“Having no doubts about what it believes to be truth or error and possessing a clear idea of its strength, the crowd is as authoritarian as it is intolerant.” It’s a perfect encapsulation of our current social media world — except it was written 120 years ago by Gustave Le Bon, in his classic book, The Psychology of Crowds.
Mobs, and the surrender of reason and judgment to group outrage, have always been with us. We can find examples throughout history. But technology, and especially social media, have amplified the most negative elements of our social wiring in ways that make it increasingly hard for us to access the more positive aspects of our social instincts. And this makes it a lot harder to cooperate and collectively solve the multiple crises we’re facing today. As Tristan Harris — something of a modern-day Gustave Le Bon and the central figure in The Social Dilemma — has said, technology hijacks our mind’s vulnerabilities. And not by accident. Once we realize how social media hijacks our brains and elevates our lesser selves, we’ll be better able to take control of our relationship with technology and replace the authoritarian, intolerant impulses that so often prevail online with the more humane qualities of compassion, empathy and reason.
We are, of course, social creatures. Fitting in with the group doesn’t just feel good — it fulfills an evolutionary need. Cooperating and being accepted by the collective makes us safer and less vulnerable to threats. It can be a matter of life and death. As Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Yale and expert on social connection, put it, being ostracized “was considered an enormous sanction in ancient times — to be cast out of your group was deadly.”
Our brains have evolved accordingly. Using an fMRI, researchers from Emory University scanned the brains of participants being pressured to conform to a majority consensus that was obviously wrong. As the participants attempted to stand up for themselves and break off from the group, the amygdala was activated. That’s the region of our brain that responds to danger and threats with fear and stress. When this happens, the more rational parts of our brains that allow us to think critically and make reasoned decisions are deactivated. Even though the stakes in a controlled experiment being done safely in a lab aren’t life or death, our brains still respond that way to the possibility of exclusion. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman coined the term “amygdala hijack” for when we have a strong and immediate emotional reaction to a situation that doesn't actually warrant it.
Just how powerful our desire to fit into a group is can be seen in a famous series of experiments on conformity by psychologist Solomon Asch. Participants were given a simple visual task to compare the length of a few lines. The answers were obvious. But unknown to the participants, a few people masquerading as participants were planted among the group and instructed to give an answer that was clearly wrong. One-third of the participants ended up going along with the obviously incorrect answer, even though they answered with 98% accuracy in private.
What’s happening now is that we’ve ceded our public conversation, and the psychological levers of our deepest social impulses, to technology. It’s what Harris calls “the greatest psychological experiment we’ve ever run on humanity.” The results of that experiment are that we’re in perpetually hypervigilant fight-or-flight mode, signaling our tribal loyalty by looking for enemies.
That’s not a byproduct of social media — that is the product. A recent study by researchers from Yale showed how social media amplifies moral outrage and drives even moderate groups toward more extreme positions. “Social media’s incentives are changing the tone of our political conversations online,” says study leader William Brady. “People learn to express more outrage over time because they are rewarded by the basic design of social media.” Another study by researchers from NYU found that adding just one word of moral outrage to a tweet increased retweets by 17%.
“Each time you swipe your finger, people get something that confirms affirmation, not information,” Harris says. “And that has shattered our shared assumptions.” And the toxic run-off of our social media-fueled culture of outrage is fear. Anne Applebaum has spent decades writing about authoritarian regimes in 20th century Europe. As she writes in The Atlantic, the most effective method of control wasn’t violence, but peer pressure and the fear of sticking out of the group. “Even without a clear risk to their life, people felt obliged — not just for the sake of their career but for their children, their friends, their spouse — to repeat slogans that they didn’t believe, or to perform acts of public obeisance to a political party they privately scorned.” Sound familiar? “Fear of the internet mob, the office mob, or the peer-group mob is producing some similar outcomes,” Applebaum writes. “How much intellectual life is now stifled because of fear of what a poorly worded comment would look like if taken out of context and spread on Twitter?”
We all have a need to belong to a group. And our sense of moral outrage is essential in fighting injustice. But we also all have a choice to act on the better angels of our nature, a choice made harder because of the way social media incentivizes the darker side of our social impulses. “Mobs are awful things and they’re a part of our human nature,” says Christakis, who himself was the target of a viral storm of student outrage at Yale in 2015. That experience is part of what led him to write his latest book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. “For too long,” he writes, “the scientific community has been overly focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for tribalism, violence, selfishness and cruelty. The bright side has been denied the attention it deserves.” The reason we form social networks, he says, is simple: “because the benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs.”
The problem — or the complication — is that we’ve radically changed the way we connect. And the way we connect now is designed to increase those costs. As researchers at Beihang University in China found, it’s not joy or praise or kindness that spreads the fastest on social media — it’s anger. As a result, influencers/content creators know that polarization is good for them.
Once we understand how social media preys on our social fears, we can begin to take back control. “The way to repair our torn social fabric,” says Christakis, is to reject the idea of human beings as inherently “evil or violent or selfish or overly tribal.” But to do that we need to fulfill our need to connect with others on platforms not designed to sow discord and bring out the worst in us.
We don’t have to go cold turkey. That wouldn’t even be possible, and the point is to use technology in a way that augments the best parts of our humanity. And there are plenty of Microsteps we can employ to help us do that.
Controlled breathing techniques have also been found to help us respond to an amygdala hijack. When we’re in fight-or-flight mode, our sympathetic nervous system is heightened. Focusing on our breath activates our parasympathetic nervous system, lowering our levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And as neuroscience shows, it only takes 60-90 seconds to move from the sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system. One of my favorite methods is called “box breathing,” which is done by simply inhaling for a count of four, holding for a count of four and exhaling for a count of four.
Our social instincts can produce connection or polarization, openness or fear. We can be a group that lifts each other up, or — to return to Le Bon — an intolerant authoritarian mob with no time for doubt or nuance, and always on the lookout for enemies. All of these instincts have a biological basis. By shaping our relationship with media, social media and technology, we can control which ones prevail.
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