My field of expertise is in industrial and organizational psychology. Basically, I study the science of group behavior at the micro (small and local, in a defined setting like a workplace) and macro (large group dynamics; systemic trends and behavior) levels.
This article is going to pluck at some painful nostalgia to look at a phenomenon that happens in many microcosms, and I’m going to use an example that may be unfortunately familiar to many of you.
If you grew up in the 80s (or earlier), you probably had that one guy in your neighborhood who was different. He might never have been married, might not go out much, and his mannerisms were just a little different. “Off.”
These differences were things that might be considered normal, or maybe not even noticed now, but in your childhood neighborhood, they were a big deal.
Then, the rumors started. Likely, someone conjectured that this man was gay. In the 80s, this was something that was not accepted, especially if you lived in the Bible belt or in a rural area.
Neighborhood kids would tell wild stories about him. They looked in his window and saw him doing something weird, or his smile and nod became that he “winked” or motioned for them to come inside. If he walked his dog, and that’s all people saw, then rumors might start about the nature of his relationship with his pet.
Eventually, the adults started to grow suspicious. They told their kids to keep a distance, asked their friends if they’d noticed anything strange, and perceptions about this person being dangerous began to be more realized.
This might have started with the bored gossip types who live for the drama of a good secret to share, but eventually, the most reasonable and logical members of the community were sharing the concern. If he lost weight or had a change in appearance, or made frequent trips to the doctor, it was a sign that he had HIV/AIDS.
Some of the more aggressive neighbors, maybe teens, threw a rock through a window one day, or keyed his car, or spray painted “pervert” on his house one day. Eventually, he was physically attacked– or worse— or he moved.
Compare and Contrast
If you have played a role in a similar story, you’re probably thinking about it now. Maybe it wasn’t a man in the neighborhood, but a kid in your class. Maybe it was someone who worked with you at your old job. Maybe it was the loner in high school who got pegged as a potential school shooter.
Maybe it wasn’t that they were a “pervert,” but they were a thief, or they hurt animals, or they stared too much, or they were “creepy,” or they were a liar– maybe you can’t even remember what started it, but everyone seemed to be in agreement that this person was a threat and deserved the way they were treated.
Whatever it was, on reflection, you are now probably doubting that person really deserved to be treated that way. You’re thinking of their life circumstances, and you’re applying the things you know now and realizing maybe they had a disability or they were just really poor. Maybe racism or xenophobia or religious discrimination played a role.
But here are the two things that all of these stories will have in common:
-not many friends
-were different from the majority of people around them
Older and Wiser
If that happened, and you played a part in it, you might think you’ve grown older and wiser and are now a lot more worldly and tolerant of differences, but the same phenomenon happens at all academic, socioeconomic, and status levels.
A good example of a more sophisticated scenario of the same phenomenon is when a career politician is accused of some social ill– racism, of violating someone’s consent and being too handsy, or of corruption.
Whether or not there is truth to those allegations, and even if they are proven to be completely false, the perception that many people felt about that person will be forever negative. It’s likely that those who hold that negative perception will even reject undeniable proof of the person’s innocence.
And, the strategists who steer political campaigns use this to their advantage. Millions are spent every election cycle hiring consultants like me to figure out how to mitigate rumors and even how to perpetuate them against an opponent.
The more “normal” someone is, the less likely it is that rumors about them will harm their reputation. If they are male, white, handsome, and wealthy, they can get away with just about anything as far as their voter base is concerned.
Why does this happen?
People make automatic judgements, and what they feel most familiar and comfortable with in other people is generally what causes them to feel that someone is “safe.”
Despite your level of tolerance and your goodwill towards someone who is different, you likely still hold unconscious biases that cloud your ability to think objectively about them.
You may feel very warmly about a postal worker, co-worker, or fellow mother from your child’s sports team or girl scout troop, even if this person is from a different race, ethnicity, or religion.
And if you have same-age children, you might have no problem with them going to the other child’s birthday party; however, if that party is a slumber party, you might feel hesitant. If that happens, you will have to confront a bias.
Social Processing of Bias
You might not want to admit to yourself, and certainly wouldn’t be willing to admit to others, that you aren’t letting your child stay over at someone else’s house because they have a parent or parents who are of a different race, or religion, or sexuality, or gender expression.
So what do you do? You– consciously or subconsciously– come up with a reason to say no that doesn’t make you seem like a bigot. You might call a friend and with a– again, conscious or subconscious– tone in your voice, ask, “What do you think about [name]’s parents?” Of course, you will select a friend likely to share your same biases and who won’t admit them out loud.
Your subtle tone signals the friend that you are suspicious, and the friend wants to validate you. So, they are likely to respond with, “I have an uncomfortable feeling about them.” You are relieved. You were right to hesitate, you tell yourself. As you go on in the conversation, you start discussing things that caused you to have this discomfort.
You may ask someone else, and your friend may ask someone else, and eventually– the people you ask are going to say, “You know, you’re not the first person who has asked me that.” Alone, that statement is validating suspicion. Eventually, it becomes the norm to scour their social media posts to look for clues that they’re not to be trusted. That something is “off.”
