The psychology of world citizenship

The psychology of world citizenship

13-minute read


In the early 1970s Henri Tajfel and his team of psychologists at Bristol University carried out a landmark study into social categorisation and its effects on intergroup behaviour. Tajfel had lost his entire family in the Nazi Holocaust, and so this was a subject that had always haunted him. In his most famous experiment he showed paintings to a group of schoolboys, asking them to choose their favourites, and then he split them into two groups based on the paintings they chose. After this each boy was isolated in a cubicle and asked to allocate virtual money to the others, all of whom were identified only by code numbers indicating which group they belonged to. The boys were not told which of their friends were in their group or the opposing group: they could only see numbers. Tajfel found that the boys consistently allocated more money to their own group. He found that distribution of money was unaffected by the prospect of improving overall profit, but was strongly affected by the prospect of improving in-group profit. Subjects would aim for the greatest possible difference between groups, even at the price of sacrificing other advantages that were being offered to them. The experiment was repeated many times and the outcome was always the same.i

Tajfel’s study indicated that humans will form tribes in the most random of circumstances, allying themselves with certain people and acting prejudicially towards others based solely on group membership. It is not necessary to see or even know the members of one’s own tribe, and it is not necessary to gain any tangible reward for such behaviour. But Tajfel suggested that we may actually be gaining something intangible and fundamental when we behave like this: identity. If the participants in his experiment raised the status of their own group, then they would improve their personal sense of identity. Status could only be measured by comparison with their rivals, and so the boys aimed to create the widest possible gulf between the two groups.

This experiment gave us a crucial insight into the psychology that lies behind the nation and other tribal identities, like race. Race has never been a biological reality – that was established beyond doubt in 2003 when the Human Genome Project demonstrated that all humans are genetically almost identical (99.9%).ii But ingroup/outgroup psychology is a biological reality, and this reality is the driving force behind fantasies like nationality (the details of which are determined by political circumstances) and race (the details of which are determined by social circumstances).iii Our tribalistic tendencies really belong in the forests and savannahs of our primordial past, but they persist as part of our evolved psychology, and in the modern world they actually continue to serve a purpose by giving us identity.

The historian Yuval Noah Harari has famously described nations as fictions,iv but he’s also suggested that it would be close to impossible for us to abandon such fictions. In his bestselling book Sapiens, Harari argues that humanity owes its success and its dominance over the rest of nature to myth-building.v We have set ourselves apart through the ability to create fictions like nations and to convince large numbers of people (and ourselves) that these fictions are real. “(They) exist in the shared imagination of billions,” says Harari, “and no single individual can threaten their existence… in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organisation, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult.” This would require large numbers of strangers to cooperate, which would in turn require a shared belief in a new myth. We can’t change an existing imagined order without first believing in a different imagined order. Therefore, says Harari, “There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.”vi This is a striking image, but the exercise yards don’t go on forever. In the end we will find ourselves stumbling out into the open and staring at the human race itself – a biological reality, not a myth. Would it really be so hard to convince people of the fundamental unity of the human race, and to dissolve our old national and racial tribes?

Our tendency towards tribalism and group-forming is part of our evolutionary heritage, and some would say that this means we’re powerless to change it. But Tajfel’s experiments showed the importance of our environment: when we are told that we belong to a group distinct from other groups, the relevant instinct kicks in and we begin defining ourselves in accordance with the new group. This opens up the tantalising prospect that these tribal instincts would remain dormant in an environment that made no mention of such groups. Indeed, studies have already identified cultural environment as the defining factor in a child’s attitude towards race.vii And experiments on adults have shown that it only takes a few minutes of exposure to a social situation in which race is irrelevant before they stop racially categorising strangers.viii These results suggest that while racial categorisation may be an evolved phenomenon, it can be overwritten by new circumstances. If tribal essentialism is a switch that can be turned on or off, then perhaps we can be taught to keep it permanently turned off.

But even if we can manage this, we can’t get rid of the switch itself. We will always be threatened by the tribalistic potential lurking in our psyches. ‘Turning off the switch’ also sounds uncomfortably close to ‘suppressing human nature’, which is something that has not worked out well in the past. We should never forget Francis Bacon’s brilliant observation that “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”ix This was really the principle on which the entire Scientific Revolution was predicated, and it has proven applicable to all areas of life. The communists forgot the principle, and then they killed millions of people in their attempts to suppress nature and enforce absolute equality. It might be best to view human nature in general as a tremendously powerful river. We can’t stop it flowing, but perhaps we can change its course. When we remember the ease with which Tajfel’s participants adopted a new group identity, then we will see how it might be possible to redirect the tribe-forming drive.

