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See your Friends Close, and your Enemies Closer

June 20, 2013

By J. Y. Xiao & Jay Van Bavel (New York University)

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun
has risen: not only because I see it, but
because by it I see everything else.”
– C.S. Lewis

For centuries, philosophers and artists, like C. S. Lewis, have suggested that our internal representation of the world may not be veridical, but rather a construction of our experiences, motivations and identities. Social identities – self-categories that define the individual in terms of shared similarities with members of certain social groups in contrast to other social groups – have a profound influence on social perception (e.g., Hastorf and Cantril, 1954). Our research examines whether our social identities also shape our perception of the physical world. In three studies, we (Jenny Xiao and Jay Van Bavel) tested whether cognitive and motivational aspects of our social group membership could shape our perception of physical distance.

In the first study, we headed to Yankee stadium in Bronx, New York, and collected data from baseball fans right before a game (Figure 1). At the time, the New York Yankees sat atop the American League East, while their archrivals, the Boston Red Sox, were only one game behind in second place, and the Baltimore Orioles came in last, 23 games behind. In this study, strongly identified Yankees fans estimated Boston’s Fenway Park to be closer relative to estimates made by those that did not claim to be Yankees fans. Importantly, there was little difference in the estimates fans and non-fans made about the distance to non-threatening Baltimore’s Camden Yards (Figure 2). In other words, Yankees fans “saw” a rival team’s stadium to be physically closer in their mind’s eye.


In the second study, we collected data at Washington Square Park, where the majority of New York University campus is situated. We assessed perceived distance between New York University, located in Greenwich Village, and Columbia University, located in northern Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. We manipulated participants’ perception of the extent to which these two universities are considered rival schools by having them read one of two fake news articles allegedly from US News and World Report.

As a result, NYU affiliates who read an article describing Columbia University as a threat estimated Columbia campus to be physically closer, compared to individuals not affiliated with NYU and individuals who read an article describing the two universities as equally excellent. In addition, among NYU affiliates, the extent to which they reported being identified with NYU also played a role in their distance perception, such that this effect was strongest among individuals who highly identified with NYU.

In our third study, we turned from sports and college rivalries to a more serious policy issue. We asked more than 300 NYU undergraduates how threatening they believed Mexican immigration was to their American identity. Participants who strongly identified with America and who felt that Mexican immigration posed a threat to the country “saw” Mexico City to be closer to New York City, compared to those who did not strongly identify with America or did not think Mexican immigration was a threat.

Intergroup threat is prevalent among various social groups, such as racial and religious groups, immigrants and host countries. This research serves as a first step in conceptualizing intergroup threat as grounded in low-level perception and representation. In situations where it is difficult or impossible to reduce intergroup threat, understanding how perception affects discrimination may enable policy makers to alleviate detrimental intergroup consequences, such as racism, via alternative routes—namely by acting on perception.

According to mob boss Michael Corleone, you should “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” (The Godfather Part II, 1974). Indeed, our participants appeared to be doing something very similar – they reported that their “enemies” were closer, but only when they posed a potential threat. Thus, our research suggests that we keep our enemies psychologically closer by changing our representation of physical distance.

Author Information

XiaoJenny Xiao is a PhD candidate in the Social Psychology program at New York University. She is broadly interested in studying processes related to social categorization and social identity. Her current research explores how social psychological constructs such as social identity can alter low level cognitive, perceptual, and evaluative processes.

VanBavalJay Van Bavel is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University. His research examines how our social identities and personal values shape our perceptions and evaluations of the social and physical world. He approaches these issues from a social neuroscience perspective, blending theory and methods from social psychology and cognitive neuroscience.


Branscombe, N. R., Ellemers, N., Spears, R., & Doosje, B. (1999). The context and content of social identity threat. In N. Ellemers, R. Spears & B. Doosje (Eds.), Social identity (pp. 35-58). Oxford, England: Blackwell.

Bruner, J. S., & Goodman, C. C. (1947). Value and need as organizing factors in perception. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 42, 33-44.

Hastorf, A., & Cantril, H. (1954). They saw a game; a case study. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 129-134.

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Xiao, Y., & Van Bavel, J.J. (2012). See your friends close, and enemies closer: Social identity and identity threat alter representation of physical distance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 959-972.

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