When grey matter and grey matters collide

Kevin Dutton on his new book Black and White Thinking – The Burden of a Binary Brain in a Complex World.

Noel Gallagher on his brother and former Oasis bandmate Liam: "he's a man with a fork in a world of soup".

Are you in or out?

Fifty years ago, the British social psychologist Henri Tajfel conducted an experiment that tells us an awful lot about the way the world is going at the moment. Tajfel presented a bunch of students from a comprehensive school in Bristol with an array of dots on a computer monitor.  

“How many dots do you see on the screen in front of you?” he asked them. Because there were quite a few, and they didn’t have much time, the students had no choice but to come up with ballpark, spur-of-the-moment figures – fleeting, stab-in-the-dark guesses that enabled Tajfel to divide them up into two ‘minimal groups’. ‘Over-estimators’ and ‘under-estimators’. 

After a period of time in which the newly formed, and completely arbitrary, in-groups had had time to bed in, Tajfel set both sets of members a task. Each had to decide the proportions by which a sum of money should be distributed between them: how much should be allocated to members of their own group and how much to those of the other group. 

The results left little to the imagination. The student benefactors became significantly more generous when apportioning funds to in-group as opposed to out-group members. 

‘Us’ and ‘them’ had quite literally sprung up out of nothing.

If Henri Tajfel had lived to see the Brexit debate I’m sure he’d have had something to say about it. Whichever world we inhabit – social, conceptual or physical – we think like light travels: in fast, straight lines. Our tribal instinct, the part of our brain that hives ‘them’ off from ‘us’ and radicalizes ‘we’, has a relatively abbreviated history dating back no further than six million years. 

But our insatiable appetite for pigeonholing – our ‘categorization instinct’ – is as old as the Precambrian hills.

Seeing red

Back in the early forties, the British biologist David Lack conducted an in-depth study of the behaviour of the English Robin (Erithacus rubecula). Once a robin had established its territory, Lack observed, the sight of an interloper’s red breast invited a furious attack by the incumbent of that territory. 

Using models of robins, Lack demonstrated just how important this red colouration – this ‘releaser’ or ‘sign stimulus’ – is in eliciting aggressive responses, or ‘fixed action patterns’ as the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz, termed them. Dummy young robins with spotted brown breasts were ignored whereas bundles of red feathers tethered to sticks and branches were bombarded. 

Lack’s work is now firmly ensconced in ethology’s Hall of Fame. But behind the all-action headlines lies a subtle, more slow-moving subplot. For these hardwired fixed action patterns to kick in robins must first possess some kind of internal representation as to what red ‘is’. They must have access to a category for ‘red’ separate to access to another category (or categories) that ‘aren’t red’ – in exactly the same way that if we are to avoid major pile-ups on our roads every time we get behind the wheels of our cars we, as drivers and pedestrians, must apportion shelf space for the category ‘red’ in a different part of the electromagnetic library from the sections for ‘amber’ and ‘green’. 

The world itself is a car-crash of incoming data – an informational pile-up that we need to ‘cut up’ to get out of. As with most pileups, it’s easier to deal with once a semblance of order is imposed – and so our brains begin prizing the mangled mesh of continuous, interconnected stimuli into discrete, correspondent chunks. Eyes, noses and mouths become faces. Things that are black, yellow and sting you on the beach become wasps. The indivisible continuum of colour becomes the rainbow. 

We need, as the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once described it, a ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ to help us make sense of reality.

Us and them. 

Red and not red. 

Black and white. 


Humans, then, have a more sophisticated categorization instinct than robins – one that transcends the realm of the perceptual and extends to the echelons of the abstract and conceptual. We have categories not just for ‘red’, ‘amber’ and ‘green’ but also for ‘traffic signals’, ‘pedestrian crossings’, and norms of behaviour associated with driving responsibly – all of which help us to get from A to B. 

That the earliest beginnings of this categorisation instinct originated in the binary approach-avoidance reflexes of Precambrian single-celled life forms, and that it is now immutably installed in robins, humans and pretty much every other living organism in the natural world, is a fair assumption. That it has matured and diversifed, over evolutionary time, into two additional super-categorical binaries – ‘us/them’, when our ancestors first started cohabiting in small groups five million or so years ago, and a sense of the moral, of right and wrong, to keep those groups together – is, I would argue, equally reasonable. 

Which means that when we’re making our minds up – about masks, schools, race, the police, any of the items that are currently in the news - we need to be extremely careful, especially in situations when others are attempting to influence us. Deliver a message that garners support and interest, that motivates recipients to fight for it rather than run from it; construct an argument so that it appeals to notions of partisan attachment or salient in-group identity; formulate a position so that it invokes a code of values, a sense of right or wrong – or, better still, do all three – and irrespective of whether you really are right or wrong people will sit up and take notice.

You will become a supersuader.

A non-Trump, non-Brexit, non-Covid related example (cue collective sigh of relief). Sixty-thousand members of the great British public worked on the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics but not one of them spilled the beans as to the contents of the show.  


No one knows for sure, but a clue might lie in something that the director, Danny Boyle, did on Day One. Boyle called everyone together and asked them not to ‘keep it a secret’ but rather not to ‘spoil the surprise’. 

An irrelevant, hair-splitting detail? On first impressions, perhaps. But, on closer inspection, this preliminary convocation bears all the psychological hallmarks of dazzling persuasion genius.

Here’s how it works – the rumbling evolutionary engine under the gleaming influence bonnet – based on our three ancestral super-categories: 

Fight versus Flight – Resist the urge to let the cat out of the bag! Everyone likes sharing secrets, right? But no one likes spoiling a surprise.

Us versus Them – We are the privileged few. The cognoscenti! Let’s keep this to ourselves until the final reveal, eh?

Right versus Wrong – Imagine how you’d feel knowing that something you let slip ruined everyone’s big day.

Just that simple change of word, just a simple shift in category, made all the difference.

Fight versus Flight. Us versus Them. Right versus Wrong.

The three dichotomous releasers, the three evolutionary sign stimuli of cultural, political and interpersonal influence.

Noel may refer to Liam as "a man with a fork in a world of soup". But he could just as easily be talking about the rest of us.

- Dr Kevin Dutton is an Oxford-based Research Psychologist and co-founder of Oxford Elite Performance.  

Black and White Thinking – The Burden of a Binary Brain in a Complex World by Kevin Dutton is published by Bantam Press. To order a copy at Amazon, Waterstones, Kobo or iBooks go to https://www.drkevindutton.com/books/black-and-white-thinking/


Lack, D. (1943). The Life of the Robin. London: H.F. & G. Witherby, Ltd. 

Lorenz, K. (1981). The Foundations of Ethology. New York, NY: Springer. 

Tajfel, H. (1970). ‘Experiments in Intergroup Discrimination’, Scientific American 223(5), 96–102. 

Whitehead, A.N. (1926). Science and the Modern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber