Us vs Them: What is "Othering"?

Updated: May 6

By Kendra Cherry Medically reviewed by Akeem Marsh, MD on December 13, 2020

What Is Othering? Othering is a phenomenon in which some individuals or groups are defined and labeled as not fitting in within the norms of a social group. It is an effect that influences how people perceive and treat those who are viewed as being part of the in-group versus those who are seen as being part of the out-group. Othering also involves attributing negative characteristics to people or groups that differentiate them from the perceived normative social group. It is an “us vs. them” way of thinking about human connections and relationships. This process essentially involves looking at others and saying "they are not like me" or "they are not one of us." Othering is a way of negating another person's individual humanity and, consequently, those that are have been othered are seen as less worthy of dignity and respect. On an individual level, othering plays a role in the formation of prejudices against people and groups. On a larger scale, it can also play a role in the dehumanization of entire groups of people which can then be exploited to drive changes in institutions, governments, and societies. It can lead to the persecution of marginalized groups, the denial of rights based on group identities, or even acts of violence against others. Othering can be thought of as an antonym of belonging. Where belonging implies acceptance and inclusion of all people, othering suggests intolerance and exclusion.
Signs Othering is often subtle and may involve unconscious assumptions about others. Here are some signs of this phenomenon:
  • Attributing positive qualities to people who are like you and negative qualities to people who are different from you

  • Believing that people who are different from you or your social group pose a threat to you or your way of life

  • Feeling distrustful or upset with people of a social group even though you don’t know anyone from that group

  • Refusing to interact with people because they are different from you or your social group

  • Thinking that people outside your social group are not as intelligent, skilled, or as special as you and your group

  • Thinking of people only in terms of their relationship with specific social groups without giving any thought to them as individuals

This phenomenon often happens without conscious effort or even awareness. People feel bias based on what they presume is the norm. While othering is sometimes apparent, it often functions as an almost invisible barrier that keeps people who are seen as outsiders from accessing opportunity and acceptance. Types Othering can be based on a wide range of attributes including:
  • Age

  • Disability

  • Ethnicity, nationality, and race

  • Gender identity, sex

  • Language

  • Occupation

  • Political affiliation

  • Religion

  • Sexual orientation

  • Skin color

  • Socioeconomic status

Examples While racial and religious othering are some of the most obvious examples, some types can be much less overt and apparent. Rivalries can famously rage between sports teams and schools, but people may dislike others based on things like the grade they are in (e.g., “Freshmen are all so annoying!”), where they live (e.g., “Ugh, California plates...no wonder they can’t drive!”), or even their profession (e.g., “Accountants are all the same, am I right?”). These types of othering can play a role in shaping attitudes and relationships with other people. Causes The exact causes of othering can vary from one situation to the next. How and when people are othered often depends on how noticeable their differences are in a specific context. If these differences are perceived as a threat, people in out-groups are more likely to experience othering. Some factors that may play a role in this phenomenon are listed below. Evolution A tendency to engage in othering may have evolved as a way to improve group cohesion and minimize danger from outsiders. In the ancient past, it was important for people to form close-knit groups and clearly define the boundaries between their allies and their enemies. Helping those who were close to you—most often your family members who were similar to you and shared the same genes—was critical for survival. In-Group Bias Also known as in-group favoritism, this is a psychological tendency to favor one's own in-group over members of out-groups. Researchers suggest that factors such as competition for resources can lead people to bond and form alliances with members of their own groups. Other factors such as self-identity and social identity also play a role in this favoritism. In-group bias often influences how we evaluate others, how we treat them, and how we share our resources with them. Out-Group Bias People also have a tendency to notice all of the individual differences and variations in members of their own group, while simultaneously believing that members of the out-group are “all the same.“ In psychology, this is known as the out-group homogeneity bias. An example of this is thinking all of the people in your friend group are unique and special while considering anyone outside of your inner circle as boring, uncool, uninteresting, or similar. When, in reality, all those people could be just as unique and fascinating as those in your inner circle. Social Identification According to social identity theory, being part of a group can have a significant impact on the behaviors and identities of those who belong to that group. When people see themselves as belonging to a certain social group, they tend to discriminate or even engage in hostile behavior toward people who are not members of the group. Lack of Knowledge In many cases, people other those that they do not actually know. Lack of personal knowledge and contact with people can lead to assumptions about them. This makes it easier to perceive them as overwhelmingly different or even less human. The causes of othering can be complicated and multifaceted. Factors that play a role in othering include:
  • A lack of education

