(LiveScience asked me for a few words on self-improvement for the species as a whole. Here, then, are too many words, each of those true, each of those a lie.)
One unflattering trait we share with many other animals is Fear of the Other, which is just the flipside of a rather clinging, excessive, and obsessive love of (Just Like) Me. Social psychologists call this ingroup bias; cognitive psychologist see its advantages in fluent, speeded-up processing of the familiar. We’re long used to who we are, and so no real thought is necessary to deal with ourselves. Thus, in order to preserve our precious laziness of thought, we heavily invest in surrounding our selves with other selves just like it. We segregate into neighborhoods and work and leisure environments where any Others closely approximate us in age, race, income, political allegiance, and even sexual orientation or the type of facial hair considered couth to sprout. The consequence is that we never get to meet anyone who isn’t like us. This in turn leads to failing to imagine the Other, any Other, and to a loss of desire to even consider the Other as someone who exists, out there, very real, a human being just like us, except not Just Like Us.
At its most innocent, all this fencing-in creates little upticks in closed-mindedness inside one person’s skull – missed opportunities for jolts of fun or learning.
At its worst, for instance when manipulated by clever demagogues who realize that nothing binds us together more than Fear of that Ultimate Other, the Imagined Enemy, it leads to the Holocaust, Vietnam, Rwanda, Darfur, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and so on.
What to do? Go visit. Uncozy yourself. Get a move on. Practice loving-kindness with someone truly Else. (If you’re in academia, maybe take your republican-voting pariah colleague out for lunch, and listen for a change.) Or, at the very least, next time you find yourself at lunch agreeing with everyone’s astute observations, do realize: ‘Well, duh.’