Once someone is bold enough to engage in confrontation, it puts the perceived offender in the “drunkard’s dilemma.” If anyone is accused of being an alcoholic, their defense against that charge is going to sound like the same messaging an alcoholic would use. They merely dig themselves deeper and confirm what others already believed. They have been put in a lose-lose situation that only gets worse from there.
Of course, this is just one example and it doesn’t always play out exactly the same way… but the path and the end results are usually the same.
This urge to bond with the familiar and to protect against the different is not unique to humans. In fact, most species follow similar patterns. Ducks and chickens will literally peck the most different among them to death, isolate them from food sources, and shield their young from them.
Humans aren’t that evolved. If someone becomes closely familiar with people from different demographics, their comfort level rises naturally, but it’s nearly impossible to override the instinct to peck at someone who is different until they do lash out, or isolate, or go away.
This difference may be based on a “hunch,” and that hunch might be subconsciously reading differences in facial features, body language, tone, and syntax (the way someone arranges words when they write or speak).
We, as humans, also don’t naturally relax around someone who is different until we develop familiarity with them. We are afraid that we don’t know the “rules” of how to interact with those differences, so we are anxious. This anxiety gets interpreted as a “hunch” to fear those whose customs and behaviors– even if subtle– don’t match our own.
One cousin of mine was a hard rock drummer and guitar player in my rural childhood town. There was an era when people were saying that “satan worshippers” were abducting children to perform sacrifices. Despite the fact that there was no evidence of this, everyone was told what to watch out for.
My cousin was a victim of these rumors. At one point, there was even a rumor that he turned into a demonic insect creature. People definitely accused him of trying to lure children into his van, despite the fact that no one in his family had a van and he didn’t even have a driver’s license. It seems laughable now, but it wasn’t at the time.
Have you thought of one, two, or many people in your past whom you may have contributed to them being shunned, misrepresented, and even bullied? Did you laugh at jokes about them in school as children, or even in professional settings as adults? Did you judge someone based on rumors about how they were horrible? Did you participate in active bullying?
I will be candid with you and tell you, with much regret, I have been guilty of some of this. At the very least, I am guilty of not doing anything to intervene. Sometimes, it seemed harmless to just laugh along, and other times I was convinced that the person we had all decided was “bad” was really a threat.
I made jokes about the man in my neighborhood. He was gay, at least that’s what people said, and apparently that was wrong and dangerous and sinful. I was raised to believe those things, and it would take me years to unpack those biases.
I laughed about the rumors of the “slutty” girl in 7th grade who missed school because she allegedly had to go to the hospital because of a masturbation accident. Eventually, everyone just called anything that was promiscuous a “Heather.”
Heather dropped out of school at age 16. When I went off to college, she was struggling with addiction issues. I didn’t really think about her at all until I learned that she made a failed public suicide attempt while I was in my first year as a teacher.
There was a boy who went to our school who was often bullied. I don’t think I contributed much, but looking back, I believe he had intellectual disability or learning disabilities. I think the only real offense he ever committed was being “annoying.”
How to Stop Group-Fed Suspicion
Being consciously aware of this trend is the first step in stopping these harmful patterns. Before you jump on a bandwagon with your closest, most trust friends to shut someone out or even actively harm them, ask the hard questions.
- Is there proof that this person did something wrong?
- May I see this proof?
- Am I holding someone to a higher standard of perfection than I hold myself or people who are close to me?
- Could this person be reacting to the valid perception that everyone dislikes them? Are they behaving differently because they sense many people are actively rooting for them to fail or make mistakes?
- If this person has made mistakes, are they unforgivable? Did they try to make amends?
- Is it possible that race, sexism, queerphobia, or other forms of bias could be at the core of what started the suspicion around someone?
- Could atypical responses and behaviors be a result of an invisible disability like a mental illness, cognitive disability, or neurodivergence (ADHD, autism, Tourette Syndrome, etc.)?
- Have other people been guilty of much worse, but I’ve been able to see past it?
- Are my friends prejudiced against people who are different?
- Did this person have a lot of friends?
Once you’ve sat with those questions, then you will have a better idea about whether or not you’ve been fair. Sometimes, people are actually dangerous. Sometimes, there are valid reasons to be afraid of someone or to withhold your trust. But many times, we have subconsciously created a way to justify being uncomfortable with difference.
The reason we suspect those who have no (or few) friends is because we assume that there must be a good reason. We know there won’t be pushback from our familiar groups when we decide we have a good reason not to trust them.
What feels like validating a friend’s feelings may actually be contributing to ruining an innocent person’s life. We can stop it by not withholding our friendship from people who are different unless we have evidence that we should. We should be mindful of how our questions and whispered thoughts might contribute to a vicious cycle.
We also need to teach our children that this happens, and how to avoid being a part of it. It’s not healthy to guilt children into being friends with people they aren’t naturally inclined to befriend, but children should all be taught about how prejudices and “popularity” can cause an innocent person to be a victim.
You can save someone from the fate of becoming a threat by merely being a friend.