The We-They Fallacy


Father and Mother, and Me,
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But-would you believe it? – They look upon We
As only a sort of They!
All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

Rudyard Kipling

Call it empathy, call it compassion, call it warmth. Call it what you want, but if there’s one thing we all need to learn, it’s perspective taking.

Too often we fall in the trap of thinking that a certain group is us, and everyone else is they. Too often we think that if we can’t find something we have in common with the other person, they “don’t belong with us,” they’re wrong, we don’t have to make an effort to get to know them because, hey, “they’re weird.”

Not nearly as extreme as that is when we find a disagreement. It’s entirely too easy to think we hold the reason and fall into the trap of trying to convince someone of our point of view instead of having a dialogue with them, instead of trying to understand why they think like they do.

And what about “They?” Chances are they’re looking at us in the same way we look at them, as another “they.” We’re the weird ones, we’re the ones who don’t belong, we’re the ones with a different mindset.

I’ve already briefly touched on the topic of deconstructing stereotypes on the blog and as someone who lives abroad and is for all intents and purposes immersed in the culture—to the point that if I don’t say I’m a foreigner, most people assume I’m a local—this is something I have to keep an eye out for more than most people who are still living in their home countries. In this case, although the problem doesn’t lie in stereotypes, it certainly lies in how our brains work.

System 1 and system 2

e837b80b20f1053ecd0b470de7444e90fe76e6d31db0164494f3c3_640_brainIn his worldly renowned book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman argues that our brains are composed of two systems, what he calls system 1 and system 2. Each system is called into action in different situations and they both work in conjunction to make going through our lives an easier experience. The problem is, those systems as well as our biology evolved thousands, if not millions of years ago, so to say that they’re outdated is an understatement.

To put it in context, system 1 is mostly used for split-second decisions. It triggers our fight or flight response, tells us if someone is a friend or foe. While that system was certainly very useful thousands of years ago, I’d bet that most of us don’t often find ourselves in life or death situations; we’re, for the most part, removed from the natural dangers and predators of this world. Nowadays, this system is what causes us to make impulse purchases, to recognize when “something is off,” and of course, is responsible for first impressions. As Malcolm Gladwell puts it in Blink:

“We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.”
― Malcolm Gladwell, Blink

Those explanations we come up with are nothing more than gut feelings, a little nudge in our heads telling us that something is wrong (or right). In most cases, system 1 is perfectly fine and does the job wonderfully. It makes sure that we can go about our lives without spending too many mental resources when the situations fall within a set of parameters we’ve subconsciously established throughout our lives.

And when that’s not enough, we have system 2.

System 2 is the rational older brother. He makes sure we’re saving for retirement, choosing the right college and career, buying the right house, and if employed correctly even second questioning system 1’s decisions.

The problem is that system 2 uses mental resources. Resources we, as humans, have learned to save as much as we can of so that we can use our energy for more important things like staying alive in the wild. Most of us can think back to an afternoon in which we spent hours in front of our computers trying to solve a (*cough* math *cough*) problem. Afterwards, we felt drained and couldn’t bring ourselves to do much more. The more intense and complex the task, the less we can let our natural inclinations guide us and the more mental resources we have to allocate to system 2.

This is both good and bad news. On the one hand, it means that we can override our natural and even biological inclinations. On the other, it means that we have much less control than we think.

The groups we make

e837b10e2ff4013ecd0b470de7444e90fe76e6d31db0164497f6c0_640_separationTo put it simply, the reason why humans make groups in their heads, why they put everyone in a single basket and hope it’s accurate enough, is because it was necessary at one point in our ancestor’s lives. Back in the day, those who weren’t in our tribe were likely to be our rivals, competing for the same scarce resources we were, and since humans have this extraordinary thing called compassion, something was necessary to override that.

In seeing them as strangers, as other people who don’t understand us and have strange habits and ways, we effectively turned off our compassion and could not only fight for food, but also take all of the spoils when we emerged victorious. People who were most effective at doing that got to stay alive and those who stayed alive the longest, spread their genes more. Survival of the fittest, evolution of the fittest.

Even nowadays, there’s an infinite amount of information going on at the same time and stereotypes are downright necessary, as our minds can’t possibly work through all of that. We would be spent after taking a walk to the supermarket and not able to do anything for the rest of the day.

So we observe a few factors that a group of people have in common and extrapolate our experience with one or two of the group to everyone else.

We come across a group of Brazilians who is loud and obnoxious and assume that everyone from the entire country must be that. We come across two bookish psychology students and all of a sudden, all psychology students are bookish.

Anyone who stops to think for even just a little bit will see how ridiculous such assumptions are. We can’t possibly assume something about a whole group of people just by our experiences with one or two of them, and yet we do. And yet even people who claim to be free from stereotypes still does.

And yet I, who am Brazilian, still assume that if someone is Brazilian, he’ll be loud and obnoxious, despite the fact that I’m quite quiet myself.

A group of Harvard scholars developed what they call “implicit association test,” which is designed to detect how strongly someone associates concepts in memory. One of the many uses of the test is, to put it bluntly, seeing how racist and prone to stereotypes we are.1 What the researchers found was that—to use one of the many examples—even black people are less likely to associates “pleasant” things with words like “black” and “dark.”

But this article isn’t meant to criticize society. There’s a lot I think could be changed in the way society works, but sitting in our chairs going on and on about how it’s wrong and the world is unfair doesn’t really bring us any closer to changing anything.

This post is about changing our behavior so that we can be sure we aren’t falling prey to our natural inclinations.

