Recent national votes in the U.S., Britain, and elsewhere have exposed bitter divisions based on things like country of origin, economic status, political persuasion and other factors. MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Tara Swart, a neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor and executive advisor, has a theory about how some of our basic survival instincts have resulted in this widespread political rancor—and how to get beyond it.
In a TEDx talk on neuroscience and nationalism at the London School of Economics, Swart explains that humans have evolved and thrived in group settings. Survival required people to cooperate to obtain food, keep warm, and protect each other. “When we lived in caves, being cast out of the cave meant certain death,” she says. “We became the most successful animals on the planet because we could exist in large groups.”
However, the flip side of our social tendencies is an “us vs. them” mentality. The group has to protect itself from threats from other groups—and “others” are those who look, speak, and act differently from us. In prehistoric terms, “engaging with someone outside your tribe could prove fatal,” and over time, differences began to be defined not just by race, language or gender but also by social class, education, religion, and more,” Swart says.
“It’s not about your or my opinion, or being right or wrong, or even our political choices. It’s about the evolution of the human brain from tribal origins through ethnic and geographical diversification to the creation of the nation-state all the way up to modern nationalism,” Swart says. “It’s about why we created ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups in our societies, whether we’re hard-wired to act on stereotypes or whether we can change, and how we regulate our fears and other emotions.”
The human brain evolved to give “survival emotions”—fear, anger, disgust, shame—a lead role in shaping our behavior. As a result, “it’s easy to motivate people based on fear or disgust,” Swart says. In political terms, this may mean that Candidate A highlights Candidate B’s scandals and potential threats rather than focusing on the positive things he himself has to offer. Loss aversion—the fear that someone outside your tribe could take away what you value—is another form of safety wiring in the brain, and all these emotions in turn result in unconscious biases.