The holiday season is upon us, and my thoughts drift to my family’s tradition of spending time together in the small Pennsylvania town we lived in for more than 30 years, where our children were born and raised. We have a fuller house these days with our grown children, their spouses, and our new grandchild. During this precious time, we gather with old friends and neighbors, exchanging holiday greetings and seasonal treats while our children visit with their childhood friends, many of whom now have families of their own.
Another part of the holidays I enjoy is uninterrupted time to read, think, and conduct research on subjects I am eager to learn more about. I have a (somewhat peculiar) habit of reading several books at once and, in most cases, rotating between fiction and nonfiction—typically alternating a beautiful piece of literature or history with a deep exploration on a scientific subject or a socioeconomic study.
This technique, which I discovered in my years working as a scholar-researcher, helps to keep me fresh and focused. I realized that by switching the modality of my thinking not only am I better able to concentrate, but I am also inspired and more creative. Over time, I realized that my reading habits also changed the way I think. Science and humanities—both products of human ingenuity—complement each other by offering a distinct and nuanced understanding of the world and human experience. I will come back to this point later.
Recently, I have become interested in one of the newest and yet oldest phenomena: what is commonly known as tribalism. While it has been in existence since the earliest humans, tribalism—which is parochial by nature yet universal across cultures—has recently gained new life due to its rapid rise across the world’s political spectrum. The social psychology of intergroup conflicts helps to establish a framework around how this phenomenon emerges.
Is This How We Are Wired?
Following Socrates’ idea of “understanding thyself,” each of us should recognize and try to understand tribalism—a psychological phenomenon that occurs when people strongly identify with a group, such as a social, ethnic, or political faction. This powerful identification can lead us to prioritize the interests of our group (i.e., race, culture, gender, religious, political, or sexual orientation) over the interests of others, even to engage in behaviors that are harmful or discriminatory to those outside the group—thereby overlooking our shared humanity.
Scientists believe that cooperation is crucial for human evolution since it is essential for holding the tribe together—a necessary condition for survival. There are both positive and negative aspects of this evolutionary heritage, however, as cooperation is essential for unity and yet kindness and consideration do not always extend beyond members of the tribe. Some scientists believe “tribalism” might be related to the way our brains respond to threats. When we perceive a threat to our group, our brains may release stress hormones that increase feelings of fear and aggression. This response may lead us to act in ways that are harmful to others in order to protect our own group.
Continuing the theme of my November blog, “the more we learn, the more we are able to appreciate the beautiful complexity around us—and in us,” tribalism offers one of many explanations of a much more complex social psychological phenomenon—a combination of cognitive and emotional processes—that lead us to instinctively prioritize our own group over others. But human beings have demonstrated, time and again, that we are much more than that.
How We Act Can Change How We Think
French literary giant François de La Rochefoucauld wrote: “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves.” That is, in order to adhere to social norms or to seek social acceptance, we may go along with ideas or activities that contradict our personal values and beliefs. However, we may not realize the price we pay for just going along. Consistently professing to be someone else bleeds into our intrinsic self, and over time, we unconsciously adopt patterns of behavior that alter the way we think and feel.
Modern psychological discoveries, supported by thousands of research trials, took this notion even further and suggested the idea that our thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and behavior are interconnected—if we change one (of these), it is possible to alter the others. We already know that what we think can change how we act, but we may not realize that how we choose to act can affect the way we think as well. A simple example might be that my reading habits (an act) actually change the way my brain processes information (how I think).
What this tells me is that human minds are adaptable. They can and have evolved to expand our association with “our tribe.” That is, if we act to provide the setting, the mechanism, and the environment to interact with those outside our tribe in a positive and engaging way, we can emotionally expand or redefine our tribal membership. You see evidence of it everywhere, some right here in New York City.
Who Is in Your Tribe? It Is a Choice
The conscious decision of acting out a certain instinct while suppressing others is a choice we make on a regular basis. I would argue that tribal hatred and resentment as opposed to peaceful, harmonious, and collaborative coexistence are among the oldest and most primitive decisions we make as humans. Just like breaking any habit, seeing beyond tribalism may not come naturally at first, and it may not be easy. Nevertheless, let us try to remember that the way we choose to behave can actually change the way we feel and think—and that has a fundamental impact on the way we experience the world.
I previously shared that it was my late mother’s nature to be kind and compassionate to people. Throughout my childhood, we would go on walks through our neighborhood streets, and it seemed she would frequently stop to chat with everyone, remembering every detail of their families and concerns. I never understood why she did this and often stood by feeling impatient. I also shared the ethnic conflicts in my native Taiwan during my youth. It did not escape me that my mother’s love and appreciation for people never differentiated between those who were in or outside our ethnic tribe.
Growing up, I prided myself on trying to understand the world cerebrally, but it was years before I was able to rouse myself from my stupor of self-preoccupation and start paying real attention to those around me, listening to their stories and concerns. I realize that by changing the way I acted, it also changed the way I feel about people—and about life.
Throughout this holiday season, let us remember the ancient wisdom in all human cultures: The best remedy for feelings of fear, hostility, and aggression may be acts of kindness and compassion. Happy holidays!
Note: I will take a hiatus until February 2023 to resume my monthly blog.