish coherence.

Where Do Our Stories Come From?

Psychologist Dan McAdams proposes that when it comes to making sense of our lives, we [our brain, subconsciously] creates narrative or personal myths to explain where we have come from, what we do, and where we are going. This is the narrative arc of our lives—the background, the struggle, the climax, and resolution that people readily attribute to the story of their lives. For example, some may see themselves as victims of circumstances beyond their control, reinterpreting events to fit with this perspective. Another could take the same set of circumstances and cast herself as the resilient heroine, triumphing over adversity to get where she is today. Presumably, these myths reflect the influences of culture and those close to us when it comes to providing a meaning to our lives. These accounts are myths because they are not grounded in reality but rather follow a well-worn narrative path of a protagonist character (our self) and what the world throws at them. In some individuals, the reality is complete fantasy, as in the case of Tania Head.

Helplessness Is Learned (And Can Be Unlearned)

In one study, two sets of dogs were given electric shocks. One set of dogs could terminate the pain by learning to press a lever. The other set of dogs were yoked to the first group, but did not have the option to press a lever and so received the same amount of shocks. To them, there was nothing they could do to stop the pain because they had no choice.

After these initial experiences, both sets of dogs were then placed in a shuttle box with two sides separated by a short barrier. Again electric shocks were applied to the floor of the cage, but this time both sets animals could avoid the pain by leaping the barrier to the other safe side of the box. What they discovered was very disturbing. Dogs that had experienced control in the first study with the lever readily learned to avoid the pain, but dogs that had not been able to avoid the electric shocks in the first study failed to jump the barrier to avoid punishment. They simply lay down on the cage floor whimpering and resigned to their torture. According to Martin Seligman, the psychologist who conducted this research, the animals had “learned helplessness.”


It is not easy to read about this sort of animal experimentation in a detached way. I am not a great animal lover, but I think I would have found such research difficult to conduct. Nevertheless, these studies on inducing learned helplessness have proved invaluable in understanding factors that contribute to human misery and depression.


Not all depression is the same in its origins, but it is statistically more common among the poor and deprived in our society. One theory is that it is not so much that poverty is the root cause but rather the circumstances that having no wealth entails—the inability of individuals to do anything about their lives. Like the inescapable shocks to the dogs, people learn helplessness, which leads to the negative fatalism that things can never get better.

The obvious solution is to empower people with choices. Some would argue that this is what wealth really brings—the opportunity to make choices and not be shackled to a life you can’t escape. If nothing changes no matter what you do, you have the basics for despair. The need for control appears to be fairly important for both physical and mental health. Simply believing that you have the power to change your life makes it more bearable.

A Cartoonishly Obvious Lesson in How The Environment Manipulates Our Minds

The self is a constructed web of interacting influences competing for control. To live our lives in society, we need to inhibit or suppress disruptive impulses, thoughts, and urges. The drives of fleeing, fighting, feeding, and fornicating are constantly vying for attention in situations when they are not appropriate. What of our reasoning and control when we submit to these urges? It turns out that the self-story we tell our selves can become radically distorted.

In what must be one of the most controversial studies of late, Dan Ariely wanted to investigate how our attitudes change when we are sexually aroused. First, he asked male students to rate their attitudes to a variety of issues related to sex. For example, would they engage in unprotected sex, spanking, group sex, and sex with animals? Would they have sex with someone they did not like or with a woman over 60?

In the cold light of day, these men answered absolutely no way would they engage in these immoral acts. These were upstanding males who valued women and had standards of behavior. Ariely then gave them $10, a copy of Playboy magazine, and a computer laptop protectively wrapped so that they could answer the same questions again with one hand, while they masturbated with the other in the privacy of their dorm rooms. When they were sexually aroused something monstrous happened. These men were turned into animals by their passion. Ariely discovered these student Dr. Jekylls turned into veritable Mr. Hydes when left alone to pleasure themselves. They were twice as likely to say that they would engage in dubious sexual activities when they were sexually aroused.

Clearly, when males are thinking with their “little brain,” they tumble from their moral high ground, which they can usually maintain when they are in a nonaroused state. As Ariely put it, “Prevention, protection, conservatism and morality disappeared completely from their radar screen.” It was if they were a different person.

