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Friend or foe? How quickly and how drastically can the definition of friend or foe change?


Christmas Eve, December 1914
World War 1 had raged for several months (and will go on for almost 4 more years after).

Along the French and Belgian borders, German and British soldiers got up and greeted each other with the daily pleasantries - bullets and grenades. But with no end to the war in sight, and with the first Chrismas of the war upcoming, both sides called for a temporary ceasefire, which would also allow men on both sides to collect and clear the bodies of the deceased in No Man's Zone. 

And then something amazing happened. In certain areas, the men who had been trying to kill each other just hours before began to mingle. They helped each other as they cleared the bodies. And even though they spoke different languages, they started to exchange greetings and even the meagre food packs they each had. That night, they held joint burial ceremonies of their comrades killed by the men beside them, singing Christmas carols in different languages. By the next day, one of the most memorable images of the war emerged - the men from both sides were playing football with one another. Some even shared addresses, so that they could write or even visit each other after the war, provided they hadn't killed each other. 

This truce only ended because generals on both sides realised that part of their armies had become too friendly with one another, and cracked down on discipline to remind them that: hey fellas, you're in the very first world war, you're supposed to be killing each other. In 1915, there were fewer occurrences of ceasefires - leaders on both sides were wary of what happened in 1914. By 1916, soldiers no longer had any desire to mingle - the war had gotten increasingly bitter with devastating losses to both sides,


This is a very apt example of how our brain works.

We meet many people in life, and it would be very taxing to evaluate each person individually. To cope, we have developed as a species to quickly categorise people based on simple heuristics. The categories that we pick can be innocuous enough - male or female, young or old, Asian or Caucasian, creative or meticulous; but for each of us, depending on the people we have met and our impressions of them, different categories could carry underlying bias or judgement. 


In particular, some categories carry an additional emotional element. An example of this is people who, in some way or form, violate the norms that we are comfortable with. Someone who has a different skin colour and practice different rituals, someone who has a different political ideology, someone from a different religion, someone who supports the rival sports team. These are people whom we consider not to be one of "us", they are one of "them". 

What happens when we meet people who are one of "them"? Our amygdala - the region of the brain responsible for fear, anger, anxiety, and aggression lights up. Our insula cortex, responsible for moral disgust triggers. We view them more harshly and exaggerate their flaws (while we are more forgiving of the flaws of one of "us"). We are more anti-social and punitive against "them". We carry significantly less empathy or them. And we see examples of this in our daily lives. In partisan politics, where everyone on the other side is a moron. In religion, where some religions are terrorists and some are paedophiles. In sports, where fans from the other side are boorish or hooligans.


But as this example shows, the categorisation of who is "us" and "them" happens very quickly at the expense of accuracy. Why should this other person be a "them"? Once we consciously review our categorisation, we will realise that for many cases, we over-generalised. After getting to know friends from a different race, they are not the crazy backward folks we thought they were. Those who support a different political party just have a different set of concerns. 


Even in this case, in the most brutal of circumstances,  "them" can turn so quickly into "us", with the realisation that even while trying to kill each other, soldiers have a lot in common. They fight for the same cause - their country and their families. They have to follow orders. They risk their lives for what they believe. They are all dirty and tired. They are not so different. 

"Us" vs "them" is prevalent across human history - whether it is nationalism, bipartisan politics, or racism. To reduce conflicts, we often appeal to a higher sense of morality and values - of equality and fairness and freedom of belief. Unsurprisingly, this hasn't worked. 

Which is why this page constantly advocates for a better understanding of the human brain and human behaviour. Because it is only through a deeper understanding that we can effect change, that it is not through higher-order values that we change behaviour, but through the common and ordinary things we share with others. 

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