In a previous post, I discussed some surprising social implications of the high-tech-based existence in the film Her. Well, the social implications of the faction-based existence in the film Divergent are much more straightforward…
Dividing people into factions is bad.
It suppresses individuality and breeds prejudice.
Well, thinking you “belong” somewhere actually has psychological benefits too. It can be part of your identity and ego. And being isolated from others can be depressing or scary.
Notice the reaction from the film’s heroine, Beatrice, upon receiving her you-don’t-belong-anywhere test result. She was confused and scared. “So what am I supposed to do at the choosing ceremony?” she asked. “I was supposed to learn what to do!”
Most of us don’t have to make an unalterable life decision at a ceremony at age 16. But most of us do find uncertainty and lack of purpose to be aversive.
This reaction is especially true for those of us who score high on the “need for closure” personality scale. Having high need for closure means that you are especially uncomfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, and it means that you especially desire a sense of order and purpose (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994).
An effective way to achieve a sense of certainty, order, and purpose is to be scientifically placed into a defined faction for life, as in the film Divergent. Indeed, people with high need for closure seem to love existing in defined groups, in that such people are more likely to adhere to group norms and traditions and to show group loyalty and in-group favoritism (Kruglanski et al., 2006; Stalder et al., 2012).
And need for closure seems to spike in people after large-scale atrocities like 911 (Kruglanski et al., 2009) or the alluded-to global war preceding the storyline in Divergent. When our predictable and orderly existence becomes chaotic and traumatic, the needs for certainty and order naturally rise. So it makes sense that most people in the film would buy into the faction thing, if the war that had occurred raised their need-for-closure scores.
Perhaps the Erudite faction leader Jeanine (played by Kate Winslet), who celebrated the faction system and believed that her faction should rule the others, is the most classic case of high need for closure. Indeed, high-need-for-closure people are more likely to think that their group is superior to others and more likely even to create autocracies (Kruglanski et al., 2009).
But even among individuals with elevated need-for-closure scores, there are countless individual differences, epitomized in the main character Beatrice. And these individual differences reflect a truth about humanity that a faction system ignores, that we are all unique and have the capacity to change.
More than suppressing individuality, dividing people into groups inevitably leads to stereotyping and prejudice (Myers, 2013). And in the film and all too often in real life, such divisions lead to bloody intergroup conflict.
But remember my note about belonging and identity. As some real-life social leaders and educators have said in the context of prejudice and diversity education, it is our differences that define us or make us great. And many members of minority groups strongly identify with their groups and embrace their group labels. I’m not advocating for a completely label-less approach to interacting with each other.
But we need to be so careful. Within any group, there are unique individuals. Within large defined and labeled groups (races, ethnicities, genders, religions, political parties, sexual orientations,…), the individual differences among group members are usually greater than intergroup differences.
To think people within a particular group are all the same is the “outgroup homogeneity bias,” one of the many causes of prejudice. In the us-and-them mentality, we usually underestimate the diversity and complexity of the them (Myers, 2013).
In sum, knowing someone’s group membership can so easily bias and oversimplify our perceptions of them, even if that someone wants to be identified with their group.
So yes, in trying to understand someone, we should probably keep in mind their decision to identify with a particular group. We are a diverse society.
But there is still an individual to get to know, beyond the group’s stereotypes. Especially after stressful life events, when our needs for closure and stereotyping increase, we need to step back. If we want to reduce bias, we need to consciously try to see each individual.
Kruglanski, A. W., Dechesne, M., Orehek, E., & Pierro, A. (2009). Three decades of lay epistemics: The why, how, and who of knowledge formation. European Review of Social Psychology, 20, 146-191.
Kruglanski, A. W., Pierro, A., Mannetti, L., & DeGrada, E. (2006). Groups as epistemic providers: Need for closure and the unfolding of group-centrism. Psychological Review, 113, 84–100.
Myers, D. G. (2013). Social psychology (11th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Stalder, D. R., Gehler, C. A., & Cook, J. A. (2012, May). The group-centrism scale: Initial development and validation. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago.
Webster, D. M., & Kruglanski, A. W. (1994). Individual differences in need for cognitive closure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 1049–1062.