How Possessions Shape Our Identity

It’s not just our natural drives that are susceptible to impulsivity. To that list we need to add the modern pastime of shopping. Shopping has no obvious evolutionary imperative and yet, in the West, it is often reported as an addictive behavior. There are even Shopaholics Anonymous groups, similar to the more established Alcoholics Anonymous, to help people overcome their psychological need to buy things. I am not personally a shopaholic but I have occasionally made that impulsive purchase that I would not normally make—very often egged on by others. In my case, these have been esoteric objects or art that I think I should own. But why? What is it about owning possessions that gives us a psychological buzz?

I think that objects are a reflection of our self, or at least a perceived notion of how we would like to be seen by others. William James was one of the first psychologists to understand the importance of objects to humans as a reflection of their notion of self, when he wrote, “A man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account.”

Objects serve an important function as ostensive markers for self-identity. When we take possession of objects they become “mine”—my coffee cup, my Nikes, my telephone. This obsession with ownership can be traced to early childhood.


Neuroscientists Neil Macrae and Dave Turk have been looking at what happens in the brain when objects become ours. The change of ownership from any object to my object registers in the brain as enhanced activity. In particular, there is a spike of brain activity, called a P300, which occurs 300 milliseconds after we register something of importance—it’s a wake-up call signal in the brain. When something becomes mine, I pay more attention to it in comparison to an identical object that is not mine. This process is fairly automatic. In one study, participants observed as particular products were divided into two shopping baskets—one for them and the other for the experimenter. Their P300 signals revealed that they paid more attention to things that were theirs. After sorting, participants remembered more of the items placed in their own basket compared to the experimenter’s basket, even though they were not instructed that there was going to be a memory test. This is because, as James said, part of who we are is defined by our material possessions, which is why institutions in the past removed them to eradicate the sense of self.

The need for identity is so strong that when prisoners or institutionalized individuals are stripped of their possessions, they will confer value on items that would otherwise be considered as worthless.

In some individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder, object possession becomes a pathological condition known as hoarding, in which the household can become filled with worthless possessions that are not thrown away. In one unfortunate case, a hoarder was killed by the collapsing mound of rubbish that she had accumulated over the years.

Most of us are more restrained and have a few cherished personal possession or household items with which we identify. One of the first things individuals do on moving to a new residence is to bring in personal objects to stamp their identity on their new home. In contrast, sometimes people may destroy personal objects as a way of symbolically cutting ties with the past—especially if they are a jilted lover or cheated spouse.

Possessions and the Endowment Effect

Our attachment to objects may have less to do with personal choice than we imagine. In what is now regarded as a classic study in behavioral economics, Richard Thaler handed out $6 college coffee cups to half a class of Cornell undergraduates and then allowed them to trade with their classmates who made them a financial offer to buy the cup. What Thaler found was very little trading because owners placed much greater value on objects in their possession, relative to what other people are willing to pay for them. Moreover, as soon as an object comes into our possession, we have a bias to overvalue it in comparison to an identical object. This bias, known as the endowment effect, has been widely replicated many times with items ranging from bottles of wine to chocolate bars.

A commonly accepted explanation for the endowment effect is not so much that we value everything we can potentially own, but rather that we fear what we might lose. This bias is called loss aversion—a core component of the prospect theory proposed by Daniel Kahneman, the same scientist who left colonoscopes up the backsides of patients for an extra 3 minutes. According to this theory, losses are weighted more substantially than potential gains. Just like switching doors on the Monty Hall problem or selling our lottery ticket, we fear losses greater than we welcome gains. The prospect of regret seems to weigh heavily for us.


Not only do we overvalue our own possessions but we also covet that to which others seem to pay attention. It turns out that when we watch other people looking and smiling at objects we automatically prefer them to objects that have not been looked at.

Our Behavior In Group Settings

One of the most terrifying experiences people can imagine is speaking in front of other people. When this fear becomes so extreme that it begins to affect how people live their lives, it is known as social anxiety disorder. One theory is that other people trigger our emotions reflexively. As soon as we are in a crowd we become aroused. The limbic system that controls our behavior responds automatically to the presence of others. Arguably, this is the basic function of emotions—to motivate social behavior to either join or avoid others. When people simply look at us we become aroused by the focus of their attention. In one of our studies, we showed that direct attention from staring eyes triggered increased pupil dilation, which is controlled by the limbic system. This system controls how we interact with others—whether we fight them, flee from them, or fornicate with them.