One way to achieve this could be deliberately confuse the existing divisions between groups. For instance, political rights could be granted to immigrants, undermining the notion that a person belongs to the country they were born in. Non-resident non-citizens could be given the right to elect representatives in national legislatures.x Another possibility could be flexible citizenship, whereby people would become citizens of several countries at the same time. They could even become citizens of the European Union, or a particular university, or a church, or a football club. They could become citizens of a humanitarian organisation like Médecins Sans Frontières or the Red Cross.xi At first glance this multi-tribal approach might seem like an odd strategy to use against tribalism, but it may be surprisingly effective. If we vastly widen the possibilities of citizenship then this will hopelessly blur the concept of ‘them’ and ‘us’. The further and wider we spread our tribal allegiances, the more we will dilute these allegiances.

Would it be possible to eventually redirect the tribe-forming drive from nations and races to the whole world? Would people be able to find sufficient personal identity through their membership of the human race? Some people have suggested that this would be impossible because it would involve an in-group with no out-group, and the identification of enemies is thought to be a crucial factor in group loyalty. However, recent studies have indicated that human coalitional psychology does not promote out-group hostility. Fitness is not necessarily enhanced by aggression towards an opposing group – it’s more likely to be enhanced by in-group bias.xii And so it would seem that the most important element of Tajfel’s findings was the forming of arbitrary groups, rather than the forming of arbitrary prejudices. I interpret this to mean that we don’t actually need enemies after all.

The ‘common in-group identity model’ developed by psychologists Samuel Gaertner and John Dovidio also supports this idea. Their model built on Tajfel’s findings, aiming to transform ‘us and them’ into an all-inclusive ‘we’. Gaertner and Dovidio observed that tribalistic bias is more likely to manifest itself in the form of in-group enhancement rather than out-group evaluation. They hypothesised that the very same cognitive and motivational processes that produce positive feelings towards in-group members could also be extended to out-group members. Empirical testing confirmed their theory: when participants from separate groups were seated alternately round a table and asked to cooperate to solve problems, they ended up identifying with the new all-inclusive group rather than their original groups. These participants also re-evaluated the original out-group members, deciding that their former rivals were – now they came to think of it – likeable, cooperative, honest, and in many ways similar to themselves. When the previous boundaries were maintained for the task and the original groups were seated at opposite ends of the table, the experimenters saw reduced identification with the all-inclusive group.xiii Again, it seems that while the existence of enemies can help with identity formation, it’s not essential to the process, and the key to detribalisation lies in simply being told – or rather convinced – that we’re all part of the same group.

A recent Harvard study applied this principle to one of the more persistent real-world tribal divides. Jewish and Arabic volunteers were asked to read selected news stories, some of which focused on the genetic similarities between Jews and Arabs in general, and some of which focused on the differences. Each volunteer was then required to trigger blasts of noise that they were told would be heard by members of the other ethnic group in a nearby room. Those who’d been reading about genetic closeness administered lower-volume blasts, and those who’d been reading about the differences administered louder blasts.xiv It would seem that learning about genetic closeness triggers something like an internal ‘family’ switch, leading to an increase in empathy.

But even if we can boost empathy and dissolve boundaries in this way, isn’t the world’s population just too big? How could such an enormous entity really command the loyalty of the individual? The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought that “the feeling of humanity evaporates and grows feeble” when we attempt to extend it to all of mankind. Rousseau insisted that “we cannot be affected by the calamities of Tartary or Japan in the same manner as we are by those of European nations.” Therefore we need to “confine and limit our interest and compassion in order to make it active.”xv

I think this pessimism is easily refuted. Group loyalty and Rousseau’s “feeling of humanity” evolved in the context of small bands of hunter-gatherers (groups of perhaps fifty individuals), and yet we’ve managed to extend these instincts to such unnaturally large groups as nations. Today the average Chinese citizen feels deep loyalty to a group comprising 1.4 billion people. This is a staggering 28 million-fold increase on the in-group numbers suggested to us by our evolved psychology. A miracle, but a miracle engineered by reason. It was reason that helped us to expand our concern far beyond the simple need to protect our family and protect our genes. Over time the individual comes to understand that he is just one among many individuals in his society, and this leads to the realisation that each of these other individuals must have personal interests equal to his own. Once this individual realises that his society is actually just one among many societies, he must come to the conclusion that his interests are also equal to those of every individual in every other society.xvi In the end, reason should lead us to defy Rousseau and extend his “feeling of humanity” to all of mankind.

