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The New Science of Tribalism in Our Divided World
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Hivemind: A collective consciousness in which we share consensus thoughts, emotions, and opinions; a phenomenon whereby a group of people function as if with a single mind.
Our views of the world are shaped by the stories told by our self-selected communities. Whether seeking out groups that share our tastes, our faith, our heritage, or other interests, since the dawn of time we have taken comfort in defining ourselves through our social groups. But what happens when we only socialize with our chosen group, to the point that we lose the ability to connect to people who don’t share our passions? What happens when our tribes merely confirm our world view, rather than expand it?
We have always been a remarkably social species-our moods, ideas, and even our perceptions of reality synchronize without our conscious awareness. The advent of social media and smartphones has amplified these tendencies in ways that spell both promise and peril. Our hiveish natures benefit us in countless ways-combatting the mental and physical costs of loneliness, connecting us with collaborators and supporters, and exposing us to entertainment and information beyond what we can find in our literal backyards. But of course, there are also looming risks-echo chambers, political polarization, and conspiracy theories that have already begun to have deadly consequences.
Leading a narrative journey from the site of the Charlottesville riots to the boardrooms of Facebook, considering such diverse topics as zombies, neuroscience, and honeybees, psychologist and emotion regulation specialist Sarah Rose Cavanagh leaves no stone unturned in her quest to understand how social technology is reshaping the way we socialize. It’s not possible to turn back the clocks, and Cavanagh argues that there’s no need to; instead, she presents a fully examined and thoughtful call to cut through our online tribalism, dial back our moral panic about screens and mental health, and shore up our sense of community.
With compelling storytelling and shocking research, Hivemind is a must-read for anyone hoping to make sense of the dissonance around us.
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A South Carolina textile mill, 1962. A humid June afternoon. Summer was the workshop’s busiest season, and everyone had been putting in a lot of hours. This particular week was made more stressful by reports of small, mite-like bugs in the factory, perhaps brought in with a shipment of cloth. As the afternoon wore on, one young woman suddenly complained of feeling a bug bite. Soon after, she fainted dead away.
On Tuesday of the following week, another woman who believed she had been bitten fainted. That afternoon, a third woman. Soon after, four other women reported to the doctor with symptoms of dizziness and nausea. Within eleven days of what would later be known as an epidemic, sixty-two people were medically treated for various physical symptoms due to bug bites. Their reports of the bites were quite specific and detailed. One textile worker claimed, “I felt something bite me on my leg and when I scratched my leg, the little white bug came up under my fingernail. I got weak in the legs and got sick.” Tellingly, while this worker recalls a white bug, most other reports described black bugs.
Extensive testing by the mill and outside authorities revealed that only a few bugs had been found, the mites were not known to bite humans, and they certainly could not have caused systemic problems like those experienced by the textile workers. But the employees were verifiably losing consciousness, vomiting, and experiencing shakes. Reviewing the available evidence, the doctors and other experts on the case came to the startling conclusion that the maladies suffered by the workers were, at the end of the day, all in their head.1
Cases of alarming symptoms spreading rapidly from person to person without being tied to any physical causes occur throughout documented history, from the Salem witch trials to the Bin Laden itch.2 The term for such occurrences is hysterical contagion, which you may know by its more extreme form, mass hysteria. All involve fear of a powerful unknown threat spreading through a close-knit group. A more contemporary example than the june bug story involved a group of teenage girls at a New York high school who began exhibiting symptoms reminiscent of Tourette’s syndrome—involuntary twitches and vocalizations called tics. The affected girls were profiled on talk shows, their symptoms were displayed on videos uploaded to YouTube, and their struggles were discussed openly on Facebook. The case was so high-profile that Erin Brockovich, legal clerk and environmental activist (played by Julia Roberts in the eponymous biopic), flew in to help investigate. But exhaustive testing revealed no evidence of any sort of toxin that could explain the girls’ symptoms and pointed to the possibility of a mass psychogenic illness, perhaps exacerbated by social and national media attention.3
These cases have in common a tight-knit social group with a constrained physical location, the occurrence of a single “index” case that launches the contagion, and the fact that many of the symptoms—among them dizziness and involuntary motor movements—also manifest during states of acute anxiety. Human beings are so social that we can literally make ourselves sick just by observing others, the symptoms spreading from one person to the next by the power of ideas alone.
