Op-Ed: The Role of Tribal Instincts in the Misinformation Age
The volume and speed of information people consume today is mind-numbing. Information overload adversely affects our mental health, causing anxiety, distrust, distraction, confusion, and loss of control. To escape this emotional distress, many people are drawn only to information that reinforces their preexisting beliefs. Despite today’s overabundance of information, they have decided to become narrowly informed.
This paradox explains why fake news and conspiracy theories are so prevalent and dangerous. Architects of fake news use social media and cable talk shows to exploit the vulnerabilities of individuals experiencing mental health issues, who then spread the falsehoods to others in the same sinking boat.
We are at the outset of a transformation from the Information Age to the Misinformation Age, one with deep implications for how we understand and live with one another across ideological perspectives. How did we get here?
It is not just the volume and speed of information causing fake news to become mainstream, gulling presumably “normal” people into believing the most ridiculous ideas. It’s also not just that they want to believe in peculiar untruths; they need to believe.
How tribal instincts affect our viewpoints
According to evolutionary psychologists, humans are hardwired to seek safety and comfort. As I wrote in my book, "In Search of Humanity," the formation of tribes in hunter-gatherer times kept us safe. Information was a key factor in our preservation: Gossip—casual reports about the experiences of other people—helped tribes survive the dangers of the African savanna. Someone observed to use a large stick or throw a rock in defense against a predator was vital information to be passed on to other tribal members. Over time, this knowledge became part of our collective mental programming.
Humans have maintained these tribal instincts. Conspiracy theories—information that does not pass the credulity test—is passed on to others in the modern equivalent of a tribe, who accept the news as important to their psychological safety, comfort, and survival. By joining others in freely accepting that the Earth is flat, the CIA blew up the Twin Towers, or the Sandy Hook tragedy was a staged event with paid actors, such absurd viewpoints are programmed into the believers’ brains.
Fear plays a huge role in the acceptance and propagation of fake news. Neuroscientists now believe that, when humans perceive danger, the brain’s prefrontal cortex releases dopamine to divert attention away from everyday activities to focus on the threat at hand. Dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system, a “feel good” hormone. The dopamine-releasing effects of interacting with fellow believers who insist the Holocaust is fiction makes them feel safe and happy, whether the information is true or false.
When evidence-supported information challenges their beliefs, the cognitive dissonance, discomfort, and emotional instability they feel causes them to reject it. To consider otherwise would require abandoning the tribe and venturing out alone on the African savanna at the dawn of humanity.
Unable to bear the pain of being cast aside, people simply accept the tribe’s view of the world. Psychologists call this belief perseverance the backfire effect, whereby a bias toward a particular belief becomes so powerful that the possibility of being wrong is never contemplated. Instead, the reaction is to double down on the erroneous assumption, sharing an outlandish belief system with others.
Modern tribalism has other adverse consequences. The beliefs of some tribes pose significant challenges to non-tribal members’ comfort and safety. Certain aspects of experience shape the preferences and tendencies of different tribes, resulting in racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, and other harmful biases. Meanwhile, tools like social media provide a way for people to separate into like-minded tribes and even form them, based on ideological or religious differences.
The way forward: How education and employers can help
Living in a contorted reality is no way to live, of course. Neither is misrepresenting the truth or simply lying to others predisposed to anxiety, fear, and loneliness. Truth-telling and acceptance of facts are cornerstones of a functioning society. Without this foundation, clashes of informed, uninformed, and misinformed opinions are inevitable, in some cases spilling over into violence, as we have pitifully seen of late.
There’s not much that can be done to plug up the ceaseless flow of information spewing from social media and the 24-hour news cycle. What we can do is encourage the teaching of emotional intelligence and media literacy from the K-12 educational system through higher education.
Children must know it is perfectly OK to be wrong. Nobody is right all the time: nobody—not parents, not teachers, not CEOs, and certainly not politicians. Making mistakes is a normal part of life; it’s how we solve problems, learn new ways of doing things, reflect on our actions, and manage our emotions. It’s how we amass real knowledge.
Making mistakes is a normal part of life—it’s how we solve problems, learn new ways of doing things, reflect on our actions, and manage our emotions.
Corporate America has a significant role to play. Organizations must take care of the basic needs of their employees including fair, equitable pay and robust benefits, making them feel safer and more secure in their lives. Organizations also should invest in courses on emotional intelligence for their employees, especially those seeking or in leadership positions.
The goal is to forge a culture that is inclusive of all people, creating an all-embracing tribe that celebrates our collective similarity as human beings, while appreciating and learning from our differences. Together, we can find safety and comfort in evidence-based information, rejecting senseless bunk while respectfully disagreeing on nuances.