Our capacity for reason puts us in the unique position of being able to step outside the world of pure instinct and gain an understanding of our own behaviour and its underlying genetic causes. The reproductive urge, for example, is the strongest urge that we have, and yet many of us now use contraceptives for much of our sexual activity. We understand our own nature and so we’re able to subvert it – or as Bacon said, we obey nature and so we’re able to command it. The instinct towards tribal essentialism may be strong, but it’s obviously not as strong as the instinct to reproduce, and this means that reason should be more than capable of subverting or redirecting our tendency to think tribally. Of course we should also remember that in Rousseau’s day “the calamities of Tartary or Japan” had no personal face for the average European. Today the average European is highly likely to meet a person from Japan at some point in his life. Such meetings will surely speed up the process of extending the “feeling of humanity.”

I think all of this means that unity is entirely possible. And perhaps we can already see a blueprint for our global civilisation in the form of the United States. Today’s US citizens trace their ancestry to a wide variety of different nations, ethnicities, and races, but these old identities have mostly been cast aside and replaced with an Americanness that successfully prevents the re-emergence of subnationalisms or fixed linguistic groups.xvii The United States of America is really an enormous machine for converting Frenchmen and Germans and Arabs into Americans. This is the kind of thing we’re after – the successful redirection of the tribe-forming drive. Perhaps we can view this Americanness as a prototype for what we need now: a belief in a humanness that successfully prevents the re-emergence of our old tribal identities.

We should also remind ourselves of just how quickly our national identities have taken root, totally supplanting older identities that were just as strong in their day. As Ernest Renan put it, “No French citizen knows whether he is a Burgund, an Alain, a Taifala, or a Visigoth. Every French citizen has forgotten St. Bartholomew’s Day and the thirteenth-century massacres in the Midi.”xviii Within a very short period of time, historically speaking, humans living in that particular part of the world have been transformed into ‘the French’. It seems clear to me that within an equally short or even shorter period, they could be transformed from the French into something else completely. This time, however, it can be an identity that reflects the real world.

Singapore might provide us with another microcosmic glimpse of a unified future. Only 50% of the population were actually born in the city-state. High immigration levels have combined with low birth rates to create a nation of migrants. The authorities have actually discouraged any emphasis on old racial and ethnic identities over the past few decades, even preventing too many members of a single ethnic group from living in the same area. They hoped that Singaporeanness would transcend the old divisions, and the result does seem to be a distinct lack of tribal strife. Of course many Singaporeans will still express the national pride that I’m trying to do away with. But the ‘Singapore’ they hold dear is a far more enigmatic object than the ‘Sweden’ or the ‘Spain’ or the ‘Saudi Arabia’ that inspire such pride elsewhere. If Singaporeanness exists, then it cuts right across old notions of race and ethnicity. It’s a proto-global identity.

How did they manage this? It might have something to do with the question of heritage. While it lies only a mile or so off the Malaysian peninsula, the city-state is politically and ideologically independent of its neighbours. There is no parent nation. The burden of history is absent, and so is the deep-rooted sense of identity that such a burden would bring. Realising this, the authorities launched a highly idiosyncratic national identity formation drive in the years after gaining independence – one that effectively jettisoned the past and focused on the future. Foreign Minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam spelled out their position in 1968. “We do not lay undue stress on the past. We do not see nation-building and modernisation as primarily an exercise in reuniting the present generation with a past generation and its values and glories. This sort of nation-building could be disastrous for Singapore’s future. A generation encouraged to bask in the values of the past and hold on to a static future will never be equipped to meet a future predicated on jet travel, atomic power, satellite communication, electronics, and computers. For us the task is not one of linking past generations with the present generation, but the present generation with future generations.”xix

