Ingroups, Identities, and In-Memoriams: Why We Must Remember Never To Forget

In honor of the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I am re-publishing an edited/slightly altered version of a post from the archives on the importance of commemoration and collective memory for tragedies. The original post was published at IonPsych on May 2nd, the day after Osama Bin Laden’s death. It can be found here.

It has been ten years since September 11th, 2001. When we remember the events of that day, we often tend to focus on how well we remember all of the seemingly-minor details (despite evidence that these memories may not be quite so accurate). What we were wearing. What we ate for breakfast. Where we were sitting while we watched the news coverage.

Our practically-obsessive focus on these memories actually indicates much more than we realize. Despite mankind’s ever-present focus on the wide variety of intercultural differences, it turns out there’s at least one way in which we’re all not so different after all. We all place a tremendous importance on our memories. More specifically, we place a tremendous importance on commemoration.

As a Jew, I am all too familiar with the ways in which my own culture elevates the importance of collective memory (the shared memory of stories and events that are passed down within a cultural group) to a practically sacrosanct level. We must remember the Holocaust, remember when our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, remember our deceased relatives by lighting Yahrzeit candles on the anniversaries of their deaths. The imperative to ‘remember’ is essentially its own holy ritual – in fact, many aspects of mourning and remembrance are actually considered mitzvot (or ‘moral obligations’) of their own accord. This urge to commemorate is found in every culture, and it generally takes precedence over moving on and forgetting (Pennebaker & Banasik, 1997). When people identify with an ingroup, they generally tend to play up the tragic suffering of their own group while also downplaying the tragedy that their group may have inflicted on others in the past (Novick, 1999; Baumeister & Hastings, 1997). This is how people bond. This is how people heal.

Whether it’s the US and Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, or North and South Korea, there are plenty of ethnic, cultural, and religious groups that are stuck in escalating patterns of intergroup violence, creating this need for a collective memory of traumatic events in the first place. Hindus and Sikhs, for example, have a long and brutal history of violence against each other, particularly within India. When Hindu and Sikh students were asked to recall episodes of Hindu-Sikh violence, people on both sides were generally more likely to remember times when their own group had suffered (rather than caused the suffering), especially when they considered their religious affiliations to be particularly central to their identities. Not only that, but when presented with actual newspaper articles that described an equal number of violent acts coming from each side, people who felt strongly tied to their Hindu or Sikh identities spent more time thinking about the times when they were victimized and were more likely to say that the other side should forgive and forget, yet less likely to think that their own side should do the same. In a separate study, people who were guided towards stronger identification with their ‘ingroup’ were actually unable to remember as many times when their ingroup had caused harm to other people than those who weren’t prompted to feel the same level of ingroup identification (Sahdra & Ross, 2007).

Much like it was for the Hindus and Sikhs in this example, the impact of strong group identification on our memories of historic events can be monumental. If the outcome is group cohesion, this psychological bias makes perfect sense…but it doesn’t come without consequences. The way that we remember events shapes how we understand them and how we approach the future. On one hand, it feels right to remember September 11th by thinking about the unimaginable suffering that results from terrorism and mass murder — and of course it is right. But on the other hand, if we sit here looking back on September 11th and our memories are tinged by nationalism and inflated senses of group identification, it holds dangerous implications for the ways in which we will move forward.

This is not to downplay the importance of collective memory. In our hearts, we have the right idea. Our drive to memorialize is noble. There’s a reason that commemoration is an important part of every culture, and that’s because it’s the right thing to do. The problem, however, arises when we all have to face the limitation that we can’t possibly remember everything. When the things that we choose to remember don’t help us learn the right lessons and work towards correcting the problems for tomorrow, we’ve found a problem.

When we look back on the Holocaust, for example, we remember and honor the millions who perished. We remember their names, their families, and their stories, and there’s nothing wrong with any of this. But when we accept the responsibility of remembering the Holocaust, we are not only responsible for remembering the lives of the people who died.

We must also remember the political and economic context of Germany in the 1940s, and how the national environment facilitated the growth of Nazism and the rise of Adolf Hitler. We must remember the overwhelming power of the fundamental human motivation to believe in a fair and just world, and that sometimes the most socially downtrodden members of society are the first ones to support, defend, and justify the presence of strong order and authority (Jost et al, 2003).

We must also remember the extreme potential social power of tyrannical leaders, and how an authoritative leader effectively commanded obedience from thousands of German citizens. We must understand that when an authority figure issues a command, even people who do not consider themselves to be capable of evil might do horrendous things for the sake of conformity and obedience (Milgram, 1963).

These are all memories that should contribute to a responsible remembrance of the Holocaust. These memories are the ones that will help us grow and change as a people, so we can learn from our tragedies and avoid their re-occurrences if possible. Similarly, there are things we need to remember as we think back on September 11th. Of course we need to remember the lives that were lost, and we need to honor and respect them. But in addition to that, I think it’s our obligation to remember the entirety of the past 10 years as well, and what ensued as a result of that tragic day. We must remember the lives that we have taken, as well as the liberties that we have lost. We must remember the incredible sacrifices that our troops have made, both at home and abroad, and not shy away from thoughtfully evaluating our national defense policies, regardless of whether that evaluation results in criticism or support. We must remember the history of Afghanistan, the political context, and the factors that contributed to the formation of Al-Qaeda, so we can understand how to prevent similar situations in the future. We must remember the unacceptable racial prejudice that faces every Muslim American, and we must remember how much worse it has gotten since September 11th, 2001.

And just as we make an effort to recognize and understand these memories now, 10 years after September 11th, may we try our hardest to continue learning from them in the future.




Sahdra, B., & Ross, M. (2007). Group Identification and Historical Memory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33 (3), 384-395 DOI: 10.1177/0146167206296103

Baumeister, R. F., & Hastings, S. (1997). Distortions of collective
memory: How groups flatter and deceive themselves. In J. W. Pennebaker, D. Paez, & B. Rimé (Eds.), Collective memory of political events: Social psychological perspectives, 277-293

Pennebaker, J. W., & Banasik, B. L. (1997). On the creation and
maintenance of collective memories: History as social psychology. In J. W. Pennebaker, D. Paez, & B. Rimé (Eds.), Collective memory of political events: Social psychological perspectives, 3-19

Novick, P. (1999). The holocaust in American life. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Jost, J., Pelham, B., Sheldon, O., & Ni Sullivan, B. (2003). Social inequality and the reduction of ideological dissonance on behalf of the system: evidence of enhanced system justification among the disadvantaged European Journal of Social Psychology, 33 (1), 13-36 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.127

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67 (4), 371-378 DOI: 10.1037/h0040525

One response to “Ingroups, Identities, and In-Memoriams: Why We Must Remember Never To Forget

  1. “A loving heart is the beginning of all knowledge.” ~ Thomas Carlyle

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