Everyone knows that a common enemy can bring together two groups that are not natural allies. World War II, when the United States and Soviets coordinated in against the Nazis is probably the best and most famous example. Humans are wired for in-group cohesion and out-group nastiness, and the common dislike of an external enemy and US/Soviet example shows how powerful these in-group and out-group responses can be. The phenomenon plays out in massive geopolitical theaters, but also in our every day lives. We quickly identify our in-groups and real or perceived threats by out-groups can drive us into closer bonds and even extend our in-groups.
Elliot Liebow shows how this happened among homeless women in his book Tell Them Who I Am. He writes, “real and perceived abuse by the non-homeless world strongly reinforced group cohesion. Much of the talk in shelters centered on fighting off the negative stereotypes of homeless women and the mindless insensitivity of the citizens at large.” The homeless women Liebow met and studied did not always get along. They didn’t always trust each other, didn’t hold the same beliefs, and came from different backgrounds and ways of life. But their shared homelessness often drew them together despite these differences, because a powerful out-group threatened them.
Liebow wrote about the stares, jeers, and insensitive comments that homeless women had to deal with on a daily basis. The women he met were constantly scared and made to feel weak and insignificant. On the streets the women were alone and hopeless, but when they came together in shelters, they found a community brought about by out-group antagonism reinforcing in-group solidarity that was hard to build among a transient population. The experience and group dynamics of homeless individuals reflects a very interesting and often troublesome reality of human nature. We evolved from small tribal groups, and the instinctual in-group versus out-group analysis that we do whenever we are in social settings is still with us, despite often causing more trouble than we want. Whether we are homeless, part of a metal band, or have a PhD, we cannot escape our in-group and out-group biases. These biases can determine the way we act toward others, and can bring us closer together when threatened. People with homes expressed this out-group nastiness toward the homeless which pushed the homeless together against a common out-group enemy. Their union and community was tenuous and wasn’t natural for many of the women, but the negativity they all experienced created a shared in-group sense for the homeless women and allowed them to bond and share niceties toward each other.