Why did humans evolve to be so defensive of our beliefs?

Working with teenagers, you get used to seeing a very particular and charming side of the human animal: defensive behavior. A simple suggestion that students might want to ask their teacher for help or actually open their textbook can lead to them quickly adopting the policy that “a strong offense is the best defense.”

Of course, you don’t have to be a teenager to act this way. We all do it sometimes and right now a lot of people are doing it. Why is this behavior come out so strongly in teenagers/21st Century humans? Because of insecurity. Teenagers are still making sense of the world. They don’t quite know what to believe. And, in many senses, we’re all like teenagers right now. Even if we knew the world, progress is now moving so quickly that we don’t know the world anymore. The #jobocalypse is giving us JOB INSECURITY and globalization is shoving the cultures of the world together in an experience that Mixed Mental Artists call humanity’s first family dinner. We’re all kind of freaking out right now.

We’ve all seen this defensiveness and we all know it’s linked to insecurity but the question is why. Well, in order to make sense of that, you have to think about what culture was in our dim and distant past: it was the set of beliefs, rituals and practices that allowed us to SURVIVE in a particular environment. Your culture WAS literally the difference between life and death.

Since you’re already getting your yellow belt, you’re already hip to the idea that cultures are uniquely suited to an environment. What you might not have realized is why you evolved to avoid excessive cultural change. Culture is like genes in that sense. You don’t want lots of mutations. Mostly, you want stability to keep your cultural toolkit intact. So, when someone comes in and tries to CHANGE your culture, you want a brain that gets super defensive. Culture is the secret sauce to surviving in a particular environment. You don’t want someone messing with the secret sauce if it works. It’s also why we guard our cultures so jealously.

The problem is that while our brains evolved for mostly STABLE environments we now live in a mostly UNSTABLE environment. The environment (or market) is constantly changing. Holding onto your old-assed secret sauce is the WORST choice you can make. Instead, you constantly have to be trying to update your secret sauce to a world in which the #jobocalypse is destroying old opportunities and simultaneously creating new ones. This is why you Ed Hess and Katherine Ludwig wrote a book called Humility is The New Smart. It’s also why Ed’s previous book was Learn or Die. In an age where the environment is constantly shifting, defensiveness is actually the WORST response. You want to be open to having all your most cherished beliefs questioned because, as countless industries have found, the way things have always worked isn’t always how they’re going to continue to work. This is a RADICAL shift in how humans think about culture (and beliefs as a subset of that). Culture is no longer your identity. It’s a toolkit that you will have to manage without letting your ego or a sense of tradition get in the way.

Fortunately, the other side of globalization is that you now have at your fingertips access to all the cultures of the world. You can easily add to your toolkit by borrowing from other cultures. So, don’t let questions of identity get in the way. Steal like an artist. Appropriate culture (and share it) freely and often. And if doing that causes people to get defensive, then just know that defensiveness is the surest sign that someone doesn’t know how to embrace the instability and insecurity of this new world. Working with teens, you come to learn that defensiveness is not a sign you should back down. It’s a teenager’s (unproductive) way of asking for help. And that is true at any age.

When Katie O’Brien and I co-wrote The Straight-A Conspiracy, we came up with a simple way to explain this. It’s not you; it’s what you do. There’s no need to take it personally, kids. No matter what your age. We’re all feeeeeeeling insecure right now. Rather than ganging up on each other, let’s all gang up on that problem.


Originally published at mixedmentalarts.co on August 15, 2017.