Us and Them: The Psychology Behind Xenophobia and the Muslim Ban


The Merriam-Wesbter dictionary defines xenophobia as a “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.” The next print edition for the publication will definitely reference Trump’s immigrant and refugee ban as the perfect illustration of xenophobia. The fact that a president could ban an entire religion from distinct countries only promotes xenophobia while also highlighting the intense paranoia that our leader feels of outsiders. So how can somebody become xenophobic to the point of isolating themselves, and our country, from the rest of the world?

Psychology has long researched the idea of xenophobia, especially after tragic events such as the Holocaust and assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The recent political climate has again stirred interest in nationwide prejudice, bringing evidence back into the spotlight as to how xenophobia can override common sense and logic. Here are some common discussions surrounding the psychology behind xenophobia:

We Have to Look Back to Look Forward

Sorry Christians, but humans did not appear on Earth in perfect form. We have spent millions of years evolving from common ancestors such as apes. It should come as no surprise that the evolutionary adaptations necessary to survive back in caveman days are still present in our highly evolved brains.

“Us vs. Them” grew from an evolutionary need during our days as apes and humanoid cavemen.

“I think there’s probably a very deep-rooted fear and suspicion of outsiders,” says Michael Wilson, a primatologist at the University of Minnesota.

The scientist, who studies apes for a living, cites behavior in apes as evidence for our hostility to people who belong to other groups. When two groups of apes bump into each other in the wild, it will always end in conflict. According to Wilson, the apes will threaten each other with loud calls, perform aggressive gestures and at times become physically violent.

Remember Harambe? When a little boy fell into the gorilla sanctuary at Cincinnati Zoo he grabbed the boy and began to drag him throughout the moat in the exhibit. Zoo officials reacted immediately to save the boy because they knew how territorial apes are by design. Harambe saw a boy, an outsider, as an immediate threat and dealt with this the only way his brain could let him: through violence. Whether he would actually kill the boy is indeterminable, but evolutionary psychology bets that after interacting with the boy more the violence would escalate.


RIP Harambe

“If they can grab a member of the other community, they may beat on them, bite them, and continue doing so until they’re very severely injured or killed,” says Wilson of apes.

Wilson goes on to say that it makes sense that chimps defend their territories so vigilantly. A bigger territory leads to more food for the group and a better chance for survival.

The idea of protecting one’s territory is one aspect of apes that passed on to early humans. Before the invention of civilizations, humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies where one’s group had to work together for survival. No doubt the early humans had to protect their food and shelter from not just animal predators, but from other groups who would poach food for themselves. The need to protect one’s group, and conversely the hatred of other groups, came from the need to survive, and this would be imprinted in our brains for the rest of time.

We Can Be Prejudiced on the Most Arbitrary of Traits

In a hallmark experiment, schoolteacher Jane Elliott wanted to teach her class what it felt like to be prejudiced against after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Elliott proclaimed to the class that the blue-eyed students were superior to their brown-eyed peers by stating that:

“Blue-eyed people are the better people in this room. Blue-eyed people are smarter than brown-eyed people… this is a fact: blue eyed people are better than brown-eyed people… the blue-eyed people get five extra minutes of recess while the brown-eyed people have to stay in. The brown-eyed people do not get to use the drinking fountain, you’ll have to use paper cups. You brown-eyed people are not to play with the blue-eyed people on the playground because you are not as good as blue eyed people.”


Elliott went on to say that brown-eyed people were to wear collars to identify them more easily (similar to how Jews had to wear stars of David during the Holocaust). When the students were asked to open their books to start a lesson, brown-eyed people were slower to do so. When Ms. Elliott declared that her yard stick was missing, students in the class pointed out that a brown-eyed person probably stole it. The blue-eyed students bullied the brown-eyed students by declaring that they weren’t smart, should be beaten if they disobeyed, and that they don’t deserve seconds at lunch.

The treatment of the brown-eyed children had a demonstrable effect on their own behavior. One student remarked that: “It seemed like when we were down on the bottom everything bad was happening to us. The way they treated you, it felt like you didn’t even want to try to do anything.” The brown-eyed students started to perform worse on phonetic tests, they began hitting the children who called them names and refused to answer questions in class.

To further test how easy it is to create prejudice, Elliott reversed the proclamation, stating that it was actually the brown-eyed children who were better than their blue-eyed counterparts. The results were strikingly similar with now the blue-eyed children performing worse on tests, being picked on, and not wanting to participate in class.

Elliott’s unconventional experiment shows how groups can be formed on the simplest of traits. The children never saw eye color as a basis for discrimination before, but were emboldened by a superior (their teacher) to form these ingroups and outgroups based on eye color.

For the naysayers that believe this is only because they are children, studies have shown that when minorities are presented with an identifying question before a standardized test (i.e. what is your race?) they perform significantly worse than when such a question was absent. In addition, the prejudices that we form in childhood are much harder to get rid of in adulthood, as seen in an earlier post here.

When We Are Fearful, We Think Threats Are Much Closer than They Are

Researchers from New York University conducted three studies on which people were asked to estimate how close immediate threats are to them.