Sometimes, arousal can improve performance. We run faster, cycle faster, and basically up our game when others are about. However, not all group behavior leads to increased performance. In a tug of war, teammates expend about half as much less energy than when they pull as individuals, in a phenomenon known as social loafing. As soon as we blend into the crowd, we no longer feel the need to put in as much effort if it is not recognized. It is only if the group appreciates our efforts that we try harder. This need for recognition also explains why groups can become more polarized on issues that would normally generate only moderate views. In an effort to gain group approval, individuals adopt increasingly extreme positions that they feel represent the group, which in turn drags the group further toward that position. If you couple that dynamic force with “groupthink,” the tendency to suspend critical thinking when we are one of many decision-makers so as to try and galvanize the gathering, then it is easy to see how we behave so differently in groups than we would as individuals. It explains why the rise of political extremism requires not only the determination of the few but also the complacency of the many.


Groups create deindividuation, a loss of the individual self.


Anonymity to outsiders appears to be the crucial factor when individuals feel that they are not accountable, which leads to greater antisocial behavior. Riots, lynching, and hooliganism are all believed to be examples of mob mentality that are thought to thrive through the process of deindividuation. In contrast, the more that we lose anonymity, the more we conform and behave. In one simple study, researchers placed a picture of a pair of eyes on the wall above a collection tin in the coffee room where staff members paid for their beverages. For the next 10 weeks, they alternated posting pictures of flowers or watchful eyes above the coffee pot. People were more honest in paying for their beverages when the eyes were posted.


Caring about what others think may be one of the strongest preoccupations we have as an animal. Indeed, as Philippe Rochat has pointed out, “To be human is indeed to care about reputation.” To be ostracized from the group is the worst fate, which he calls “psychological death.”

How Group Rejection Makes Us Feel

Kip developed a computer simulation known as “Cyberball,” in which adult participants had their brains scanned as they played a game in which they had to toss a ball back and forth between two other playmates. Cyberball was going along fine, until the two others started to only pass the ball back between themselves and ignore the adult in the brain scanner. When this exclusion became obvious, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) regions of the brain, which are activated by social cognition, started to light up with activity. This is because the pain of rejection also triggers the ACC—a result of its importance as a mechanism for conflict resolution. The social exclusion of the game had initially caused consternation and then distress, as it activated areas associated with emotional pain. Just like ego-depletion, those who were rejected by colleagues were more likely to eat fattening cookies, which is probably where comfort food gets its potency. When we say that our feelings are hurt, it may not simply be a metaphor we are using. We really feel as much pain as from a punch in the stomach.

What is remarkable is how sensitive we are to being rejected. Even when participants played Cyberball for only a couple of minutes and were told that it was only a computer simulation, they still felt the pain of rejection. And this pain had nothing to do with the personality of the players either. They were not overly sensitive. Rather, there is something very fundamental and automatic about ostracism. Williams argues that this reaction must be hardwired and points out that, in many other social species, ostracism often leads to death. That’s why humans are so sensitive. As soon as it looks as though we are in danger of being ostracized, we become hypervigilant to those around us, looking for clues in the way people are interacting and opportunities to reengage with the group.

If these ingratiating strategies fail, then ostracized individuals switch tack and turn from being likeable to being angry and aggressive: “Look at me, I’m worthy of attention. I am not invisible, damn you.”

Group Membership

Whether we like it or not, we are all members of clubs. As a social animal, we cannot help but hang out with others. Even those of us not in a family can identify significant others in our lives—friends, Romans, and even countrymen. Ultimately, we are all members of one very big club: the human species. No man or woman is an island.

Some group membership is relatively fixed and independent of what we want—age, sex, race, height, and nationality, for example—although sometimes we try to change even these: lie about our age, cross-dress, have surgery, wear elevator shoes, and become a nationalized citizen. Other groups we aspire to join throughout our lifetime—the in-crowd, the jet-set, the highfliers, the intelligentsia, or the seriously wealthy. Some of us are assigned to groups we would rather not join—the poor, the uneducated, the criminal classes, or the drug addicts. People do not normally choose to be any of these, but we are all members of groups whether we like it or not. Furthermore, it is in our human nature to categorize each other into groups. Even those who don’t want to be characterized are a group unto themselves—they are the dropouts and the outsiders. We categorize others because it makes it much easier to deal with strangers when we know where they are coming from.