These hysterical contagions are rare. But vivid instances of emotions and ideas diffusing from one body to another, one mind to another, are not. We are by nature deeply social animals. In this book we’ll see just how ingrained that sociality is—to the point where we catch thoughts and moods and, yes, even panic attacks from one another as easily as we exchange cold viruses in midwinter. We synchronize our thoughts, our moods, and our brain activity. In this book we’ll tackle both the mechanisms and the implications of this synchronicity using psychology, neuroscience, history, anthropology, literature, and philosophy.
Of course, we don’t synchronize with all members of humanity equally; we preferentially harmonize with people who are close to us by birth, location, and shared culture, whether that culture is writ large (at the macro level of entire societies) or small (at the micro level of groups that help form our multilayered identities, for example ethnicity, political party, and even sport fandoms). These tribal tendencies toward forming ingroups can shape our most cherished traditions and moments, but they can also lead to tension with outgroups that can have devastating consequences.
To unite all of this research on our hypersocial, groupish natures, I use the metaphor of the hivemind. It is not my metaphor—the notion of a hivemind, a group sort of consciousness and/or collective body of knowledge, has long been discussed in both academic settings and in common parlance. But before we go further, I’d like to spell out what the hivemind means to me in the framework of this book.
For one, the hivemind refers to the extent to which we are capable of entering a state of mind that is more collectively focused, in which we share attention and goals and emotions. At times we may even experience an expansion of our consciousness* to incorporate our social others. As positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson once said: “Emotions are not bounded by skin. It isn’t that one person’s emotions affect the other… the two people are sharing the emotion.”*
Second, hivemind also refers to the principle that what we know and feel is not determined in a vacuum of independent experiences and decisions but rather is shaped by the collective. Our synchronicity means that ideas and fashions and ways of interpreting the world have their own sort of life outside the individual people who contribute to it, something eighteenth-to nineteenth-century German philosophers called the zeitgeist, or spirit of the times. We’ll discuss a psychological concept called “appraisals,” which are interpretations or stories about the world, and we’ll see both how the hivemind influences the appraisals we make and how, in turn, the appraisals we choose shape our very reality. The hivemind collectively decides what is true, what is proper, what is normal, what is cool, and what is important. But it isn’t just positive and negative judgments that are shaped by the hivemind. Rather, the hivemind is also critical in shaping our perception of the world, in building our consensus reality.
Our deeply entrenched sociality has always been with us, but the advent of both smartphones and social media may be sharply escalating our synchronicity. We are at a watershed moment, for these new technologies have not only allowed us to access a world of information and communication but have also ushered in a revolution in our social functioning. We are suddenly able to access the thoughts and emotions of our social partners at all hours of the day and night, to see their lives unfold in real time—even if they live on the other side of the world. While most think pieces would have you believe that these changes spell irreparable harm to our attention spans and deepest relationships, the truth is much more nuanced than that. While these new social technologies are associated with worrying trends toward echo chambers, radicalization, and societal fragmentation, there is also mounting evidence that, in other ways, they are drawing us closer together, introducing new ways of connecting, and extending our cognitive horizons.
Blaming smartphones and social media for unhappiness is a dominant narrative in our contemporary hivemind. But while feelings of disconnection in our modern age do co-occur with the invention of social technologies, it may be that the latter is not causing the former. As Johann Hari writes in his book Lost Connections, “The Internet was born into a world where many people had already lost their sense of connection to each other… our obsessive use of social media is an attempt to fill a hole, a great hollowing, that took place before anyone had a smartphone.” In this book I will argue that the true disconnection is not the screens we hold between us but our overemphasis on the individual over the collective, ambition over altruism, personal pleasure over human progress. I will also argue that, ironically, our appraisals of fear surrounding social technology may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of anxiety and unhappiness—for us, and for our children.
Moreover, I will propose that how you use social technology may be critical for whether social media has a beneficial or detrimental effect on your happiness. We’ll build this model together by examining quite a lot of evidence, but for now we can sum it up thus: using social media to actively enhance your existing relationships or to fill gaps in your social support network is likely to result in positive outcomes, but using social technology to supplant face-to-face time with people you love or activities like sleep or exercise (especially if you do so through passive “lurking”) is likely to result in negative outcomes. As one major review of the literature put it, “Whether behavior on social network sites is good or bad for well-being depends on whether the behavior advances or thwarts innate human desires for acceptance and belonging.”4 In other words, use social media to enhance and augment your social connections, not to eclipse them.
