Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
Many people believe that in the face of profound evil, they would have the courage to speak up. It might be harder than we think.
- After World War II, many psychologists wanted to address the question of how it was that people could go along with the evil deeds of fascist regimes.
- Solomon Asch's experiment alarmingly showed just how easily we conform and how susceptible we are to group influence.
- People often will not only sacrifice truth and reason to conformity but also their own health and sense of right and wrong.
It's the last question of the quiz, and Chloë knows the answer: it's Bolivia. Yes, it's definitely Bolivia. She went there last year, so she ought to know.
But then Shaun says it's Panama, and all the others agree with him. Chloë's sure it's Bolivia, but Shaun's so confident, the others now are nodding furiously along with him.
"What do you think, Chloë?" she's asked. She pauses for a moment.
"Yeah... Shaun's probably right. Put Panama," she mumbles.
The question of conformity
We've all been Chloë. Humans are social animals with families, tribes, and workplaces. So, it's no wonder that we try to fit in or conform. Social rejection is devastating, and we're biologically wired to avoid it. A sense of belonging and cooperation is essential to dealing with the world. Sometimes, though, this instinct can take us to ridiculous or dark places.
In the decades after World War II, politicians and academics were curious to know how it was that a country like Germany — so steeped in tradition, culture, and education — could fall into such a terrible regime within such a short time. Psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo conducted experiments to answer a question many everyday people were asking: "Could it happen here?"
Would you tell a laughing group of people that a joke was sexist or racist or bigoted? In your heart of hearts, do you think that you — surely a loving and kind person — would have had the courage to resist Nazism?
While the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments are pretty famous, one of the lesser known experiments was done in the early 1950s by Solomon Asch. They demonstrated just how far humans are willing to go for the sake of "fitting in" and conforming to the rules.
The Asch experiment
Asch had his volunteers perform a simple task: they were all given a series of lines drawn on a card and asked to choose which line was longest out of three options. The right answer was laughably obvious; for instance, line A was clearly the longest. When they were alone, people chose correctly nearly every time.
Asch then put his subjects in a group with actors who had been instructed to deliberately choose the wrong answer. Under these conditions, 75 percent of subjects agreed with the group consensus at least once, even though they were blatantly wrong.
What makes us conform?
A little surprised by this, Asch went on to do a series of related experiments and documented the factors that made it more or less likely that people will "conform" with the group consensus. Here are some of them:
The difficulty of the task. When there's a higher degree of ambiguity or uncertainty about the answer (for instance, the lines in the experiment weren't so obviously different), we're more likely to agree with others.
Reliability of the source. If someone within the group seems more reliable or knowledgeable about a topic — like a doctor about a disease — then we are more likely to go along with that person's view.
Publicity. People are much more likely to conform if they have to declare their judgment publicly rather than privately.
Degree of unanimity. The presence of merely one or two dissenting voices in a group of any size greatly increases the chances that others will not conform. Even one rebellious response is enough to make others follow suit.
The implications of conformity
Of course, conformity has implications far beyond quizzes with your friends or measuring lines.
A similar but more alarming study was conducted by John Darley and Bibb Latané in the 1970s. In this study, they had subjects appear for an apparent "job interview." As the subjects were waiting, smoke was slowly pumped into the room. If people were alone, they always would check to see what was wrong, or they would get up and leave.
But when subjects were in a room with actors pretending as if nothing was wrong, the majority made no move whatsoever. This happened despite people coughing and rubbing their eyes from all the smoke. Amazingly, people were willing to risk their own health rather than break with group behavior. (No wonder many of us are hesitant to interrupt a meeting at work to open a window because it's far too hot in the room.)
What do these experiments suggest about conformity? Well, as Asch said, we learned "that intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black." He concluded that it was "concerning." Indeed.
Would you tell a laughing group of people that a joke was sexist or racist or bigoted? In your heart of hearts, do you think that you — surely a loving and kind person — would have had the courage to resist Nazism? Psychology experiments strongly suggest you would not.
Undoubtedly, there are huge evolutionary, social, and emotional benefits to conformity. Many times, it has done great good. But equally true is that conformity can also bring out the darkest and worst in us.
Why are rapture ideologies exploding?
