13 January 2011

We are all tribal - oxytocin makes us so

We are all tribal. Or, as social scientists would say, ethnocentric. This is, of course, old news. Observing the way humans loyally attach themselves to their groups, whatever those groups may be founded on—race, religion, country, profession, favourite hockey team, whatever—while exhibiting suspicion of other groups, makes it clear we are tribal creatures. Us and them kind of creatures.

What is new is that scientists have now identified a hormone that makes us that way—a tribal hormone. It's called oxytocin and it's the same hormone, produced in the hypothalamus region of the brain, that does everything from urge rat mothers to nurse their pups to make people trust each other more. But it doesn't inspire our warm and cuddly urges toward all others. In an article published in Science magazine, scientists report that the love and trust it promotes are only directed toward one's own group. It is, as a New York Times story puts it, "the hormone of the clan, not of universal brotherhood ... it is the agent of ethnocentrism."

It does not, however cause aggression toward the other, just defensiveness against them. In the words of the Science article, "Oxytocin drives a 'tend and defend' response in that it promot[es] in-group trust and cooperation, and defensive, but not offensive, aggression toward competing out-groups." That, at least, is a relief.

A principal author of the study, Carsten K.W. De Dreu, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, states, “In the ancestral environment it was very important for people to detect in others whether they had a long-term commitment to the group. Ethnocentrism is a very basic part of humans, and it’s not something we can change by education. That doesn’t mean that the negative aspects of it should be taken for granted.” No, to say the least, they should not be taken for granted. In a complex society, it often doesn't matter whether you are actively discriminating against others or just favouring your own, the result is equally harmful.

The important thing to understand is that we are all prejudiced in favour of our group and against the outsider. We can't help it—it's in our genes. What we can help is what we do about it. We can allow it to foster mistrust and hostility toward those who are different from us, or we can keep it in its place, apply the better parts of our minds, and treat others with unfailing kindness and respect. In other words, we can include everyone in the tribe.

That is the choice: submit to the dark side of the love hormone and intensify our tribalism, as we do in sports and in the military, or extend the good side to include others. Which we choose is the measure of our morality.

1 comment:

  1. The discovery of an alien civilization would go a lot way to unite humanity.

    It's a common theme of science fiction, such as in Arthur C. Clarke's 2010 where World War III was prevented when an alien message was transmitted to Earth.