How Risky Is It, Really?

Why our fears don't always match the facts

How Tribalism Makes a Risky Word Even More Dangerous

Our instinctive need for social cohesion easily overwhelms morality and reason.

When I was a kid, my synagogue was right across the street from a Catholic church. Bellevue Avenue made such a clear dividing line between us – The Chosen People – and them…the enemy. No doubt the view from the other side of the street was the same. I had no idea at the time what a powerful metaphor those few lanes of asphalt made for one of the most significant aspects of human behavior…the powerful instinct of tribalism. It’s everywhere, protecting us by readily overriding reason, and morality, and pretty much anything else that could dim our chances of survival. And it's threatening us at the same time.

Maybe you read about one recent manifestation in The New York Times, about the Orthodox Jews of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn who shunned a neighbor after he told police about a man – a fellow Jew - who was sexually abusing his son. You’d think that a father protecting his son would be the sort of behavior that would be honored. Nope. Not if it is disloyal to the tribe.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

That’s the synagogue side of the street. How about the long loathsome record of Catholic Church authorities abandoning their morals and forfeiting the safety of vulnerable children by covering up, ignoring, or denying extensive evidence of child abuse by a small number of priests. Same thing. Tribe first. Morals second.

It’s not just religion, of course. We identify ourselves as members of all sorts of tribes; our families, political parties, race, gender, social organizations. We even identify tribally just based on where we live. Go Celtics, go Red Sox, go U.S. Olympic team! One study asked people whether, if they had a fatal disease, would they prefer a life-saving diagnosis from a computer that was 1,000 miles away, or the exact same diagnosis from a computer in their town, and a large majority preferred the same information if the source…a machine…was local.

Tribalism is pervasive, and it controls a lot of our behavior, readily overriding reason. Think of the inhuman things we do in the name of tribal unity. Wars are essentially, and often quite specifically, tribalism. Genocides are tribalism - wipe out the other group to keep our group safe – taken to madness. Racism that lets us feel that our tribe is better than theirs, parents who end contact with their own children when they dare marry someone of a different faith or color, denial of evolution or climate change or other basic scientific truths when they challenge tribal beliefs. What stunning evidence of the power of tribalism! (By the way, it wasn’t just geocentrist Catholics in the 16 and 1700s who denied evidence that the earth travels around the sun. Some Christian biblical literalists still do. So do a handful of ultra orthodox Jews and Muslims.)

Yet another example is the polarized way we argue about so many issues, and the incredible irony that as we make these arguments we claim to be intelligent (smart, therefore right) yet we ignorantly close our minds to views that conflict with ours. Dan Kahan, principal researcher into the phenomenon of Cultural Cognition, has found that our views are powerfully shaped so they agree with beliefs of the groups with which we most strongly identify. His research, along with the work of others, has also found that the more challenged our views are, the more we defend them…the more dogmatic and closed-minded we become...an intellectual form of ‘circle-the-wagons, we’re under attack’ tribal unity. Talk about tribalism overruling reason.

As irrational as genocide and science denial and immorality may be, it makes absolute sense that tribalism can produce such behaviors. We are social animals. We have evolved to depend on our tribes, literally, for our safety and survival. As Jane Howard, biographer of anthropologist Margaret Mead, put it “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” We may not be aware at the conscious level of the influence tribalism has on us, but then, most of human cognition happens below the radar of consciousness, and is driven not so much by the goal of getting good grades or winning Nobel Prizes as it is, first, to survive. Small wonder that this ultimate imperative dominates so much of how we behave, how we think and act, and how we treat each other. And it’s hardly surprising that the more unsettled and uncertain we feel and the less we feel we have control over how things are going - feelings that make us feel threatened - the more we circle the wagons and fiercely fight for tribal success, looking to the tribe to keep us safe.

It’s a sobering reflection on this inherent but potentially destructive aspect of human nature, in these unsettled and threateningly uncertain times.

 

 

 

 

David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an Instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

more...

Subscribe to How Risky Is It, Really?

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?