- The speed at which civilization is progressing has become overwhelming for modern humans and has caused what Jamie Wheal (author of Recapture the Rapture, founder of the Flow Genome Project, and host of the Collective Insights Podcast) calls a "collapse of meaning."
- For many, Meaning 1.0 (organized religion) and Meaning 2.0 (modern liberalism) no longer provide the structure and guidance that they used to. "It does feel like the handrails, the things we used to look to for stability and security, have evaporated," says Wheal. "If we've experienced a collapse of meaning, how do we go about restoring it?"
- In order to reach Meaning 3.0—which Wheal says is a blend of traditional religion and modern liberalism without the promise of an escape—we need to focus on mending trauma, reconnecting with inspiration, and connecting better with one another.
Escaping the marshmallow brain trap.
- Roman Krznaric, philosopher and author of the book "The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking," says that there are two parts of the human brain that are driving our decisions and ultimately determining what kind of legacy we leave behind for future generations.
- Short-term thinking happens in the marshmallow brain (named after the famous Stanford marshmallow test), while long term thinking and strategizing occurs in the acorn brain. By retraining ourselves to use the acorn brain more often, we can ensure that trillions of people—including our grandchildren and their grandchildren—aren't inheriting a depleted world and the worst traits that humankind has to offer.
- "At the moment we're using on average 1.6 planet earths each year in terms of our ecological footprint," says Krznaric, but that doesn't mean that it's too late to turn things around. Thinking long term about things like politics and education can help "rebuild our imaginations of what a civilization could be."
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.
The work consisted of 20,000 small green plexiglass squares, with intricate holes cut in each one, depicting vanished or endangered pieces of global cultural heritage, including buildings, monuments, and sculptures. Attached to fencing about 40 feet high, the squares collectively formed an image of the Arch of Triumph from Palmyra, Syria, an ancient treasure destroyed by fundamentalists in 2015.
Lit up at night or shimmering in daytime, this installation — the “Memory Matrix" — was a powerful reminder of the fragility of our cultural creations in the face of conflict and strife. But it also represented human resilience and the strength of collaboration: About 700 people helped construct it, including MIT community members from 11 different departments and programs, and participants from Egypt and Jordan.
“That project was amazing, because of the solidarity-building it created across campus and internationally," says MIT Associate Professor Azra Akšamija, who created the idea for the installation.
Akšamija is an uncommonly versatile artist, architect, and scholar whose work explores cultural identity and conflict. Her own career exemplifies resilience: Akšamija experienced displacement as a Bosnian Muslim whose family left in the early 1990s to escape the war at home. Having spent much of her life in Austria, the United States, and Germany, her work frequently explores encounters between Islam and the West.
Among other distinctions, Akšamija was given the 2013 Aga Khan Award for Architecture for her design of a prayer space's symbolic elements, at Austria's first-ever Muslim cemetery, in Altach (the cemetery itself was designed by Bernardo Bader). Some of her best-known designs are wearable art, including her "Frontier Vest" from 2006, a garment that works as a jacket for refugees and can be transformed into a Jewish prayer shawl or an Islamic prayer rug. Akšamija has detailed many of her ideas in a 2015 book, "Mosque Manifesto — Propositions for Spaces of Coexistence."
She has also been a program-builder at MIT, founding the Future Heritage Lab (FHL), which focuses on cultural preservation. At the Al Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, FHL members, along with their partners at German-Jordanian University, have helped Syrian refugees document their lives through photography, design, and poetry; the work was displayed at the 2017 Amman Design Week.
Over the past three years, camp residents, FHL members, and MIT students have developed a book about refugee inventions, which will be used in MIT's first design studio-based online course, "Design and Scarcity" (co-taught by Akšamija and FHL program director Melina Philippou). The book will also be translated for the camp and the wider region.
The Al Azraq camp refugees, Akšamija says, "design artifacts that are partly utilitarian, but are about preserving human dignity and memory, and keeping the feeling of who you are. It's powerful."
"Making things since I could think"
Akšamija grew up in Sarajevo, now part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of her grandfathers was an accomplished architect who had studied in Prague and, she says, "brought Czech modernism back to Bosnia." Design grabbed Akšamija's interest from a young age.
