Why Good People Act With Malice
How do normally rational and kind people come to treat people they don’t know very well with such animosity and cruelness?
The answer lies in something called deindividuation, and we can learn a great deal about conflict by understanding its subversive impact on how we think.
When people view others as a member of a social group rather than as individuals, they give themselves permission to act more aggressively toward them. This process of deindividuation directs attention away from the unique individual characteristics of a person, instead focusing on stereotypical features of the group to which they belong.
Overly simple characterizations create an easy stereotype from which to target the other person with more aggressive behavior and statements.
“He’s one of those compliance people who doesn’t get it.”
“Clearly an evangelical who believes they have the moral high ground.”
“A card-carrying socialist.”
“Just another ambulance-chasing lawyer.”
“Rigid and authoritative, just like a German.”
Group identity suggested in statements like these allows us to act more hostilely when we engage the category, not the person.
As conflict escalates, so, too, does the degree to which we deindividuate and treat the person as the category. Social inhibitions regarding anti-social behavior melt away. We feel justified in acting aggressively because we are not engaged with an individual, rather we are combatting the group or confronting the stereotype.
Numerous examples suggest “good” people can act with malice when they deindividuate, viewing a person as merely a member of a group or fitting perfectly into a social stereotype. Negative behavior that would typically be seen as shocking becomes all too acceptable.
Knowing we all have a tendency to engage in deindividuation, especially when we are engaged in conflict or strongly disagree with another’s position or ideology, is half the battle. The best among us try very hard not to place people into categories, instead treating them at face value for what they say and do.
The fixed mindset created when we classify people into groups is something worth avoiding. You’re not one of those fixed mindset people, are you?