Xenophobia is a broad term that applies to the fear of strangers, foreigners, or anyone perceived as different. People with xenophobia express it in many ways, including going out of their way to avoid a group of people and refusing to be friends with people who look, dress, or speak differently than them. There is an ongoing debate about whether xenophobia is a legitimate mental disorder and many theories about where it comes from and why it persists.
Some theories suggest that xenophobia has evolutionary roots. The two main effects of xenophobia are to bind members of a group together and inspire them to fight for one another. When humans lived as hunter-gatherers, being bound to a group and ready to fight for it was key to the group's survival.
As humans stopped living as hunter-gatherers and started farming, the dynamic changed. Groups got larger as people settled into more permanent homes, but they were still drawn to groups. Various external characteristics formed these groups, including language, allegiance, and religion. Belonging to a group that offered support and protection was no longer as important to survival, but similar experience had a huge effect on people's mental health.
Some researchers use terror management theory to explain xenophobia. This theory states that people generally have significant anxieties about death, which create a need to belong to a group and feel like they matter to the people in their group. The more afraid people are about the world around them, the more likely they are to burrow into their group and fear those from the outside.
Research has shown that people with xenophobia may be trying to protect their self-esteem and confirm their worthiness by not only developing close relationships with a particular group but also actively excluding others. While this theory is interesting, researchers have been unable to reproduce the results of some of the foundational studies it is based on, and it has faced criticism in the scientific community.
Social identity theory may describe why people have xenophobia. This theory is based on dividing the world into groups of "us" and "them" due to a deep-seated psychological need, though this need is not clearly identified. Some researchers feel it is related to self-esteem: people act on their desire to think highly of themselves by building up the qualities of the in-group and putting down other groups to feel superior.
Social identity theory depends on the formation of in-groups and out-groups. Once they make this division, people in the in-group begin making judgments and projections about the out-group based on nothing but the fact that they are a part of a different group. These assumptions may have nothing to do with the original distinctions between the groups.
For example, groups are often formed by simple geography, but people in one group assign characteristics to the other that are unrelated to where they are located on the map.
People with xenophobia can use cognitive dissonance to justify their behavior. Most people want to be seen positively, and it can be difficult to reconcile xenophobia through that lens. To do this, people with xenophobia often explain their behavior by rationalizing it away so it matches their values.
Many of the reasons behind xenophobia stem from unconscious biases, some of which may be evolutionarily based. Some researchers relate xenophobia to Freud, arguing that it boils down to the ego having to learn to trust in the good of others while at the same time controlling the human tendency to harm others.
Unconscious biases are difficult to deal with as they are deeply engrained in both people and cultures. But ways to work on overcoming unconscious biases exist. People with xenophobia must ask themselves about their deeply-held beliefs and how they see and treat others. One of the most difficult things about xenophobia is to stop rationalizing behaviors to eliminate the shame that often gets in the way of taking action. This shame can help highlight the problems in a person's thought processes so they recognize what they need to work on.
Once someone with xenophobia acknowledges their unconscious biases, it's time to act. Changing behaviors may be difficult at first, in part because speaking up in a group that provides support and comfort is extremely hard to do. Modeling appropriate behavior by refusing to participate in xenophobic conversations is often more effective than overtly calling someone out for their xenophobia, and this can help the person trying to change feel safer, as well.
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