Recently I was told about an incident in which someone was denigrating a group in which I am a member. Apparently, the person engaging in this behavior was espousing false information about my group along with attributing false motivations to those involved, including me. This kind of thing happens all the time among humans. It is easily taken personally when it shouldn’t be.
On the one hand, such nasty behavior is confusing for creatures that crave a sense of belonging. We human beings are essentially herd animals, and we need positive relationships with other humans in order to live well. Why in the world would creatures that are utterly interdependent actively try to hurt or damage other members of the herd?
Damaged self-esteem. Yep, it turns out that when we are feelings badly about ourselves in some way, we get an immediate injection of glow-goo when we find a way to compare ourselves favorably against someone else. There are numerous scientific studies to support this explanation of a bizarre tendency toward meanness when we are dependent upon one another to succeed.
“Positive Distinctiveness” is the name social psychologists give to explain ordinary human meanness. While we are herd animals we also have a need to feel special. This ego need extends to the groups we belong to as well. It gives us a jolt of satisfaction to see our own group as “better than” other groups. Our street is the best street to live on, our club is the best one to belong to, our church or organization is better than the others. This normal human sentiment is intensified when one’s own group or personhood feels diminished. Research demonstrates that self-esteem is temporarily improved when members of an “in-group” critique and castigate “others” as belonging to an “out-group” of less value.
“Social Comparison theory” postulates that people naturally make comparisons to other people. It suggests that we are more likely to make negative downward comparisons in order to feel better when we are attacked or belittled ourselves. Projection works the same way.
Our tendency to project onto others what in fact we are feeling, adds intensity to these social dynamics. For example, when we are feeling particularly dishonest then we tend to view those in another social group, or whoever we view as “other,” as especially dishonest. When we are angry, we tend to see others as angry. We take what we are feeling, particularly the emotions we resist recognizing in ourselves, and project them onto others as if a big movie screen.
In any moment our own ego feels threatened, even if everything else around us seems to be going well, we strike out with aggression against another or others. It is classic, it is nearly universal. So, when we hear mean, nasty stuff foisted at one group from another, or said by one person about others, we can understand it is a symptom of threatened ego(s), and likely the projection of their own damaged self-esteem onto another person or group.
Understanding these natural emotions can help us refrain from reactivity, and not feel compelled toward meanness or aggression. Whether locally, nationally, or even internationally, true leadership is not reactive. True leadership operates from positive intention, as well as the understanding that we are indeed interdependent and one herd.