The Psychology of Tribalism

Consistent mindfulness practice has changed the way I relate to emotional discomfort and intellectual uncertainty. This didn't happen over night and it hasn't made my responses perfect or tidy by any means.

When I started practicing, I thought of myself as someone who was in touch with his feelings. Looking back, I now understand that I've always felt my feelings strongly. I think they call this being "highly sensitive" now.

But before I established a consistent mindfulness practice, instead of really feeling my feelings, I thought about them, acted on them, and wrestled with them without noticing the various sensations in my body that signaled their presence.

I wasn't in touch with my feelings at all. I just did my best to generate the ones I liked and get rid of the ones I didn't. Nothing unusual about that. Most of us don't realize there's any other way to relate to our emotions.  

Approaching mindfulness as attentional fitness has resulted in me becoming more intimately familiar with my feelings in real time and observing the way they influence my thoughts and behaviors.

This is a long-term project and definitely a work in progress, but my feelings have become so much less intangible than when I began. The more tangible they become, the less I identify with them. The pull remains strong, but I'm able to be much more objective about my subjectivity than I ever imagined was possible. 

Here's why I think this matters. 

What the world seems to need right now are ways for us to have a sense of belonging without demonizing groups and individuals we don't identify with. We need to get better at listening and disagreeing. We need to recognize the humanity of those who don't share our views, opinions, and tastes. We need to get better at distinguishing being informed from being entertained or agitated.  

One foundational skill that can help address all of these needs is the ability to de-escalate ourselves when we feel emotionally provoked. 

How can we hope to de-escalate situations or other people if we are unable to de-escalate ourselves? 

Mindfulness develops the natural capacities we have for self-awareness and emotional regulation that make de-escalating ourselves possible. 

Robert Wright explores the ways mindfulnss meditation can help address the psychological factors behind our tribal impulses in a recent 10% Happier podcast onversation with Dan Harris.

Dan: What impact [do you think] Buddhism and meditation could have on the world? 

Robert: I may be a little apocalyptic by nature and my view of the world, but I'm kind of concerned about where we are. 

If you look at various things that are problematic, whether it's political polarization in the United States, sectarian conflict in the Middle East, national conflicts and tensions – I think driving them all, to some extent, is what I would call the psychology of tribalism. By which I mean the evolved psychology for group conflict and for favoring your own group over other groups. 

I think it's a very subtle thing. When people [ask], Is war inevitable? Is it part of human nature? Are we naturally aggressive? they tend to think of rage and violent rampages, but it's all subtler than that. 

It starts with biases such as so-called confirmation bias: you just see the information that supports your argument and you're oblivious to the information that supports your opponent's argument. 

I think that's the kind of problem that can be improved by mindfulness meditation.

Because, more than people realize, that is governed by a feeling. When you see that information that supports your argument, it feels good. The reason we click retweet and share is because it feels good. Right?

And sometimes it feels good because even though – and here's where fake news comes in – we haven't actually examined the story that we're sharing, it reflects unfavorably on our ideological enemies or favorably on our group, [but] it feels so good, you know? 

Dan: It may be factually untrue, but it's emotionally true. 

Robert: Right. And I think mindfulness meditation can make you generally just a little more aware of the way feelings are governing your thoughts and your behavior.

One area where ancient Buddhist psychology converges nicely with modern psychology is an appreciation of the fact that this separation of cognition on the one hand and feeling on the other is very misleading. 

I mean, feeling in a very fine grained subtle way influences thought and infiltrates it. I think that's typically the dynamic that drives a lot of the cognitive biases that in turn constitute the psychology of tribalism.

And I think mindfulness meditation makes you less susceptible to that. 

Especially if you become aware of the problem as a problem, and thankfully this is more discussion [currently] about this problem – political polarization, fake news, and so on.

I don't want to sound too melodramatic, but it may be that the planet is reached a point where the species needs to become more aware of how the mind works...

I think mindfulness meditation is very well suited to becoming more aware of our how minds work and doing something about it.


See also:

Wright, R. (2017). Why Buddhism is true: The science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment. New York: Simon & Schuster. (publisher, library)

The Mindful Resistance Project

"There are people who don't like this whole business of understanding the grassroots, the root causes of things; they don't want to know why people hate us. I want to understand it. The reason you're trying to understand why they hate us, is to get them to quit hating us. The idea when you go through this moral exercise of really coming to appreciate their humanity and better understand them, is part of an effort to get them to appreciate your humanity in the long run. I think it's the first step toward that. That's the long-term goal."

From Progress is Not a Zero-Sum Game