  • Personal bias

  • Culture

  • Entitlement

  • Economic instability

  • Social influences

  • Generalized beliefs

  • Personal biases

Additionally, media portrayals can also lead to biased beliefs about others who are different from the individual in some way. Othering stems, in part, from our natural tendencies to categorize people in terms of their similarities and differences. The factors that define group boundaries can sometimes be based on physical characteristics (such as race or sex) or based on geography or proximity (nationality or religion), but they can often be quite arbitrary. Robbers Cave Experiment In a series of classic studies conducted by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, researchers found that creating division within a group of similar boys (all white and middle class) could generate tremendous intergroup conflict over even the smallest differences. Known as the Robbers Cave experiment, the study involved 11- and 12-year-old boys attending summer camp who were divided into two groups. When the researchers pitted the two groups against each other in competition, intergroup conflicts and hostilities quickly emerged. Each group perceived the other group as having a host of negative traits while believing their own group possessed positive traits. While group cohesiveness and cooperation improved within each group, the boys became increasingly hostile towards each other. Justifying Past Mistreatment of Others Othering can also arise as a way to justify the past mistreatment of others. For example, if you've treated someone else badly, you might experience feelings of shame or guilt about your behavior. In order to reconcile your belief that you are a good person despite your negative actions toward another person, you might engage in othering as a way to dehumanize the individual. It's a way of distancing yourself from them and reducing your empathy for them. As a result, you're less likely to feel bad about your own behavior. Othering can be a way of thinking some people "deserve what they got," at least in your own mind. This helps people cope with feelings of cognitive dissonance, or the discomfort they may feel when they hold two conflicting beliefs or when their beliefs do not align with their behaviors. Impact Belonging to a social group often brings about a number of benefits, but it can also come with costs. On the positive side, being part of a group can provide friendships, support, care, connection, protection, and identity. On the negative side, it can contribute to things like othering, prejudice, and conflict with those who are outside of the group. Othering can have a dramatic impact on both individuals, social groups, and societies. Exclusion and Discrimination It can result in the marginalization of people who are not part of the dominant social group. People who are part of minority groups may face economic, housing, career, criminal justice, educational, and healthcare disparities. It can lead to discrimination and prejudice against other people. Prejudice is often fueled by the belief that all members of that group are fundamentally different in some way. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of intolerance are often rooted in othering. Othering can harm relationships by driving a wedge between people who are, in actuality, not all that different. By casting people as others, it suggests that their unique characteristics are to blame for existing inequalities. It can also end up reinforcing existing biases, such as negative attitudes about different groups of people. When people internalize these beliefs and attitudes, they can become even more rigid and entrenched. Systemic Discrimination On a societal level, othering can lead to institutional discrimination and even political policies that single out people who are viewed as somehow different or less deserving. Othering is also present in politics. Authoritarian leaders, for example, stoke fear and resentment of "others" in order to gain and solidify support for their political aims. Strategic othering may be used by leaders or political parties to justify certain actions or to invoke public support from people who respond to those fears and anxieties. Consequently, minorities are seen as “enemies” and people can then justify dehumanizing policies. Otherness is often created or exploited with the intention of criticizing and marginalizing other people. This division leads people to believe that acceptance and tolerance are not possible. When these differences seem too great to overcome and when those differences are internalized and become part of an individual's identity, it makes bridging the divide between groups seem insurmountable. This can be particularly harmful because while individual discrimination and bias can be damaging, it is systemic and structural discrimination that can cause the greatest inequality and harm to minority individuals and communities.
 
How to Minimize Othering Othering can lead to serious problems both on an individual and societal level. Using differences as a way to exclude or cast others in the role of “outsiders” not only cuts us off from understanding and empathizing with others, it harms those who are intentionally further marginalized from the dominant culture. The first step toward reducing othering is to learn to recognize it for what it is and then consciously work toward fighting the tendency to take an “us vs. them” perspective.
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