Last week we discussed the role of contempt, disgust, and anger in violence, but what is the role of group identity and differentiation?
In fact, recent scientific research has focused increasingly on the role of group-level emotions, as opposed to just those of each individual. This can have significant effects in shaping when group members or entire groups engage in violence.
The apprehension of an out-group, for instance, is a major factor in predicting violence. Group members naturally distinguish between in and out-groups, but the precise nature of how they ought to feel for the out group is more challenging. This confusion is fed into by their attempts to reconcile past experiences with that group and often ambiguous expectations within their own group for how the out group should be seen.
One major theory is known as the Infrahumanization Theory. This argues that distinctions between groups lead to a tendency to see one’s in group as more human and one’s out-group as somehow alien. This can generate contempt and disgust for the out-group while still fostering compassion and trust for the in group.
Often, this involves the feeling that other groups are animals, entailing a sense that they are lesser and bestial. Genocidal contexts often see the prevalent use of vermin or pest-themed language as justification, for instance.
So, how do group-level emotions arise? Some argue that the violent predictors of anger, disgust, and contempt stem from group-level feelings that demonized groups have violated group values, such as community or divinity.
Often these emotions can be fostered effectively by stories and narratives that distinguish the groups. These have the pragmatic advantage of being easy to understand and to share, giving group leaders the ability to marshal emotions against an out-group.
Such narratives often focus on the out-group as a sort of oppressor, outside threat, or subversive. In each case, the in-group is portrayed as threatened by domination, conquest, or degradation. Naturally, these narratives may rely on a sense of binary opposition, where the in-group is naturally everything that their enemy is not. If the enemy is evil or insane, the in-group is good and stable.
While this discussion of group-level emotions may seem less than relevant for the context of predicting violence, especially in a domestic violence situation, the context surrounding a potentially violent situation is often important.
For instance, a law enforcement agent in interrogation with a suspected terrorist has to grapple with the terrorist’s potential disgust and contempt, as well as the narratives that are shaping this hostility.
The recognition of group differentials and emotional context can aid us greatly not only in detecting threat but also in reconciling seemingly intractable cultural differences in contentious situations.