35 The Bad-Bet of Tribalism: Human Neurology at War with Itself
I would like to dedicate this chapter to James Desmond Woods, you looked a tribe in the face and told them that enough was enough. The world is better because of your being here.
Keywords: Relationships, Connection, Judgement, Neurology, “Being Close”
If you can, I would like for you to take a moment and list all of the people you have a meaningful connection with. “Meaningful Connection” can be hard to define, but to put it simply it is the connection that forms between two people who know each other at a level that could be considered slightly more intimate than mere acquaintances. Those with meaningful connections likely know something intimate and fundamental about each other, understanding more than names and occupations. It is also not necessary for this connection to be positive for it to be meaningful. We constantly have meaningful connections with those that antagonize us. We understand them to a degree and they understand us, knowing we are on or near opposite ends of a given spectrum.
If you have been trying to think of all the people you have a meaningful connection with you will likely start to struggle when you have 150-250 connections. This is not unique as Robin Dunbar makes clear in his paper “Neocortex Size as a Constraint on Group Size in Primates,” which was published in the Journal of Human Evolution. Dunbar claims that the size of a primate’s neocortex in the brain determines the number of meaningful connections that they can make at a given time. This was based on years of study and neuroimaging performed on primates. What he noticed is that as more and more primates are introduced to a complex social structure it has a habit of breaking down around a certain size.²
The number 150 seemed to be the average threshold for human beings and was given the name “Dunbar’s number.” Dunbar’s number by definition then is the number of connections that a human being can have and process in their mind’s complex social structure before some of the relationships begin to disintegrate for any number of reasons. Once a certain threshold is reached, according to Dunbar, it is difficult or impossible for the human mind to maintain any more meaningful connections. We, however, live in a society of millions or even billions depending on country and continent. If we cannot use our meaningful connection to these other people, and if we are not willing to sacrifice our other connections to welcome them into our mind, then what do we do? ³
Luckily, it appears that the human mind has a built-in mechanism for this as well. Those whom we cannot afford to connect with via substantial interaction and conversation are subjected to stereotype, pattern-based thinking, and Tribalism. Tribalism is the use of group- based thinking to make judgements about others, specifically whether or not they should be trusted or given aid and support of any kind. It is in our nature. In an age where we are more connected than ever by social media however, it can feel as though Dunbar’s number is a bit outdated. Our social tools have become highly advanced because of this it may seem possible that we can house many more connections at once, but this is not the case. It is speculated that despite the massive connecting power of the internet and social media that Dunbar’s number is still a matter of brain power and not communicative ability. Even with internet aid it is likely that we can only maintain an extra 50-100 connections at a given time (which are far weaker than a true connection anyway). What this means is that we have the ability to communicate with and talk to exponentially more people without knowing them at all. Tribalism then takes its course as the primary mode by which strangers comprehend each other. The issue is that those who claim to know someone via the internet or social media are falling victim to an innate neurological mechanism without even knowing it. They believe they know them and do not (even people who post a large amount of photos or information on the internet are inherently misleading most of the time, displaying an overly positive, modified version of themselves further distorting their image to strangers). Tribalism then, has become an enemy of humankind, instead of an ally. It is something that we need to acknowledge and suppress.
Allow me to give an example to illuminate the negative side effects of Tribalism. A video circulates of someone doing something offensive. It is not relevant what they are doing, only that it is deeply offensive and that the motivations for said action are unknown. Millions of people watch this video and begin to take apart this person’s social media page and somewhere they find evidence that he is a member of X political party. Instantly tribal thinking begins. Those of the opposite political party will begin to not only criticize the person but also the party which they affiliate with, claiming that it isn’t surprising that this individual acts this way because he is a member of X political party and that is exactly the way they can be expected to behave. This will also cause other members of that political party to be treated as though they associate with the offense individual. The issue which social media causes is that 50 or 60 years ago news of the offensive action would have spread between maybe a few thousand people at the most, assuming that this individual is not famous or powerful, but in the modern day it can be shared and criticized by countless millions. It is also a vicious cycle which makes people quicker to blame X political party for bad behaviour rather than for a bad individual.
