Posted on 7/15/2014

A study published recently by psychologists at Yale University revealed the remarkable degree of genetic similarities among friends. The authors of the study concluded that the typical degree of genetic similarity among friends is equivalent to cousins. This study demonstrates just one of the many ways that we tend that of 4th to seek out people who are similar to us, even if we are unaware of doing so.

But this study makes me think of something else as well. It reminds me of the way that in an honor culture, people tend to think of their friends and other members of important “ingroups” as if they were family. The Yale study suggests that this sense of your friends being “just like family” is not just like a metaphor (or, I suppose, a simile; it’s not just like one of those). 

I experienced this just-like-family sentiment recently while visiting the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. I had the privilege of observing a class for new cadets taught by older cadets. This particular lesson I got to observe was on sacrifice in the performance of one’s duty, and it was taught by a young woman who had recently lost her husband, who had been deployed in Afghanistan. He had been killed by a suicide bomber just days before he was supposed to return home from the theater of war, and listening to her speak about her loss was difficult. There were not many dry eyes in the room by the end. One thing she said to the young cadets, almost in passing, that caught my attention was, “You all are my family now.” It seemed pretty clear that she meant it, too. Her fellow soldiers had supported her through the first 6 months of her loss in the same way that a person’s actual brothers, sisters, and parents normally would. Her words were moving in part because of her earnest authenticity as she spoke them. Her fellow cadets were just like family to her.

Why is this sentiment important? I think it’s probably important for several reasons, but I want to focus on only one of them here. Recent studies have shown that when people feel this family-like sense of identification with members of their groups (some, like social psychologist Bill Swann, refer to this sense as “identity fusion”), they are more willing to die for those group members. And that willingness can tell us a lot about people who are members of extremist groups and why they seem so willing to kill themselves for their groups’ causes (like the suicide bomber who had killed the young soldier’s husband). When leaders of these groups are successful at helping their members experience this identity fusion with the group, the group’s well-being, reputation, status, and honor become theirs. Likewise, if the group’s well-being, reputation, status, or honor is threatened, it’s just like their own well-being, etc., has been threatened. And as we know from many other studies, some of them detailed in previous blog posts here, when someone from an honor culture experiences this kind of threat, they have a tendency to react with violence, even when that violence puts their own lives at risk. 

Understanding this process and identifying how far along in this process a person is might help us to predict how likely it is that such a person has been radicalized to the extent that he or she is truly dangerous. It might also enable us to devise ways of counter-acting the influence of extremist group leaders, either preventing identity fusion before it occurs, or undoing it after the fact. There are groups, and individuals, worth dying for, and there are people in our lives, if we are lucky, who really are just like family. Unscrupulous people who co-opt the power of cultural norms to manipulate us into feeling this way to advance their own agendas, and not for our welfare, must be guarded against and resisted, but such resistance begins with knowledge.