"I have been making things since I could think about myself," Akšamija says. "As a child I was completely obsessed with drawing and sculpture, which I would do for hours. Also, to get out of my piano lessons, I would make these plasticine sculptures and then display them on the piano, to distract the piano teacher."
At the time, Sarajevo was part of the larger republic of Yugoslavia. But in 1992, after war broke out in the Balkans, Akšamija and her family moved to Germany, then Austria, to escape the conflict. As an undergraduate, Akšamija studied architecture at the Graz University of Technology. Still, she says, the university "had these awesome art classes," and she wanted to incorporate art into her career.
Akšamija attended graduate school at Princeton University, receiving her MArch in 2004, while becoming active artistically; by 2004, her work had been displayed in high-profile institutions and exhibitions in Vienna, Valencia, Leipzig, and Liverpool. Joining MIT's PhD program in the history and theory of architecture, Akšamija continued to create art; in addition to "Frontier Vest," she produced noted works such as "Survival Mosque" (2005), a wearable and portable mosque equipped with a copy of the U.S. Constitution, earplugs (to block out the insults Muslims might hear), books, and more. Soon her work was exhibited in major art museums in London, New York, and Berlin.
Some of Akšamija's projects from this period went in novel directions. With nine other artists and architects, Akšamija co-curated the "Lost Highway Expedition" in 2006, a trek in which 300 people walked the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity that connects the capitals of the former Yugoslavia.
"After the war I had thought, 'I'm never going to Serbia again in my life,'" Akšamija says. However, for the trek, "we had events in cities and you had to find your own way, you had to make friends. And this is the way I went for the first time to the territories my country had the war with." Though the project was challenging, she says, "It was important to start discussing difficult topics. It doesn't mean they're fully resolved. Unfortunately, there are still many people denying that genocide happened in Bosnia."
For her dissertation, working with MIT professors Nasser Rabbat and Caroline Jones, as well as Harvard University's András Riedlmayer, Akšamija looked at the systematic targeting of cultural heritage in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1992-95 war, examining how Bosnian Muslims restored mosques that had been destroyed.
"These buildings were attacked because nationalists wanted to revise history and alienate people to an extent that they would never want to live together in the future," Akšamija says.
The questions driving her research apply anywhere, Akšamija says. "From the Balkans we can learn important lessons about how we live in spaces of fragmented commons. When that falls apart, how do you reconnect? What kinds of cultural institutions do we need to bridge divides and hold governments accountable? It is relevant globally. Who has the right to write their history, to be visible in public space, and who decides those things?"
After joining the MIT faculty, Akšamija earned tenure in 2019.
At MIT, Akšamija has found it gratifying to see students gravitate to her classes, to projects like "Memory Matrix," and to the Future Heritage Lab.
"MIT students care," Akšamija says. "They really want to do something to contribute to this world. This place is so inspiring."
At the same time, she notes, the Institute can be an intense academic setting, and instructors need to help sustain the sheer enjoyment of learning.
"You [can] lose sight of why you started doing things and what initially drew you to them, and it can be overwhelming," Akšamija says. "You see it with students. I like to create joy in things, especially in classes. That's why it's so amazing to teach here, because the students are so full of enthusiasm and joy. But also sometimes anxiety, and I think we all have responsibility here as teachers to take care of that. It's not about students performing for someone else, but becoming better versions of themselves."
Akšamija calls the current direction of her research "Performative Preservation." This is an approach to cultural preservation that uses "methods of contemporary arts and participatory art." She emphasizes that participation and co-creation are crucial to cultural restoration; physical structures can be rebuilt, but they will lack meaning without community involvement.
Her work is now on view at the Gallery for Contemporary Art, in Leipzig, Germany, and at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, with a new work slated for the 17th International Architecture Exhibition for the Venice Biennale, in May 2021. Curated by Hashim Sarkis, dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, the Biennale's theme is "How Will We Live Together?" Akšamija's project, "Silk Road Works," a symbolic construction site for a pluralist society, will be part of a section at the Arsenale titled, "Among Diverse Beings."
As always, Akšamija hopes for a thoughtful response from her audience, without knowing exactly what that will be.
"When you work in public space, it's not about finding a consensus, where we all have the same opinion and are happily living together," Akšamija says. "It's about accepting and coming to terms with conflicting attitudes and ideas, and making space for them."