This is not a one sided issue either, as Tribalism has the ability to work in an undeserving person’s favor as well. Let’s pretend for a moment that our hypothetical, offensive individual did these offensive things for a bad reason, but that nobody knows this. Then once again X political party is blamed and identifies the offensive individual as one of their own via Tribalism. They will rush to defend him just as quickly as many in another tribe will rush to attack him. There is no winning for anyone now as members of X political party have cast their lot with someone they do not know, yet their brain tells them they are at least familiar with them.
A popular question then is not whether or not human beings submit to tribal thinking, but whether or not tribal thinking is beneficial in any circumstance. In our example it causes millions of people to inadvertently attack or side with someone whom they do not know, yet their brains tell them they share an innate understanding of this person due to their associations. The counter is that it is good for human beings to want to help and trust each other because they are human beings, but anything denser than a basic, tribal, species-based connection seems to create more problems than it solves.5
Suddenly, the psychological and social acrobatics involved in “cancelling” someone on the internet makes a good deal of sense. It happens very often that a single person is made the victim of the scrutiny of millions based on the smallest piece of information. A harmless photo, video, or collection of 280 letters now has more potential to ruin someone’s life than ever in history. There is no positive counter to this either as the internet seems to feed off of negativity much more strongly than positivity. Every person on the planet is now connected to each other by no more than six degrees of separation, meaning that whether we like it or not, our social circle is more or less global8, and has become this way via the internet’s circumvention of both Dunbar’s number and the meaningful connection required to have a relationship with someone.
Those who believe they are doing the right thing when they join a crusade against an individual on the internet should stop and consider the intense neurological forces at play. Their mind has, in the absence of a genuine connection, made a snap judgement about a person. Not only has it convinced them that they know something fundamental about a stranger, but the mind has done this without the baggage or guilt one would feel for thinking ill of someone it has a connection with. It is a perfect storm of negative neurological reactions. It is exactly the kind of impulse which someone should not act on, and anyone who understands what’s happening probably wouldn’t. I not only want them to understand the social mechanics behind what they do but to open their eyes to the realities of tribalism. It is a toxic and reductive way to view another person and will always be so.
Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions to our latent tribal nature. We cannot rewire thousands of years of human evolution in a few decades. To produce a society which can have both expansive social structures and the human cohesion which tribalism creates, while removing the negatives of both, will require intense, constant effort to override these natural impulses to pass judgement on others based on group association6. The only way to do this is to give each person, whether on the internet or in real life, a spark of unique individuality in our eyes. To treat them as individuals and suppress our instincts to work with the limitations of Dunbar’s number and ascend beyond our inherent Tribalism.
Clark, Cory & Liu, Brittany & Winegard, Bo & Ditto, Peter. (2019). Tribalism Is Human Nature. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 10.1177/0963721419862289.
Dunbar, R.I.M. “Neocortex Size as a Constraint on Group Size in Primates.” Journal of Human Evolution, Academic Press, 15 Dec. 2004, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/004724849290081J.
“Dunbar’s Number: Why We Can Only Maintain 150 Relationships.” BBC Future, BBC, www.bbc.com/future/article/20191001-dunbars-number-why-we-can-only-maintain-150-relationships.
Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 2019.
Segal, Elizabeth A. “When Tribalism Goes Bad.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 30 Mar. 2019, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/social-empathy/201903/when-tribalism-goes-bad.
Taute, Harry A., and Jeremy Sierra. “Brand Tribalism: an Anthropological Perspective.” Journal of Product & Brand Management, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 11 Mar. 2014,www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JPBM-06-2013-0340/full/html?journalCode=jpbm.
“The Six Degrees of Separation Theory.” Exploring Your Mind, 23 Apr. 2019, exploringyourmind.com/the-six-degrees-of-separation-theory/.