The groups we belong to define us, but we are constantly entering, leaving, expanding, and swapping our groups. People obviously benefit from the collective power of groups, as well as from the resources and companionship that can be shared, but membership is also necessary for generating a sense of self-identity. Just belonging to a group shapes our self because we automatically identify with other members. We know this from the work of social psychologists like Henri Tajfel, who used to be the head of my department. Before he came to Bristol in the 1960s, Tajfel witnessed the power of groups when he was a French prisoner-of-war, having been captured by the Germans during the Second World War. (In fact, he was a Polish Jew, but he kept this aspect of his identity secret from his German prison guards.) After the war, Tajfel dedicated his life to understanding group psychology. In what is now regarded as a classic study, he showed that arbitrarily assigning Bristol schoolboys into two groups by the toss of a coin produced changes in the way that they treated each other. Those in the same group or “in group” members were more positive to each other and shared resources, but hostile to “out group” members, even though they were all from the same class.


Tajfel’s study had been preempted a couple of years earlier in the United States by Jane Elliot, an Iowa third-grade teacher from Middle America. Elliot planned an audacious class project to teach them about discrimination. She told her class that there was very good evidence that children with blue eyes were superior to students with brown eyes. However, the next day she said that she had been wrong, and that in fact the evidence proved that it was the brown-eyed children who were superior. This role-reversal produced the same pattern. On both days, children who were designated as inferior took on the look and behavior of genuinely inferior students, performing poorly on tests, whereas the superior group became more hostile to the inferior group, thinking them less worthy. Simply by belonging to a group influences how you feel about your self and how you feel about others not in your group.

Conforming To The Group

In what is considered one of the most important studies of the power of groups, Solomon Asch had eight participants take a line test. He held up cards with the lines on them and went round the room asking the participants which line matched the test line. In fact, there was only one real subject as the other seven participants were actually confederates of the experiment. At first, everything seemed above board. Everyone agreed on the length of the test line on the first two trials. However, on the third trial, the confederates gave the wrong answer by saying that it was line C that matched. The real participant stared in disbelief at his fellow students. Were they blind? What would the participant say when it came to his turn? On average, three out of every four participants went along with his fellow participants and also gave the wrong answer. Each did not suddenly become blind, but rather conformed in accordance with the group so as not to be the outsider. Each participant was fully aware of the correct answer, but each did not want to appear different. They did not want to be ostracized, so they conformed to the group consensus.

When asked to rate the attractiveness of music or faces, if there is a discrepancy between an individual’s liking and the group consensus, this triggers activation in brain regions associated with social cognition and reward evaluation. However, as soon as we have an ally, we become more self-opinionated. In Asch’s line test, it only required the presence of one other dissenter to give the right answer for the effect to reduce significantly. When we are accompanied by another dissenter, we are no longer an individual but part of a new group. That’s why we seek out others who share our opinion, because there is strength in numbers. It’s also one of the reasons that oppressive regimes quash any resistance as soon as it starts to appear. If we feel isolated and powerless, then we submit more readily to authority and are less likely to resist.

Groups, Evil Behavior, The Standford Prison Experiment

Phil Zimbardo is known for his infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he investigated the consequences of simulating an incarceration scenario using ordinary students playing cops and robbers. It was to be a 2-week study of the effects of role-playing in the basement of the Stanford psychology department, which had been turned into a makeshift prison. Like Tajfels’s Bristol schoolboy study, on the flip of a coin, the volunteers were divided. Half of the student volunteers were to be the guards and the other half were to be their prisoners, each earning $15 a day for 14 days. Most thought it would be easy money to loaf around for a couple of weeks. However, what happened next shocked everyone involved and has left a legacy in the literature on the psychology of evil that now explains many unbelievable examples of human cruelty.

To simulate authenticity, the prisoners were arrested on a Sunday by real policemen, handcuffed, blindfolded, and taken to the prison where they were stripped and put in smocks without underwear. This was only the beginning of the humiliation. Then the “guards”—uniformed fellow students wearing mirror shades—met them. When they wanted to go to the toilet down the hall, the inmates were led out with bags on their heads. Their guards gave them a long list of rules that they had to memorize, and failure to do so led to punishment. Within a very short time, things began to deteriorate. Even though they had never been instructed to harm the inmates, the guards began to spontaneously torment and torture the inmates. In this authoritarian atmosphere, the inmates became psychologically distressed while their guards were getting increasingly out of control.

From a scientific perspective, this was exhilarating. Even though everyone involved knew the set-up was not real, the situation was creating real cruelty and suffering.

For more, see:
The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood

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