I have three aims in writing this book. The first is to explore the extent to which we operate at times more like coordinated honeybees in a hive than lonely, separate individuals, that our thoughts and ideas and emotions spill over and leap from mind to mind. The second is to evaluate the extent to which recent advances in technology—namely, smartphones and social media—may be amplifying these collective tendencies for both good and ill. The third is to take a stab at answering the big question: What now? How can we avoid the worst perils of our hiveminds? How can we do so while also harnessing the marvelous symbiotic power of group action and these powerful new tools we have at our disposal?
I wrote the first proposal for this book in early fall 2015—before Brexit, before the 2016 US presidential election, before Facebook became both complicit in the spread of false information and an emotional minefield of comment feuds among people who previously seemed to like each other quite a lot. I was on sabbatical from my professor job, training for a half marathon, and experimenting with recipes from Haruki Murakami novels. I thought that this book would be fun, a lighthearted romp through some of my favorite research in psychology and neuroscience, a new way of looking at the power and promise of social technologies rather than endlessly wringing our hands over their bevy of distractions.
These are different times, and now this is a different sort of book—one rife with dehumanization and conspiracy theories and political polarization.
It won’t be all doom and gloom, though. We’re going to go zip lining together, and gambling, and dog watching. We’ll hear about some truly amazing science being conducted in laboratories around the globe and talk with people who are working hard on the ground floor of social activism and digital education to try to turn this ship around.
This book is the story of how I came to see that a body of research I’ve spent most of my career contributing to might offer a solution to the polarized mess we’re in. It is also the story of a bit short of a year, a year that I spent reading everything I could get my hands on and talking to everyone I could find who might have light to shed on the nature of our collective selves and how social technologies are impacting our humanity. We’re going to drive all over New England and up and down the Atlantic coast, talking to people. We’ll talk to people in the canyons of Salt Lake City and by the banyan trees of Tallahassee. We’ll talk to them in restaurants and rooftop bars and coffeeshops. You’ll hear enough about the food we eat and the libations we imbibe for my writers’ group companion to snark, “What do you think you’re writing here, Game of Thrones?”
In the first section of the book, I’ll endeavor to convince you that while you have been living your life to this point as though you are a unique, individual “you” with a personal history, ideas about the world, and set of motivations, you have been operating under a mistaken set of assumptions. This you, the you you probably refer to as “I,” is both formed by and intermingled with all of the other people who populate your cultural wing of the human hive. Absent these interactions with your social others, without anyone to give you feedback or to differentiate yourself from, you might not even have a sense of self. Turn-of-the-twentieth-century sociologist Charles Horton Cooley argued that influence from our social others “enters into our system of thought as a matter of course, and affects our conduct as surely as water affects the growth of a plant” and called this socially formed identity the looking-glass self.5 In large part, we source our identity from the reflection our social others hold up to us. He observed that “the mind lives in perpetual conversation”—we spend at least part of every waking hour either conversing with social others or imagining future conversations in our minds.
We’ll try to answer the question: How do my thoughts become yours? How do we learn to tap into a cultural hivemind of knowledge and beliefs and biases, our collective library of knowledge? We’ll consider the fact that most of what we know about the world (that Earth revolves around the sun, that gasoline turns into energy that our cars use to run, that we get sick when tiny pathogens invisible to the naked eye invade our bloodstream) are facts that most of us have no direct experience with but merely absorbed from our teachers and television shows and conversations with others. Among other interviews, we’ll talk with an evolutionary biologist about the intersection of her field of study and fiction, evaluating the degree to which, as historian Kelly Baker writes, “the boundaries between the real and the fictional are ever so porous. We want them to be firm, solid, and impenetrable, but instead, things slide through.… Fantasy can stalk our waking hours, too.”6
We don’t treat all human beings equally, feeling a greater kinship to some than to others, welcoming certain people across our thresholds of inclusion and leaving others out in the cold. We’ll talk to a biological anthropologist about why this is and how it happens, how we befriend and fall in love with some individuals and not others, how we include people of certain nationalities and personalities and political persuasions in our moral circles and exclude others. At a rooftop bar in the Big Apple, we’ll explore the impact of social technology on our well-being—how smartphones and social media can both build us up (by enhancing our existing and creating new social connections) and take us down (through internet shame spirals and harassment).