In the first study, fans of the New York Yankees were asked to estimate how far away Fenway Stadium (home of their rivals the Boston Red Sox) is to NYU, and asked the same question to students who did not identify as fans of Derek Jeter’s old team. Researchers found that Yankees fans believed Fenway to be closer than the non-Yankee fans.


In the second study, researchers presented half of participants with information that portrayed Columbia University as threatening to NYU students while the other half received no such information. The students who were given negative information about Columbia rated the university as being physically closer to NYU than the students who did not receive incriminating information.


Finally in the third study, Americans who perceived Mexican immigrants as a threat to the United States estimated New Mexico City as closer to New York City than those who did not perceive a threat.


These studies combined give a clear indication that those who fear outside groups observe a more eminent threat than reality actually imposes. This falls in line with the psychological theory called the representative heuristic.  This states that things that happen in the media are more likely to happen then in normal probability.

This is why people are more afraid to ride in planes than cars: the national media covers more plane crashes than car crashes, making it seem as if they happen more often than in reality. The national news is more likely to cover a shooting or an attack that is committed by a terrorist group than a local American. Take for example the “terrorist” who attacked Ohio State University last year. He did not actually kill anyone, but Trump and other politicians called for more extreme vetting for refugees after. A local shooting carried out by a local citizen may kill five or ten people and only make it to the local news by comparison. The idea that terrorists are all over, as perpetuated by the media, can override comparable statistics saying that it is far more likely to get struck by lightning than to be confronted by a terrorist.


We Are Able to Dehumanize Humans, No Matter How Much They Look Like Us

When critics of Michelle and Barrack Obama lash out at the two dignified leaders calling them apes, it is not just evidence of racism, but of dehumanization. These people do not even see the leaders of our country as human, due to the fact that they are in a different social group.


Dehumanization first appeared in our vocabularies during the Holocaust in which Jews were deprived of their names and given a number instead. Germans stood by Hitler as they no longer saw the Jews as people, neighbors and friends, but as workers indebted to the Reich.

Psychologists have found that dehumanization exists far after Auschwitz closed its doors. Psychologists from Northwestern University have studied dehumanization as recently as 2015. In their paper The Ascent of Man: Theoretical and Empirical Evidence for Blatant Dehumanization, researchers looked into how Americans viewed Americans, Arabs, Canadians, Chinese, European and Muslim groups using their ascent measures.

Unsurprisingly, Europeans, and Japanese were rated as similarly evolved to Americans whereas South Koreans, Chinese, and Mexican Immigrants were rated as significantly less evolved than Americans. Arabs and Muslims were rated as 10.6 and 14.0 points less evolved than Americans respectively.


The researchers then decided to see if dehumanization is more present after tragic world events than when they completed the first study. Three days after the Boston Marathon bombings, the scientists asked participants the same survey questions for two weeks. Not only did Americans still rate Arabs as less evolved, but blatant dehumanization measures increased as well, symbolizing that Americans dehumanized Arabs as less than human more significantly after perceiving a threat.


But Not All Hope Is Lost

The American Psychological Association has published a set of guidelines in response to a conference on racism held at the United Nations. Psychologists break down solutions to solving the problems into two categories: exposing racism’s roots and socializing people for tolerance and peace. The guidelines are as followed:

Exposing racism’s roots:

  • Acknowledge racist practices and urge major institutions to fight them.
  • Establish institutes on racial equity and mental health promotion.
  • Eliminate racist bias in research.
  • Reduce racism-related physical and mental health disparities
  • Conduct more research on perpetrators

Socializing people for tolerance and peace:

  • Collect statistical data on race that takes into account “economic and social indicators, including…mental and physical health care” to help close social and economic gaps
  • Bolster measures “to fulfill the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” by working to eliminate racism-induced health disparities.
  • Promote fair treatment and respect for migrants, refugees and indigenous peoples.
  • Increase tolerance and diversity
  • Stop trafficking of women and children
  • End racial profiling and discrimination on the part of law enforcement and government officials
  • Fight xenophobia, gender and racial discrimination and other forms of intolerance


If we can change our society to enforce these rules, if we can learn to have empathy for other groups, if we can learn to look at correct statistics instead of relying on emotions and lies, then the road to eliminating xenophobia will be far less bumpy. We have to start seeing the refugees and immigrants as actual people, as someone’s parent, child, friend, and not as just people from the other side of the world, even if our leader is incapable of doing such. America was built as a nation of immigrants, someone taking a chance on our ancestors, and we have to do to same. These are actual people, not hypothetical  “what ifs” on a psychology study.

7 thoughts on “Us and Them: The Psychology Behind Xenophobia and the Muslim Ban

  1. Pingback: Us and Them: The Psychology Behind Xenophobia and the Muslim Ban – Art, Poetry, Insight ~ K A M

  2. Pingback: Blog-aholic Award! | Present Minded

  3. Pingback: How Liberals and the GOP Can See Eye to Eye: The Art of Political Persuasion | Present Minded

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