Public transport, in any city, is a special place, with a spirit of its own. A small universe, where there is always room for one more. It seems like the passengers live to step on each other’s toes, as the background fills with a scent, which you best avoid identifying.

Bulgarian public transport is even more exciting – the long, tedious “excuse me” has become substituted by the silver-tongued “oops!” and elbowing. The door is being guarded tooth and nail – God forbid someone should try to go through it.

Foreigners might see this behavior as exotic, perhaps even a bit savage, but we are used to it and feel (dubiously) comfortable.

Crowded public transport

Recently, however, ever since the price of the bus ticket nearly doubled, I happened to climb into a bus, where the driver had no tickets to sell, during rush hour. The revolution that followed could measure up to the French one! And the newly acquired delicate manners of the passengers would put Elizabeth II to shame. А tornado of “pardon me”, “please, after you”, and “thank you most kindly”, swirled around the bus. I couldn’t believe it! A sturdy-looking lady took on the responsibility of а general, organized the ticketless passengers into a small army, and declared that if they were to come (“they” being the ticket controllers who are simply doing their jobs), our united front would win the battle.   

Surprised by the unlikely alliance, I decided to dive into international social psychology waters, and figure out why “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Social psychology experiments

According to a study by Purdue University, affect is what drives social groups, even if they have formed minutes ago, like our bus platoon. Ushered by affect, a large number of people can work together, towards a mutual goal, without having to use many words 4. Imagine affect as a snake charmer – it hypnotizes the crowd and directs its movement. 

In solidarity with Purdue’s findings, all of us ticketless passengers had gathered together, alert and ready, while our general, armed with a grocery bag in each hand, called us to arms.

Group affect, as a snake charmer

Obviously, shared emotions bring us closer together, but does it matter if the emotion is positive or negative?

The participants in one study were asked this question and agreed, almost unanimously, that shared positive attitudes unite people. However, the researchers followed-up with behavioral experiments, only to find out that the exact opposite is true. As it turns out, not only do we become united by shared negative attitudes, but we don’t even realize it 2.

The explanation is that when we share a negative attitude towards a third party, we establish group boundaries, we feel secure in this mini-society, and our self-esteem increases, because we get a sense of belonging and acceptance.

There is, however, one crucial exception – when emotions are strong, the opposite is true – strong negative feelings tear us apart. 

Shared attitudes unite us

It seems that Bulgarians are not the only people who enjoy pessimism. А joint study, by the Free University of Amsterdam and Ohio University, found that focusing on the negative is an adaptive trait, common to all people 1. Since the human brain does not have the capacity to process all the information that is constantly bombarding it, it zooms in on potential dangers, in order to keep us alive.

In our bus scenario, the ticketless passengers grouped together, because we were focused on the potential threat of being fined.

One of the most famous experiments in social psychology is Muzafer Sherif’s “Robbers Cave”. Just after World War II had ended, Sherif and his colleagues gathered boys in what they called a “summer camp”, to conduct an experiment and decipher the principles of inter-group conflict. Even though the experiment was not particularly ethical (at one point the researchers even limited the boys’ access to drinking water) it led to important findings on interpersonal dynamics. It became apparent, that two adversary groups can unite, as long as they are faced with a problem, which none of the groups can solve on its own.

Robbers Cave sign

Our bus analogy in mind – each passenger, on their own, wouldn’t be able to avoid a fine if a ticket controller was to get on the bus. Perhaps this is what made the ticketless passengers unite, in a small society, which could then defend each of its members much better.

And so, it turns out that even negative circumstances aren’t all that bad since they have the power to bring us together!

Have you ever been similarly united with others? Have you ever noticed strangers bonding in some weird circumstances? Share your opinion and experience by commenting on the post.

References:

  1. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323-370. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.5.4.323
  2. Bosson, J. K., Johnson, A. B., Niederhoffer, K., & Swann, W. B. (2006). Interpersonal chemistry through negativity: Bonding by sharing negative attitudes about others. Personal Relationships, 13(2), 135-150. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2006.00109.x
  3. Lehmiller, J. J. (n.d.). Robbers Cave Experiment. Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. doi:10.4135/9781412956253.n456
  4. Spoor, J. R., & Kelly, J. R. (2004). The Evolutionary Significance of Affect in Groups: Communication and Group Bonding. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations,7(4), 398-412. doi:10.1177/1368430204046145