Breaking Bad Going Tribal? Giving Humanity a Bad Rap

A popular show’s viewers think the protagonist is good despite evil actions

Posted Sep 29, 2013

Ross Douthat’s column on Breaking Bad credits the star, Walt, a drug kingpin, for showing morality of a primitive sort. Douthat cites James Bowman for the idea that Walt returns to a type of honor culture, family-oriented tribalism that preceded the Enlightenment’s orientation to universal values. Not. He gets this wrong but other things right.

Although Douthat is right on other things (see below), he misleads the reader by (a) placing the blame for bad behavior only on culture; (b) attributing tribalism to any culture prior to the Enlightenment.

Source of Bad Behavior (i.e., selfish behavior—self-interested behavior that harms others).

The selfish, self-promoting behavior of Walt represents morality based on our brain’s primitive survival systems (sometimes called reptilian). Morality based in survival systems (fight, flight, freeze, faint) is oriented to dominance and submission. One learns to not feel safe unless one is dominant or withdrawn. Survival system morality (safety ethic) can be more or less lubricated by experience (e.g., trauma, abuse, neglect). Such experience during sensitive periods make downshifting to a safety ethic more likely under threat.

Most of whom a person becomes is epigenetic—a constant interaction between environment (parenting, social experience) and maturation during sensitive periods. In the first few years of life, empathy and autonomy parameters are established by the quality of caregiving and social support one receives. When one does not receive the evolved caregiving a young child’s body/brain expects, survival systems are lubricated to dominate personality and social life. Undercared for children will more easily be threatened (threat reactive).

From Walt’s perspective, and a safety ethic perspective (necessarily egoistic because survival is the primary goal), his behavior is “good” and “right” in the circumstances. But from an objective perspective, his behavior is immoral from any viewpoint. He is causing much more harm than good (consequentialism); he is becoming more and more evil rather than cultivating virtue (virtue ethics); his behavior is not universalizable or there would be no safe place to be (deontology).

Universal Badness? Douthat is right to say that viewers of Breaking Bad may be drawn to a “worldview that still lies percolating, like one of his reactions, just below the surface of every human heart.” But this is true only if you have grown a big self-important ego with no-holds-barred autonomy and low empathy (results of mainstream Western childrearing). It’s not universal. The column, “Are We Hard-Wired for War,” by David Barash provides some counter examples (the answer is “no”). There are lots more examples in a new book edited by Douglas Fry: War, Peace and Human Nature.

Douthat emphasizes the importance of culture (though missing the nuances that Bowman brings to his analysis) but misunderstands human history.

Human cultural history before the Enlightenment. Human genus history was mostly pre-tribal and peaceful. Tribes, in the strict sense of the term, means there is a hierarchy to safeguard the possessions of those who have more of them. Any society with property builds hierarchy and inequality, with the more powerful creating mechanisms to protect the status quo. Sometimes this leads to violence (i.e., war) but not always.

But 99% of human genus history was not tribal in this strict sense. The 99% was spent in small-band hunter-gatherer communities. These are nomadic groups that move from feeding ground to feeding ground. They have few, if any, possessions. They are fiercely egalitarian and value generous sharing. And there is no “war.”

One’s culture influences ethics. Douthat and Bowman are right to note that one’s cultural immersion does matter. Skylar, Walt’s wife, is at first an ethical person in the traditional sense (concerned for not harming others for her own benefit), but over the seasons of the show she is increasing immersed in her husband’s world. Thereby, she slips into unethical behavior herself.

This is not a surprise. Long ago, Aristotle emphasized the importance of selecting one’s friendships and activities carefully because they either support or undermine one’s virtue. Othello selected the wrong friend in Iago, who mislead him about the facts of the world and fueled his safety ethic ("honor"). We know that one’s intuitions about what is good and right in a domain are fostered by one’s immersed experience (Hogarth, 2001). This is true for morality too. One's chronic attention leads to behavior when the opportunity arises (Murdoch, 1989).

Research on media effects show that violent media influence viewers to be less sensitive to victims, less trusting of the world, and more violent themselves. See here for a recent review. What one practices (visually or physically) is what one becomes.

One hopes that the viewer is enjoying the Breaking Bad series because of some kind of cathartic effect rather than learning to condone and perhaps then practice criminal behavior, as Skylar has.

Maybe it’s a good thing that this show is coming to an end.

See more about these issues in my forthcoming book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality  (W.W. Norton).


Fry, D. (2013) (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hogarth, R. M. (2001). Educating Intuition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ingold, T. (1999). On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band. In R. B. Lee & R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers (pp. 399–410). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Murdoch, I. (1989). The sovereignty of good. London: Routledge. (first published in 1970)

Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (Eds.) (2013). Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy. New York: Oxford University Press.