Seeing Them as Us

Before we move on, though, it’s important to make one thing very clear: no matter how hard we try, we are still fighting against our biology and natural inclinations. No matter how strongly we believe we should make an effort to see everyone for who they truly are, we’ll fail, and we’ll fail constantly.

With that warning I hope two things: Firstly, that we don’t get down on ourselves when we see ourselves falling prey to the same generalizations we’re trying to avoid. Secondly—and what is most important—that we don’t find ourselves judging others or giving them a hard time when we see other people falling prey to the fallacy; that we know it’s biological and we have to be intentional about seeing others fairly.

So before anything else, let’s have compassion for others and level our judgements down instead of preaching from a pedestal we’re building for ourselves. Let’s understand that we’re all in this together, and we’ll have taken the first step.

After we’ve accepted that the actions of others are not under our control, we can get started.

The way to see others as us isn’t any more complicated than developing empathy. It’s not harder than trying to understand their struggles, dreams and hopes, than trying to understand why they have a particular point of view.

It’s simple in essence, but incredibly difficult to apply. Giving every single person a chance? You probably won’t manage that. Nobody will.

So we prioritize.

This might stand at odds with what I’ve been saying so far, but in reality it’s not. We know we don’t have enough mental resources to feel compassion and love for every single person who passes us on the street. But we can make a point to turn our offices, homes, universities and schools more welcoming.

Perhaps we have always had a problem with a certain coworker whom we always disagree with. No matter what they say, their perspective always seems to be wrong.

We go ahead and ask them about it. We investigate and let them talk for a while. Let go of our opinion and see if what they’re saying makes sense. If it doesn’t for us, let’s try to understand how it can make sense for them. Why they have the views they have in the first place. Make it a point to consider every part of the equation and you might find the solution is less black and white than you thought. Maybe you’ll change your mind, but that’s not what this is about.

Getting on Their team

e837b8092cfd023ecd0b470de7444e90fe76e6d31db0164496f8c9_1280_handshakeThis last section is inspired on the book No One Understands You and What to Do About It.

Although difficult, it’s certainly possible to rectify a wrong first impression someone made of us, but we’ll have to sweat.

Every possible strategy to make your perceiver change their opinion of you involves getting them out of the system 1 and into the system 2 of thinking.2 When engaged with system 2, the perceiver will be more likely to not take what you’ve done or said at face value and analyze your motivations behind those acts.3

According to Heidi Grant, there are two main possible ways to get someone to review their opinion of you: bombarding them with overwhelming evidence or making them want to review their opinion of us.

The first option is my personal favorite, because on top of it achieving the desired result (their opinion will probably change), you’ll probably also be developing healthy habits in the process.

Here’s how it works: say your boss thinks you’re lazy and never on time. Most people would think that simply arriving on time a certain amount of times would be enough for him, but that’s wrong. When his mind is made that you are indeed lazy and irresponsible, simply arriving on time won’t suffice. You’ll have to arrive earlier. Much earlier. Instead of simply arriving on time, you’ll arrive half an hour, one hour earlier. This behavior will most likely nudge your superiors into system 2.

If you have the reputation of being stingy with money, simply bringing your coworker coffee a few times a week is probably not gonna be enough. If, however, you decide to buy pizza for the whole office a few times, people will probably start seeing you differently.

This evidence of the contraire can’t happen only once. Instead it has to happen over and over again and be consistent. To put it simply, it has to be the “new you.” If you arrive one hour earlier once and then keep arriving on time or later, nothing’s gonna change. If you buy the whole office pizza once and next week keep refusing to lend someone a few euros, nothing’s gonna change.

Well what if we don’t have six months to make someone change their mind?

We’ll have to force them to review their opinion.

Just about everyone will tell you that they’re committed to fairness, and they do mean it. However, we’ve seen how difficult it is to keep those things our priorities. Fortunately for us, there’s a very easy way to influence others to do that: asking them.

Once someone commits to fairness, their biases will be inhibited, almost like magic.4 In a way, simply by talking to someone about it, you’re stopping them from staying in system 1 and engaging system 2 directly.

Of course no matter how committed we all are to the goal of being fair, it’s not the most important thing in our minds all the time. Likewise for our perceivers. But there are several ways to influence that.

A very simple one is to compliment them on their fairness, keen perception, or unbiased assessment when perceiving others. If you don’t know the person well enough, you can simply suggest that this is an important skill to have. In a way you’ll be doing nothing more than reminding the person of its importance and giving system 2 a little push.

An even more effective way, however, is to ask someone of a time when they made a mistake in judgement. Ask them about when they held their belongings with care when walking across a black person, for example, and people will be tempted to redeem themselves by overcompensating as soon as they’re reminded of that. That’s called compensatory cognition.5

But you don’t wanna go up to someone and ask them those questions, they’re very likely to get defensive and close themselves off. Instead, you can share a story of when you had a similar problem—we all have a handful of those—and only then you ask them if they relate to that in any way.


Being welcoming of others is something we all struggle with daily, and I can’t overstate its importance. I had and still have more difficulty than almost everyone I know (or is that perhaps another fallacy?), but researching for this post and reading these books helped me tremendously.

It seems to be the case with every single post going up on the website; it’s never a matter of reading an article that makes everything click. It’s always a progression, and many times it’s much slower than we’d like. The good thing, though, is that we get better by the day and there’s no failure as long as we don’t give up.

I’m committed to becoming fairer in my judgement of others. Are you?

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  2. Heidi Grant, the author of the book, refers to them as phases 1 and 2 of perception.
  3. Even that isn’t a guarantee, you can’t force someone to do any of that.

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