Peaking out of the airplane window, I see green trees for miles. A city sits in the distance and in it a former gang member awaits my arrival. As I enter the airport waiting area, Jovel Miranda welcomes me to San Pedro Sula, Honduras with a big grin on his face. I’ve traveled to Central America as an ambassador with MBAs without Borders to assist Jovel and his friends with their fledgling social enterprise that aims to give former gang members a second chance through job training and an honest living.
Jovel is young, passionate and deeply committed to helping his fellow brothers leave the streets. He’s turned his life around, replacing the love he found on the streets with a wife and son. I’m proud of how he’s left a life of violence behind him. However, almost five years after my departure, violence catches up to him. Two current gang members shoot Jovel at close range for having left the gang. Jovel dies minutes later leaving behind his wife and three children, the youngest only 15 days old.
Jovel’s death is a tragic example of the human tendency toward exclusivity and what sociologists call “in-group favoritism.” In 1906, sociologist William Sumner wrote of the human tendency toward forming social groups. He also recognized that humans have a tendency to favor the members of their group. Psychologist Henri Tajfel tested this theory through his famous minimal group paradigm experiments in which he would divide groups at random by trivial criteria (shirt color, preference for a painting, etc.). After a task is completed, group participants have the opportunity to assign a valuable resource (money or points) to all participants. Tajfel and his colleagues found that participants had a significant tendency toward favoring the members of their own group in spite of the fact that the group was assigned at random.
When Jovel joined the Barrio 18 gang as a young man, he was favored as a valuable member of the exclusive group. Jovel was extremely loyal to his fellow brothers and would defend them with all his being, for he had made an oath to Barrio 18. Eventually, Jovel realized he wanted to take his life in a different direction and made the difficult decision to leave Barrio 18 behind. In so doing, he became an outcast and was ultimately killed for betraying the group.
I’ve observed these same exclusive dynamics across the globe. In Costa Rica, there was prejudice against Nicaraguans, many of whom immigrated illegally due to war and economic hardship. Costa Ricans complained about the rise in crime and strain on critical infrastructure like schools and hospitals. In Pakistan and Turkey, Christian churches met in private, for fear of violence from Muslims. In Gaza, Israel bombs homes and Hamas fires rockets. Here in the United States, the news is filled with images of citizens refusing passage to buses filled with illegal immigrants, most of whom are women and children.
Exclusivity & Business
For business, it is good that humans have a tendency to form social groups. Your business is a social group and your vision, mission and values should form the foundation of culture and interaction that define the group. Be aware of the human tendency toward exclusivity. Is management an exclusive club separate from employees? Are suppliers in or out of the group? Is the primary focus on creating value for shareholders with the other stakeholders on the outside?
By nature, communities exclude some. Cities have boundaries. Girl Scouts cater to girls to the exclusion of boys. NY Mets fans exclude NY Yankees fans. Brazilians speak Portuguese. Part of a sense of identity evolves from being exclusive. The challenge comes when we allow our sense of belonging to one group to treat others outside the group inhumanely.
Stanford Prison Experiment
In a famous example exhibiting how easy human beings can mistreat people outside their group, Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo divided twenty-four largely white and middle-class men randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. Over the next few days, the test subjects embraced their new groups. The prisoners revolted and the prison guards dispersed them with fire extinguishers. The guards punished the prisoners with excessive exercise, isolation and even forced some to walk around naked. After only 36 hours, one of the prisoners cracked and had to be removed from the experiment. The researchers noted that one-third of the guards exhibited sadistic tendencies. Zimbardo ultimately aborted the planned two-week experiment after only six days.
Embrace the human need to belong but temper the propensity to exclude your fellow man.
Photo Credit: Joel Montgomery