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Polarization, Myth & Tribal Consciousness

Photo: Jonathan Borba / Unsplash

In my circle of friends, we think of Trump voters as blind to reality and driven by myth. For instance, the idea that COVID is no more harmful than the flu. This is a myth in the derogatory sense of the word: an assumption about reality that is divorced from reality.

Can we legitimately say that polarization has cleaved the country into roughly two halves, one of which is delusional? Is it fair to say that only Trump voters believe in myths, while we are impervious to them?

Myth and human societies

This kind of conclusion flies in the face of what Yuval Harari has to say about myth. His book, Sapiens, is a sweeping overview of our history as a species. He makes the case that myth is the glue that binds us together. Were it not for our ability to “see” the invisible as if it were real, it would not have been possible to harness collective energy and form lasting societies.

Harari writes: “Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. “

Yuval Harari comes to this conclusion from his perspective as a historian. I find that a psychological perspective helps us understand why belief in myth is so deeply anchored in human nature. I am specifically referring to attachment research.

I will only mention a single piece of research, but this is not an isolated finding. This is an experiment dating about 35 years, which has been successfully replicated many times. It is widely accepted as foundational to our understanding of attachment and parenting. I am referring to the “Still Face” experiment by Ed Tronick. If you search for it on YouTube, you’ll see a compelling 3-minute video that he created.

Attachment: mother and infant

In the video, you see a mother and infant on a split-screen so that both faces are visible simultaneously. They have a wonderful interaction, attuning to each other. This speaks for the fact that we have an innate ability and need to seek connection actively. Infants have the drive to make signals and respond to signals that foster a growing sense of attunement.

The “Still Face” name reflects the second part of the experiment. The mother is instructed to remain still-faced despite her baby’s attempt to connect. You see how quickly this affects the infant. It’s very dramatic and actually painful to see how distraught the infant feels. Fortunately, the experiment itself does not result in lasting harm to the child. It is a very short rupture of attunement, which is immediately repaired as the mother responds again to the child.

What the experiment shows is how powerfully we are affected by both attunement and the rupture of attunement. The process of building trust through rupture and repair is wired in us. It is a fundamental characteristic of our humanity that we collectively developed through evolution. And each of us, individually, re-enacts this development as part of growing up.

Being so sensitive to being smiled at and ignored (or frowned at) means that our interaction has a major role in regulating our behavior. I will now address how this characteristic is related to how societies implicitly shape individuals into society members.

Social regulation

Imagine the kind of social environment in which we lived when our species evolved into Homo Sapiens. Human beings lived in small tribes of hunter-gatherers. People were with each other all the time. They were in close visual contact. They could immediately read on other people’s faces whether they were appreciated or frowned upon. The tribe’s social regulation was based on our built-in need and ability to attune with others and, in so doing, build trust. Instinctively, tribe members would adjust their behavior to elicit a sense of harmony with the tribe.

What then happened when our remote ancestors started experimenting with networks of connected tribes? They would regularly gather to exchange goods or celebrate together, but, most of the time, each tribe would live separately. There was no day-to-day connection between members of different tribes. And therefore, no possibility of social regulation through a direct experience of appreciation or disapproval. Under such conditions, we might expect that it would not have been possible to maintain social cohesion between different tribes.

What is the glue that could bind together separate tribes despite the lack of everyday connection? There was a void, and it was filled by the power of our imagination. Because human beings have an innate need for connection, imagination led people to develop the sense that there is something larger than us watching us. People started imagining that spirits were watching them, the same way that the people living close to them were actually watching them. And the social regulation function that came through facial encouragement or discouragement was then achieved through spirits’ intervention.

What this has to do with polarization

What does this all of this have to do with the discussion that started this article: that polarization has cleaved the country into two halves, one of which might be delusional?

For one thing, we cannot legitimately state that only others are driven by myth. No society can function without myth. We are at our most delusional when we think we are impervious to myth.

As the glue that binds a family or a tribe together, myth is related to the primal process of building trust. Its archetype is the bonding of mother and infant through attunement. This is essentially an emotional process. The sense of “truth” that we get through it is emotional truth: “I trust this person implicitly.”

Emotional certainty vs rigidity

It would be fine if we could remain aware that we are in the domain of emotional truth. Unfortunately, we transfer this sense of implicit certainty to statements of principle. We conflate the sense of deep trust we experience emotionally with the certainty that our thoughts are just as trustworthy, i.e. absolutely true.

Let’s see how this plays out in a polarized society. The echo chamber phenomenon is working along the emotional lines of the “Still Face” experiment. From our tribe, we get the attunement that reinforces our sense of identification with the tribe and increasingly ties our identity to it. From the other tribe, we get the dismissal that increases the distrust we have for it.

In this context, the self-evident truths of our tribe become our rallying cries. These are not just ideas; they are expressions of our commonality. Believing implicitly in the self-evident truths of our tribe takes an existential dimension. It gives us a sense of being on firm ground in an otherwise unmoored world.

Good people on both sides?

You may wonder whether I am going into some form of nihilistic relativism: that all opinions and all belief systems are essentially equivalent because they are all, at some basic level, myths.

This is definitely not my intention. For instance, I am convinced that there is such a thing as a scientific perspective on COVID and how to deal with it. And I do not put this on the same level as wishful thinking about ignoring COVID or minimizing the threat it represents.

The issue is not whether any specific self-evident truth is fanciful or based on reality. It is about our relationship with our self-evident truths.

When our sense of existential safety is linked to our tribal myth, it is very difficult to relate to another tribe. Let’s take, as an example, the COVID situation. Trusting a scientific perspective on COVID can make us feel that people who don’t share this perspective are deluded and dangerous. That is, we see them as an obstacle. Our focus is on removing the obstacle: we need to convince the other tribe that they are wrong or find a way to override them.

From opinion to connection

We intensify the polarization when we identify with an opinion. We intensify the sense that we belong to different universes. In each of the separate universes we inhabit, people use the basic human algorithm for building trust. This accentuates the sense of trust and connection within each group while widening the gap between them.

Instead, we need to break through the wall that separates the two universes to find connections that build trust and consensus. From this place, it is possible to create a larger sense of connection necessary for joint action.




Exploring the many aspects of relational mindfulness

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Serge Prengel

Serge Prengel

Serge Prengel is a therapist. He is the author of Bedtime Stories For Your Inner Child and other books. See:

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