We’ll then travel to the site of the 2017 Charlottesville riots to meet social neuroscientist Jim Coan. Jim believes that on a neurological level, we rely on people being close to us. Soothing behaviors from our close others, like hugs, hand-holding, and reassuring smiles, calm us down in a very physical sense—in terms of reducing blood pressure, stress hormones, and other alarm-related reactions in the body. Absent these interactions, not just our mental health but also our physical health suffers. As Jim says, “Loneliness is tied to being more likely to die at any time of any cause at any phase of life.” He thinks his research partially explains this surprising finding. We’ll also see what Jim has to say about research on some of the worst of our social human tendencies—our willingness to dehumanize and even demonize people who don’t belong to our tribe.
In the darkest chapter of the book we’ll talk with historian Kelly Baker, who has written one book about the Ku Klux Klan and its relationship to mainstream Protestant culture in the United States, and another about our fascination with zombies. I’ll argue that conspiracy theories, mass movements, and cults all have certain principles in common, and that these characteristic principles have hivemind stamped all over them. Worse, we’ll see that the development of the web and social media has allowed adherents of some of these paranoid groups and ways of thinking to fuse in alarming ways.
Feeling decidedly queasy after all of that, we’ll begin meeting with people who are determined to appeal to the better angels of our collective souls. During an ice storm we’ll meet with clinical psychologist Nnamdi Pole, who will encourage us to consider that people vary in their degree of vulnerability, and we’ll adopt that lens to ask whether some people are more susceptible to the negative impacts of social media than others—and consider what we can do to protect them.
In the shadow of the mountains of Salt Lake City we’ll consider how our narrative of fear and anxiety surrounding social media may be poisoning our well-being, and how our children may be best served by us taking a deep, calming breath and working with them to develop healthy technology habits.
We will then explore an area of research that I have spent the past decade or two investigating: that of emotion regulation, narrative, and meaning-making. Grounded in our earlier examination of how our understanding of the world and who we are as people is shaped by our collective, we’ll investigate how changing the story we tell ourselves can quite literally change our reality—especially when our entire hive buys in. We’ll then take this work on emotion regulation and narrative for a test-drive. We’ll interview psychologists Keith Maddox and Heather Urry, who are helping college students regulate their anxieties about discussing racial issues in cross-race contexts.
To be sure I don’t leave you in despair, we’ll end the book by considering one of the greatest unifying forces known to man—puppies. I’ll talk to lead trainer Kathy Foreman at NEADS: World Class Service Dogs about how service dogs are taught to meld with their owners, to anticipate their needs before the owners even know of them, to be their eyes and ears and paws. We’ll take the lessons from this interview to evaluate the extent to which human happiness may rely on tending to our collective, prosocial natures as much as (if not more than) it does on fulfilling our individualistic goals and desires.
We’ll conclude by arguing that it is critically important that we learn to reach outside of our narrow ingroups, that we focus less on our tribal natures and more on our hiveish ones.
WHAT THIS BOOK IS NOT
This book is not a polemic. You won’t close it feeling that you know whether social technologies are a net good or bad for humanity. Our relationship with technology and how it intersects with our collective natures is what writer and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom and others call a wicked problem, one of the many “tangled, layered and deeply urgent dilemmas” facing modern humanity that cannot be solved by a think piece or one-sided argument. “For if there’s one thing I know from studying wicked problems and reading the great writers who wrote into existence our world,” Cottom writes, “it is that a smart person avoids certainty.”7 One of the central messages of this book is that our attraction to false binaries, simple stories of good and evil, and quick fixes is among the most dangerous aspects of our hivemind. I refuse to play into that. I will present you with research evidence from psychology and neuroscience labs from around the world (including my own), and we’ll check in with some of the best thinkers and best writers on the topic. But this is a wicked problem that won’t be solved by one person or one book or one perspective.
This book is also not a media sciences book, or a technology book, or a sociology book, and as such won’t address many of the problems with social technology that operate on these levels. The social media platforms as they currently exist pose real, present dangers that need fixing both from within (on the part of the technology companies) and without (governmental regulation). A short list of these dangers includes digital monopolies, threats to personal privacy, algorithmic manipulation, propagation of already existing social inequalities, threats to democratic governing, Russian bots, the spread of false information, and organized harassment campaigns.*
There are numerous fantastic people covering these issues, their ramifications, and some possible solutions. To name just three, check out Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, Chris Gilliard’s scholarship on privacy and how modern technology both exacerbates old and manufactures new inequalities, and Zeynep Tufekci’s TED Talk (and related work) called “We’re Building a Dystopia Just to Make People Click on Ads.”
