“Us” versus “Them”

Most of the behavior that constitutes what is sometimes called “group dynamics” hinges on our assessment of the people around us as either enemies or friends. 

Reward and threat, the two key circuits in our limbic system largely dictate our behavior around others. We make a snap judgment about each person we encounter and work with. Everyone is basically divided into two camps: “us” and “them.”

Of course, the distinction between “us” and “them” is largely dependent upon how the context is defined. Two rival departments in the same company may normally consider each other as residing in the “them” camp—until they’re both faced with a challenge that affects them equally. Suddenly, the frame of reference shifts and they find themselves working together. 

Clever leaders sometimes use a trick to make their teams trust each other by conjuring up an outside enemy, whether it’s the competition or even a threatening condition such as an economic downturn or an uncertain future. Politicians have been known to do the same thing in an attempt to unify the electorate. By the same token, it can also be helpful to encourage a “them” mind-set in certain situations. While “us” encourages cooperation and trust, “them” can increase motivation and focus.