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The Psychology Behind Russian Election Interference

Russia’s espionage efforts exploited evolutionary psychology.

The Mueller report describes various activities that Russian intelligence pursued to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, including hacking emails, trolling social media sites and covertly taking out online ads to get their message across.

Mostly what you hear is that the Russians did these things because they preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, or that, afraid of a true democracy emerging in their own country, the Kremlin wanted to de-legitimize, and destabilize American democracy so that freedom-oriented Russians couldn’t hold America up as a shining example of the art of the possible.

I suppose there is some truth to all of these assertions, but, as a neuroscientist and former intelligence officer, I see a different dimension of Russia’s recent espionage efforts: the masterful use of evolutionary psychology to weaken a strategic opponent on the world stage.

Specifically, I believe the Russians took advantage of what evolutionary psychologists call “Darwinian scripts” operating deep in the brains of the American public, especially “scripts" encouraging tribal conflict.

 Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
Source: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

In a 2012 article in the Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society, “Evolution and the psychology of intergroup conflict: the male warrior hypothesis,” Michigan State Psychologist Dr. Melissa McDonald and colleagues argue that human brains evolved cognitive and emotional mechanisms to form deep bonds with a particular group in order to reap important benefits of intra-group cooperation such as sharing of scarce resources, group child rearing and collective defense against external threats.

But the same forces that cause us to forge bonds with a particular “in-group” also promote antagonism against “out-groups”, particularly, according to Dr. McDonald, among males. McDonald asserts that the human male reproductive strategy encourages conflict and aggression with out-groups. Citing the work of noted evolutionary psychologists Tooby and Cosmides, McDonald writes:

In their [Tooby and Cosmedes] analysis, they note that in lethal intergroup conflicts, the marginal gains to a group's average reproductive success will be much lower for each additional male survivor compared with each additional female survivor, owing to the biology of reproduction (e.g. one male can impregnate 10 females). Male deaths are therefore less detrimental to the average success of the group than female deaths. So, although the potential costs are quite high for males who join a coalition, because existing and acquired reproductive resources would be reallocated among the male survivors, the benefits bestowed upon victorious males could be immense.

Simply put, males—and the in-group they come from—stand to gain a lot more than they stand to lose from intergroup aggression and violence, which explains why intergroup aggression—and tribalism—thrive to this day. This doesn’t mean that modern humans who engage in, say, turf wars in the corporate world, or aggressive foreign policies in the political world, are consciously seeking to elevate their reproductive status (although sexual harassment by some ambitious, successful men suggests that reproductive status remains a powerful motivator). But it does mean—since our brains haven’t really changed in the last couple hundred thousand years--that we retain powerful drives to align with a particular “tribe” against other “tribes”.

Ok, so what does deeply ingrained tribal aggression have to do with Russian spying on the U.S.?

The Russians know that tribalistic Darwinian scripts running in American brains can be stimulated to inflame heated conflicts among various factions and tribes (e.g. Democrats and Republicans) in the U.S. and that such internal conflicts will weaken the U.S. on the world stage. For instance, I believe it's possible—even likely—that the Kremlin directed Russian intelligence officers who hacked the DNC emails to leave a trail pointing back to Russia, in part to send a message (“don’t mess with mother Russia”) and in part to create precisely the protracted, ugly conflict that persists to this day inside the U.S. about Russians interference in our elections.

Although the “get-caught- spying-to-make-Americans-fight-themselves” scenario might sound far-fetched, my new book, The Spy in Moscow Station, describes exactly that set of circumstances surrounding Russian penetration of security at the U.S. embassy in Moscow from 1976-1984. When one “tribe” (NSA) in U.S. intelligence found strong evidence of the Russian penetration in 1978, other national security “tribes” (CIA and the U.S. State Department) fought a protracted tribal battle against NSA to deny and discredit evidence of the leak. As a result, while American intelligence squabbled with itself, the Russians collected devastating intelligence for over 6 years, arresting and executing Soviet citizens spying for America and learning in advance what American positions on nuclear weapons treaties were going to be.

During the 6 years that it took the NSA “tribe” to “conquer” the opposing “tribes” in order to find and eventually plug the leak, the Russians watched us and learned: “if we spy aggressively on the Americans we’ll collect sensational intelligence, and the worst that can happen, if we get caught, is that the Americans will tear themselves apart arguing about it.”

Sound familiar?

Ok, so what can America do about deliberate attempts to manipulate our tribal instincts to an adversary’s advantage? Or, more broadly stated, what can organizational leaders do to keep internal turf wars from dangerously weakening an organization?

The first step is to acknowledge the awesome power of our deep tribal urges because we can’t effectively control tribal tendencies that we don’t admit having in the first place. Instead of telling ourselves “that opposing tribe is malicious, incompetent, selfish, ignorant and needs to be squashed” we should ask ourselves “how much of that sentiment is actually true, and how much is internally generated by my unconscious, tribal Darwinian script?”

Second, notice that I used the phrase “control tendencies” not “eliminate tendencies.” Policies that ignore our enduring tribal nature will meet with limited success. For example, after 9/11, Congress created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to insure that tribal conflicts among different intelligence agencies (e.g. NSA, CIA and FBI) didn’t prevent the sharing of vital intelligence and cooperation among the agencies. But the creation of ODNI (I was its 7th employee as Associate Director of National Intelligence) simply created yet a new “tribe” for the other “tribes” to despise and fight. In the early days of ODNI, for example, a senior CIA executive told me “Al Qaeda is our (CIA’s) target, but you (ODNI) are our enemy.” As a result of such sentiments, sharing and cooperation among intelligence agencies did not get the hoped-for boost when ODNI was formed.

So if organizational solutions, such as creation of new bureaucracies, will only make tribalism worse, what actually will work?

I think Ronald Reagan had the right idea when he implied that you can’t fight tribalism, you have to go with it if you want to reduce squabbles and to foster cooperation. In an address to the UN Reagan said:

“…if suddenly there was a threat to this world, from some other species from another planet, outside in the universe, we’d forget all the local differences that we have between our countries, and we would find out, once and for all, that we really are human beings here on this earth together.”

In other words, since humans are always going to view someone as an enemy, the only viable way to damp down harmful internal squabbles is to work hard to redefine who that someone is.

For example, working overseas for the Government, I discovered that cooperation and information sharing among different intelligence agencies is actually quite good in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where officers from the different agencies work in the same location, geographically close to adversaries such as ISIS and Al Qaeda.

This implies that cooperation among different agencies could be improved—and tribal conflicts reduced—if a much larger number of intelligence officers, who normally worked only in the U.S., were deployed for periodic rotations physically close to our adversaries, where it’s more obvious who the real “bad guys” are.

The bottom line is that whether the tribes in question are intelligence agencies, businesses, or indeed any collection of people trying to work towards a common objective, the best way to make the right friends is to pick the right enemies.


Tooby J., Cosmides L. 1988. The evolution of war and its cognitive foundations, Technical Report no. 88-1. Institute for Evolutionary Studies, MA, USA……