In a chapter titled “The Problem with Facebook Is Facebook,” Vaidhyanathan sums up one of these problems succinctly: “A global system that links 2.2. billion people across hundreds of countries, allows every user to post content indiscriminately, develops algorithms that favor highly charged content, and is dependent on a self-service advertising system that precisely targets ads using massive surveillance and elaborate personal dossiers cannot be reformed at the edges.” I urge you to read the work of these scholars and others, and to support legislation (and legislators) willing to make changes to protect our digital and human rights as these platforms spread and are increasingly in the control of just a few hands.
WHAT THIS BOOK IS
This is a psychology book, concerned with the much more personal issue of what happens when you take an ultrasocial animal, with all of its hiveish proclivities and deep desire for human connection, and you give it a slim, handheld screen that conveys the thoughts and emotions of all of its social partners, accessible day and night.
Social media platforms come and go (remember MySpace?), and some of the current giants may fall in the wake of recent privacy and manipulation scandals. There also seems to be a growing transition from more outward-facing, public social sharing (e.g., Facebook) toward more inward-facing, private social sharing (e.g., group texting). But I don’t think connecting with one another over digital technologies—whether through texting or Instagram or FaceTime or virtual reality—is going anywhere, at least anytime soon.
This book will tackle what these social technologies mean for the human experience. Your experience. I wrote this book in part to write my way into understanding where we are right now as a country, as a Western society, and to a lesser extent as a species. Writing it gave me some level of hope and reassurance. I hope it does the same for you, while also illuminating paths forward to greater collective good.
For a little insight into my approach before we begin: I am an emotion regulation researcher. My research focuses on the strategies people use to manipulate their emotions in order to meet the goals they have. I have studied these strategies by using computerized programs to assess people’s behaviors and experiences, psychophysiological recordings to assess their bodily reactions (such as skin sweating and heart rate), and neuroimaging methods to examine their brain function. I have explored whether emotion regulation helps us understand how college students learn new topics in the classroom, why some people with recurrent episodes of depression fully recover and others do not, and why people who have lived through the trauma of a natural disaster experience varying levels of distress afterward.
But even more than I am a researcher, I am a teacher. From the very beginning of my academic career I sought to spend more of my time inside the classroom than out of it. When I teach, my students and I do not ground our intellectual discovery only in the psychological research literature but also in any domain of knowledge that might illuminate our inquiry. I took this teaching-informed approach to writing the book that you hold in your hands. We’ll consider quite a bit of psychology, but we’re also going to delve into history, anthropology, evolutionary biology, philosophy, and literature. My apologies to my colleagues in these disciplines for any unintentional mischaracterizations or oversimplifications. Feel free to @ me on Twitter.
My third area of expertise, related to the second, is that I have spent a fair bit of time the past few years traveling around the country talking with fellow teachers about how to better our craft. As part of this work, I have done quite a lot of thinking about how one group of people (educators) influence the thoughts and emotions of other people (students) and how we faculty developers can influence the whole collective. This work has certainly shaped how I think about our social natures. Working with faculty across numerous disciplines other than social science also has lent me an appreciation of all of the many ways of knowing about the world.
This book is a work of creative, narrative nonfiction. According to the conventions of the genre, I tweaked the presentation of material slightly to increase clarity and readability and to more thoughtfully draw meaning. The interviews did not all occur in the order in which they are presented in the book (though only a few are shuffled). I recorded all of the interviews and transcribed them, but I did clean up disfluencies and occasionally changed the order of topics to follow a more coherent thread of logic. Anecdotes from my past obviously use reconstructed dialogue, since I didn’t have a recorder with me at the time or think to use one if I did.
Since this book is meant to be enjoyed by a general audience rather than an academic one, I didn’t litter the text with excessive citations and numerals. I cited specific research studies and new information that I discovered in writing the book—you can find these organized by chapter in a section at the end called Notes. Books I referenced directly you can find in a separate section called Hivemind Reading List. For the most part I trusted the expertise of the book authors and the experts I interviewed, though here and there I inserted additional references where I thought a motivated reader might want to follow up.
As this book is written by an American living in America and interviewing other Americans, it is obviously steeped in an American perspective. Issues of technology and social experience manifest in different ways across the globe, but every book has a page limit and I’ve focused on what I have seen closest to home.
Without further ado: welcome to the hivemind.
- On Sale
- Sep 3, 2019
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing