How Politicians Take Advantage of Tribalism

Tribalism is an inherent part of history, and it's closely linked with fear.

Posted Jun 08, 2020 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

protesters gathered around in front of White House in Washington DC, USA on 6/3/2020 in order to demand justice for George Floyd
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Tribalism has become a signature of America internally and externally since the election of President Trump. The nation has parted ways with international allies, left the rest of the world in their effort to fight climate change, and now we've done the same for the pandemic by leaving the World Health Organization. This is a stark contrast to previous pandemics, when Americans were on the ground in other countries helping block the disease. This marks a drastic change from previous U.S. altruistic attitudes, including during World War II.

Whether Trump is the cause or effect or both of the changes in America’s collective attitude, an attribute of the current president is his eagerness and ability to use fear for intimidation of those who disagree with him, and subordination and shepherding of those who support him. 

Fear is arguably as old as life. It is deeply ingrained in the living organisms that have survived extinction through billions of years of evolution. Its roots are deep in our core psychological and biological being, and it is one of our most intimate feelings. Danger and war are as old as human history, and so are politics and religion.

I am a psychiatrist and neuroscientist specializing in fear and trauma. Here's how politics, fear, and tribalism may be intertwined in current events.

We learn fear from tribe mates

Like other animals, humans can learn fear from experience, such as being attacked by a predator, or witnessing a predator attacking another human. Furthermore, we learn fear by instructions, such as being told there is a predator nearby.

Learning from our tribe mates is an evolutionary advantage that has prevented us from repeating dangerous experiences of other humans. We have a tendency to trust our tribe mates and authorities, especially when it comes to danger. It is adaptive: Parents and wise family members told us not to eat a special plant, or not to go to an area in the woods, or else we would be hurt. By trusting them, we would not die like a great-grandfather who died eating a certain plant. This way, we accumulated knowledge.

Tribalism has been an inherent part of human history and is closely linked with fear. There has always been competition between groups of humans in different ways and with different faces, from brutal wartime nationalism to loyalty to a football team. Evidence from cultural neuroscience shows that our brains even respond differently at an unconscious level simply to the view of faces from other races or cultures.

At a tribal level, people are more emotional and consequently less logical: Fans of both teams pray for their team to win, hoping God will take sides in a game. On the other hand, we regress to tribalism when afraid. This is an evolutionary advantage that would lead to group cohesion and help us fight other tribes to survive.

Tribalism is the biological loophole that many politicians have banked on for a long time, tapping into our fears and tribal instincts. Abuse of fear has repeatedly killed: extreme nationalism, Nazism, the Ku Klux Klan, and religious tribalism have all led to the murder of millions.

The typical pattern is to give the other humans a different label than us, perceive them as less than us, suggest they will harm us or our resources, and turn the other group into a concept. It does not have to necessarily be race or nationality. It can be any real or imaginary difference: liberals, conservatives, Middle Easterners, white men, the right, the left, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sikhs. The list goes on and on.

This attitude is a hallmark of the current president. You could be a Mexican, a Muslim, a Democrat, a reporter or a woman. So long as you do not belong to his immediate or larger perceived tribe, he might portray you as subhuman, less worthy, and an enemy. Retweeting “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” is a recent example of divisive and dehumanizing tribalism.

When building tribal boundaries between “us” and “them,” politicians have managed to create virtual groups of people that do not communicate and hate without even knowing each other. This is the human animal in action!

Fear is uninformed, illogical, and often dumb

Very often my patients with phobias start with: “I know it is stupid, but I am afraid of spiders” (or dogs or cats or something else). And I always reply: “It is not stupid, it is illogical.” We humans have different functions in the brain, and fear oftentimes bypasses logic. In situations of danger, we ought to be fast: First run or kill, then think.

This human tendency is meat to politicians who want to exploit fear: If you grew up only around people who look like you, only listened to one media outlet, and heard that those who look or think differently are dangerous, the inherent fear and hatred toward those unseen people is an understandable (but flawed) result.

To win, politicians (sometimes with the media’s help) do their best to keep people separated, to keep the real or imaginary “others” just a concept. Because if people spent time with others, talked to them, and ate with them, they would learn that they are the same: human beings with all the same strengths and weaknesses. Some are strong, some are weak, some are funny, some are dull, some are nice, and some not so nice.

Fear can easily turn violent

There is a reason that the response to fear is called the “fight or flight” response. That response has helped us survive predators and other tribes that have wanted to kill us. But it is a loophole in our biology that can be abused. By scaring us, demagogues turn aggression toward “the others,” whether in the form of vandalizing their temples, harassing them on the social media, or killing them in cold blood.

When demagogues manage to get hold of our fear circuitry, we often regress to illogical, tribal, and aggressive human animals, becoming weapons ourselves — weapons that politicians can use for their own agendas.

The irony of evolution is that while those attached to tribal ideologies of racism and nationalism perceive themselves as superior to others, they may be acting on a more primitive level themselves.


This piece was originally published on The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/trump-the-politics-of-fear-and-racism-how-our-brains-can-be-manipulated-to-tribalism-139811