Review: The Power of Us

The Power of Us, Jay J. Van Bavel, PhD, and Dominic J. Packer, PhD. New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2021.

Summary: How the groups of which we are a part help shape our identity, how this can lead to personal change, and understanding both how these identities may divide and unite us.

We tend to think of our identities as a fairly stable thing. Actually our identities change in subtle and sometimes dramatic ways depending on our social context and the groups to which we belong. The self I reveal with my colleagues may be different than what my neighbors see, or the people in particular interest or cultural groups in which I participate. It is not so much that we are chameleons but that we contain multiple ways of identifying ourselves–father, home owner, Christian, online ministry director, singer, aspiring artist and writer, bibliophile, vinyl music collector, Ohio State Buckeye fan, and more, in my case.

The authors of this work contend for the importance of understanding how our shared social identities shape us and how these might be harnessed for good or ill. They explore how our shared social identities help (or hinder) us in our perceptions as we try to make sense of the world. They shape and serve to reinforce our most important beliefs, who we listen to and do not listen to. They contend that social media holidays may help overcome echo chambers as do more nuanced information such as maps that are neither red or blue but proportionally shaded. If we are trying to bridge divides, it may be helpful to not lead with our political identities.

They explore why some identities matter more and how the identities we value shape our actions toward those who share them and those who do not and how we use various symbols from crosses to gestures (think O-H…I-O Buckeye fans) to find each other. The explore the issue of overcoming implicit racial bias, suggesting that new shared social identities may bridge old bias. When someone becomes “us” rather than “them” our perceptions may change. And awareness of our bias does not mean a label ought be applied to us but offers us the chance to use that self-awareness to shape our conscious behavior.

They describe the effectiveness of groups working in solidarity rather than individually and the power of non-violence in winning the support of neutrals and opponents. They consider the phenomenon of “groupthink” and how important opportunities for dissent are in group effectiveness. And they discuss the effective leaders who understand the power of “us” and foster a sense of shared identity. They also talk about how malevolent leaders may harness the same power for ill as they nurture a shared sense of grievance against a perceived enemy.

They conclude by considering how the matter of shared social identities could be important for the future of our democracies as we address inequality and climate change. As others have commented, we may be at a critical inflection point and how we harness the power of identity in these challenging times may make all the difference in what kind of country we become.

This work is important in making the point of the power of social identity. The authors help us to understand both how social identities may divide us and the steps we may take to begin to bridge those divides. For me, it raises questions about why, among Christians, shared social identity around American greatness is far more compelling than shared identity with fellow believers of many nations in pursuing the global purpose of the God of John 3:16 who “so loved the world” and what may be done to change that.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.