Wake Up, Sheeples: Evolution Has Made Us Conformists

No Man Is An Island

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We like to believe that our thoughts and emotions are ours and ours alone. We are independent entities capable of thinking for ourselves and rising above the groupthink and mania all around us.

Had we been in Germany in the 1930’s, we tell ourselves that we would have seen the evil of the Nazi party for what it was and refused to get swept away in the madness. Had we been in the South in the 60’s, we would have rejected the racist worldview of our peers and marched alongside the civil rights leaders of the day. Had we been at a Pitbull concert last week, we wouldn’t have let an energetic crowd trick us into believing the guy actually has talent.

We are not sheep, we like to believe. We are immune to the manic and irrational behavior of groups. We are beacons of rationality and independent thought. It’s ridiculous that nobody has made a statue of us yet. We are Athena herself reincarnate.

But, what if that’s not even close to being true? What if we’re blind to a deep impulse that makes us more dependent on each other than we’d like to admit?

Humans have a deep impulse to mirror the behavior of the group, and it kind of makes sense

Robert Greene dropped a book this week, The Laws of Human Nature, that I’m convinced will be talked about for the next 30 years. For those unfamiliar with Robert, he spends years upon years writing his books, most of which are about human psychology. The Laws of Human Nature is the culmination of more than 20 years of what he’s learned about how humans behave and think.

One chapter that was particularly striking described the impulse that humans have to conform and mirror the behaviors of those around them. Being a conformist tends to get a bad rap these days, but Greene gives the behavior a rational basis in our evolution as a species. While it's far from the only reason we tend to behave like others, it's not one that's written about often.

To survive, humans needed to mirror the emotions of others

If you and your homies went hunting in the Savannah 50,000 years ago and somebody in the group saw a scary-ass tiger, teeth out, charging directly at the group, time was not on your side. Whoever saw the tiger didn’t have the luxury of calling a team meeting, “hey gang, everybody have a minute? I was hoping to convince each of you that a tiger is rapidly approaching and is about to remove our faces from our bodies.”

It was crucial that the group immediately feel the same fear of whoever witnessed the threat. The quicker the fear could spread through the group, the sooner everybody could react and the more likely they all were to survive. Species that could share emotions, rather than letting them remain the experience of a single individual, maintained an evolutionary advantage in certain contexts.

Our emotional lives are deeply intertwined with those of others

This impulse to mirror the emotions of others clearly goes beyond life-or-death situations. If we’re in conversation with somebody who’s good-spirited and energetic, for example, we’ll notice our own mood gradually lift.  And when somebody is being a Negative Nancy, we can watch as their toxic attitude gradually infects those around them. Emotions - some strong, some subtle - often ripple through groups rather than staying bottled up in any individual.

What is true of emotions also seems true of opinions and worldviews

Imagine we’ve been momentarily infected with a negative attitude after an encounter with a walking, talking bummer of a human being. We’re exhausted and de-energized and our emotions often spill over into our worldview. Far from just “feeling tired,” our understanding of reality is momentarily altered. Our beliefs about the future, for example, are likely to be different if we’re feeling exhausted and beaten up than if we’re feeling juiced up and thrilled to be alive.

So, emotions influence our worldview and our emotions are often not really “ours," per se. We are temporary hosts for various states of conciousness, and very often their corresponding worldviews, as they ripple through a group.

This propensity to absorb and transmit emotions is deeply embedded in our nature, making us far less of an island than we might imagine.

Today, emotions can ripple through society ludicrously fast and at a ludicrous scale

Over the past few decades, our role as an Emotion Transmission Beacon has been able to play out at an increasingly enormous scale.

Today, somebody can experience some horrific injustice, post a message or video on Twitter, and within hours, righteous outrage will radiate through millions of other people — much in the same way that the fear of the point man in the Savannah radiated through his tribe members.

Our emotional lives are deeply intertwined and we are not quite the independent actors we’d like to imagine.

We are nodes in a deeply interconnected web of emotions that ebb and flow between all human beings.