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.
“Even if you don’t think you have a racist, ageist, or sexist bone in your body, if that stereotype exists in the world, then it’s to some extent wired into our brains, and this is meant to keep us safe,” Swart says. “Some of our old wiring is holding us back. But notice I didn’t say our ‘hard-wiring.’ Stereotypes do exist, but we can override our unconscious biases.”
How to do this? Take advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity and our ability to override what we recognize are unwanted behaviours, Swart says. “Language is really powerful, and if we tell a different story based on attachment emotions—looking for what unites us rather than what separates us—we can actually change the way our brains operate, by overriding our survival emotions, our loss aversion, and our unconscious biases.”
There are, of course, national political policies we can forge, but on a personal neurological level, “make sure your brain is rested, fueled and oxygenated … and make a conscious effort to choose trust over fear in dealings with others.” Neuroscientists can spot brains that are different due to disease or injury, “but nothing [in a brain scan] would tell me the color of your skin or what religion you are. Remember, we’re much more similar than we are different.”
Watch Tara Swart's TEDx talk, "Are we on the brink of a global emotional crisis?"
Tara Swart teaches in the MIT Sloan Executive Education programs, Neuroscience for Leadership, Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People, and the Executive Program in General Management.