Much of the research tackling questions regarding our shared human identity seems to focus on the infra-humanization and de-humanization of out-group members (Paladino & Vaes, 2009, for example), or how human norms effect our reactions to victims and perpetrators generally and more specifically in the context of historical atrocities (Greenaway & Louis, 2010). While these research programs are vital to understanding “the human element” of inter-group attitudes, I think they ignore an even more elemental phenomenon that I like to call spontaneous human-in-group affiliation (Getty, in progress). While we are hopelessly bound to humanity, people rarely, if ever, name humanity as a salient in-group. In fact, Lickel, Hamilton and Sherman (2001) studied lay theories of groups and found that the abstraction of group extended only as far as loose affiliations of interests (e.g., Coltrane fans). Not once did they suggest that species-level affiliation was seen as a viable in-group. However, studies of de- and infra-humanization showed that strong identifiers from diverse groups report believing that their in-group posses more human-like qualities than out-group members (Castano & Kafta, 2009). What does this mean? It could be that our species-level affiliation is simply a distant, abstract concept concealed in our allegiances to in-groups, but present nonetheless. The question I’m tackling, then, is, when do we shed our lesser in-group identity and spontaneously identify as “human beings” when being human is not a salient self-categorization?
One clue to answering this question might have been revealed in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes and following tsunami that ravaged much of the northeastern coast of Japan. While there is little to report about the details of the disaster that goes above and beyond the facts already reported in the media, there does seem to be an interesting phenomenon that might be related to my concept of spontaneous human-in-group affiliation. If one were to follow the link below to the Web site discussing the disaster they would find at the bottom a number of posts (one of which is mine) from concerned and empathetic people from around the world. Some of these people come from countries that have had historical conflict with and mistrust of Japan (China, for example). Even still, for one reason of another, these folks have been compelled to take the time to write and express their concern for the suffering of others who would normally be out-group members, if not for their human ties. I commented on this observation: “It is amazing how human beings from around the world, despite strong in-group affiliations and histories of conflict with each other, find their humanity in situations of suffering. We find our human in-group and that, I think, is a fragile good that comes from these situations.”
I still have much work to do to answer the question of spontaneous human-in-group affiliation. My own personal good to come from this disaster, however, is a testable hypothesis: Spontaneous human-in-group affiliation occurs in the wake of natural disasters (Getty, now in progress). You will have to wait for the “why” of this hypothesis when the manuscript is done.
In closing, there is little to say other than to express my sincerest empathy for my fellow humans suffering in Japan. I hope those of you who read this, and are able, will join me in following the link below to contribute to the American Red Cross, who is equipped to help those suffering in Japan, or contribute to other charitable organizations that can do the same.