They would appear to have succeeded in this task, and it’s a success that I think we can replicate globally. All connections to our national/racial/ethnic past could be severed, and pride could be directed away from the dubious triumphs of archaic ages and towards the tremendous potential of the future. This does not mean forgetting the lessons of history. It means simply that we don’t identify, in a tribal sense, with the people who made all those mistakes in the past. We’re not ‘Britain’ or ‘France’ or ‘China’ or ‘Israel’. Our only connection to previous generations is our shared humanity. This act of separating ourselves from the past would also give us a solution to the problem of our new identity. In the absence of any obvious ‘other’ to compare itself to, our global civilisation might construct an identity through comparison with its old self. The past is them, in all their ignorance, and the present is us – borderless and fluid, individually diverse but ultimately united.

Today we live in the age of information, the age of globalisation; today we understand that everyone belongs to the same species and there is no real ‘other’. Now that we know this, there is nothing stopping us from redirecting the group membership drive within a single generation – nothing except the blind conservatism that insists on clinging to traditions like the nation-state. “If you believe you are a citizen of the world,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May at a Conservative Party conference in 2016, “then you are a citizen of nowhere.”xx But nations are fictions, and this means that if you believe you are a British citizen, like May, then you are in fact a citizen of nowhere. If you believe you are a citizen of the world then you’re ahead of the game. The future lies in world citizenship.

This essay was partly adapted from a book in progress.


i Henri Tajfel – “Experiments in intergroup discrimination,” Scientific American 223, 1970, pp. 96-102

iiInternational consortium completes Human Genome Project, National Human Genome Research Institute, 14 April 2003

iii Kenan Malik – The Meaning of Race: Race, History, and Culture in Western Society (Macmillan Press Ltd, London, 1996)

iv Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Vintage, London, 2014, orig. 2011), p406

v Ibid., pp. 27-36

vi Ibid., pp. 132-3

vii Lawrence A. Hirschfeld – Race in the Making: Cognition, Culture, and the Child’s Construction of Human Kinds (MIT Press, Cambridge, 1998 edition, orig. 1996), pp 180-1

viii Robert Kurzban, John Tooby, & Leda Cosmides – “Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 98 no. 26, 2001, 15387-92

ix Francis Bacon Novum Organum Scientiarum (1620), Book I Aphorism III

x Daniele Archibugi, Mathias Koenig-Archibugi, & Raffaele Marchetti – “Introduction: mapping global democracy” in Daniele Archibugi, Mathias Koenig-Archibugi, & Raffaele Marchetti (eds.) – Global Democracy: Normative and Empirical Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 2012), p14

xi Bruno S. Frey – “Flexible government for a globalized world,” Ibid., pp. 156-7

xii Toshio Yamagashi & Nobuhiro Mifune – “Social exchange and solidarity: in-group love or out-group hate?,” Evolution and Human Behavior 30 (4), July 2009, pp. 229-37

xiii Samuel L. Gaertner, John F. Dovidio, Phyllis A. Anastasio, Betty A. Bachman, & Mary C. Rust – “The common ingroup identity model: recategorization and the reduction of intergroup bias,” European Review of Social Psychology, January 1993

xiv Sasha Y. Kimel, Rowell Huesmann, Jonas R. Kunst, & Eran Halperin Living in a genetic world: how learning about interethnic genetic similarities and differences affects peace and conflict, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Sage Journals) vol 42 issue 5, 1 May 2016, pp. 688-700

xv Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Discourse on Political Economy (1755), part II

xvi As famously discussed by Peter Singer in The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress (Princeton University Press, 2011 edition, orig. 1981), pp. 87-125

xvii Francis Fukuyama – The End of History and the Last Man (Penguin, London, 2012 edition, orig. 1992), p118

xviii Ernest Renan “What is a nation?,” conference delivered at the Sorbonne, 11 March 1882

xix Sinnathamby Rajaratnam’s speech at the Sixth Asian Advertising Congress, Singapore, 1 July 1968, as cited in Yeow Tong Chia – “History education for nation building and state formation: the case of Singapore,” Citizenship Teaching & Learning volume 7 number 2, 2012, p196

xx Theresa May, Conservative Party conference, October 2016

One thought on “The psychology of world citizenship

  1. Really horrible article. “The other” will always exist, for the good and for the bad.

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