Those of us who pay even a little bit of attention to the news would probably agree that today, the world is intensely polarised.
Yet despite the feeling that global conflict is all that rolls across our newsfeeds, this collective despair is a gross misreading of the situation, and it could even be perpetuating our divisiveness.
A massive new study suggests that what unites humans is actually stronger than what divides us – we simply have to look for the similarities.
To date, the vast majority of social research has focused on the exact opposite. In fact, over 90 percent of published psychology findings describe the differences between us, while often completely neglecting the stronger and important similarities.
It’s all too easy for the media, politicians and religious leaders to jump on these divisive narratives, perpetuating the idea of ‘us and them’ amongst their readers and followers.
But this is a lazy and inaccurate lens through which we observe the world. After all, as the authors point out, a significant difference between two groups “is not diagnostic of low similarity.”
Drawing on data from over 60 countries and 140,000 people, psychologists at the University of Bath have tried to put an end to this myopic view of humanity.
By developing a new form of analysis, the team assessed the moral beliefs, attitudes and values of people with different nationalities, religions, ages, genders, incomes and educations.
The idea was to get participants to rate how accurately a description fit another group of people in comparison to themselves. The questionnaire included statements such as “Adventure and taking risks are important to this person; to have an exciting life” and “It is important to this person to be rich; to have a lot of money and expensive things”.
It turns out that not only are humans 99.9 percent identical in their genetic makeup, we are also remarkably alike in our attitudes and values. In fact, the authors conclude that, on average, the amount of similarity between any two groups was greater than 90 percent.
“This work shows that highlighting these differences at the expense of noting much larger similarities leads people to misinterpret findings and may exacerbate prejudices,” says co-author Greg Maio, a psychologist who researches social-cognitive behaviour, values and attitudes at the University of Bath.
“We hope future work will show that the more balanced approach to describing research findings is useful for addressing the growing polarisation, arrogance and often closed-minded interpretations in modern debate.”
On average, the researchers found that women and men shared similar responses 95 percent of the time. And when the authors asked individuals from seven religious denominations about 22 different topics, those surveyed gave similar responses 91 percent of the time.
Even people with conflicting nationalities are more alike than they are different. On average, the authors found that 80 percent of responses from one nation were mirrored by those from another.
In the United Kingdom, this is a particularly important point. In many ways, the Brexit referendum was fuelled by a fear of immigrants, a reluctance to accept what many saw as an outside group that was simply too alien to belong.
Polish people are the largest immigrant group living in the UK, and around 25 percent of British people have less than favourable attitudes towards these perceived ‘outsiders’.
Truthfully, however, there isn’t much to distinguish between these two groups. Across numerous social values, including security, loyalty, success and broadmindedness, the researchers found a massive overlap between Polish people and British people.
So even though our perception of difference between these two particular groups is around 70 percent, the reality is only about 12 percent.
This isn’t to say that differences don’t matter. The authors are merely pointing out that adding information about the similarities is equally important if we want to arrive at a more balanced and intuitive understanding of humanity.
“There is an important message for politicians, fellow academics and media commentators,” says lead author Paul Hanel, an expert in cross-cultural values at the University of Bath.
“When we talk about the reality, over people’s perceptions or prejudices, and instead highlight the similarities we see, we will bolster social cohesion too.”
The authors hope that their research will reassure people everywhere that the world doesn’t look as grim as we’ve been led to think.
This study has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.