Everyone Needs a Tribe

One of the primitive drives of humans is to form social groups. To be a tribe, there must inherently be a separation between groups- an “us versus them” mentality.  It is a strongly primal urge to dislike, even hate, those that are different because they threaten our group.  We identify with others that seem similar to ourselves, and label those that do not as “other” and therefore bad. This subconscious response has helped us survive as a species, but in the modern world it presents dynamics that can often spiral out of control.

“A convergence of research and discoveries in genetics, neuropsychology, and paleobiology, among other sciences, evolutionary psychology holds that although human beings today inhabit a thoroughly modern world of space exploration and virtual realities, they do so with the ingrained mentality of Stone Age hunter-gatherers.”  Harvard Business Review,  How Hardwired is Human Behavior, by Nigel Nicholson.

The study of “evolutionary psychology” is based on the idea that our complex brains evolved from more primitive brains. Our thinking, planning, and problem solving comes from the neocortex (neo meaning “new”, the newly evolved part of the brain), but our limbic system (the primitive part of the brain that shares morphology with other animals, and even reptiles) is the seat of our emotions, prejudices, sexual impulse, and subconscious.  Much of our drive, reactions, and emotions stem from parts of our brain that are not firmly within our conscious control. Our office cliques, devotion to school and sports teams, religious and political affiliations, all the way up to nationalism, is driven by social behavior that is woven into the fabric of our genes and brain chemistry.  

For an interesting read about how this theory applies specifically to the workplace and how to take group dynamics into account as a business manager, I highly recommend the article mentioned previously by Nigel Nicholson.  Like the primates that came before them, human beings were never loners. Indeed, the family is the centerpiece of all human societies. Clans on the Savannah Plain appear to have been similar in one key way: they contained up to 150 members, according to Robin Dunbar, professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool. It may very well be for this reason that we see the persistent strength of small to midsize family businesses throughout history.” 

A Ted talk by Jonathan Haidt also offers interesting insight about this subject; it’s role in political affiliation, and the benefits to society of having opposing viewpoints that balance each other.  If you don’t have time to watch the entire 20 minute clip, the main point is to recognize that as a human, we all take a side and we all think we are right. Simply being aware of this tendency of human nature and stepping outside of the emotions and arguments swirling inside our “lizard” brain can enable us to be more objective, reflective, and respectful of other viewpoints.  A healthy, functioning society requires opposing viewpoints to balance each other. Everyone’s viewpoint is valid simply because it is based on that individual’s fundamental beliefs, experiences, and brain chemistry.

Social groups, or tribes, are not all bad. In fact, recognizing that we have a deep desire to be part of a group can lead to happiness and self-fulfillment.  An antidote to depression is simply to take part in a group activity and socialize. Belonging to a group brings a sense of well-being. http://www.everydayhealth.com/depression/how-making-friends-can-help-depression.aspx

A recent article delved into a study about drug addiction as a bonding issue.  The study found that drug addicts lack social bonds with those around them, and if a person is surrounded by a supportive community and feels part of that community they are less likely to do drugs in the first place, or avoid relapse if they have taken drugs in the past. This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else. So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.” Huffington Post, The Likely Cause of Addiction has been Discovered, and It’s Not What You Think by Johann Hari.

All this is to say that on a deep, primal level, everyone needs a tribe. As a school community, we need to feel that we belong to the group. Work is enjoyable if we view our colleagues as a family group.  Schools naturally create a feeling of belonging with school colors, school mascots, sporting events and other competitions against neighboring schools. It is important to pull new colleagues into the local traditions and activities, and for us to make an effort be involved as well.  In the same way, students need to feel part of their school and classroom community.  Learning is difficult when a student is unhappy and does not feel accepted.  As teachers, we have control over our level of participation in the community, and orchestrating to the best of our abilities students’ participation and acceptance in our classroom community. I never fully understood the importance of being part of the community until recently.

This year I switched school districts, not because I was unhappy at my original school, but because I was trying to do what I thought was in the best interest of my older daughter in terms of courses that were offered. That in itself is a whole different story. At my new school, as much as I tried to be friendly, helpful, and involved I never felt like part of the group. I went from a school that was team oriented and put emphasis on collaborative work between both students and teachers, to a school where every classroom was an individual island and responses by colleagues, administration, and parents were overwhelmingly punitive. The students, as well as the teachers, banded together in defensive groups, to the deliberate ostracism of others.  Teachers personally attacked me behind my back to the administration and other teachers, were deceitful, and flatly refused to collaborate.  The year has been anxiety-filled and stressful.  No amount of “school spirit” can overcome this problem, and  I don’t have a straight-forward answer. From the research, it is quite clear that it is ingrained human nature to form social groups, to the exclusion of others. I believe the answer is to find a group where you belong, and recognize as well as appreciate when you are accepted among a group.  This is a life lesson that I have learned this year, and will not take for granted again. I am returning to my original school next year, where I have been welcomed back as a friend and part of the family.  The school I am leaving is not necessarily made up of “bad” people, they are just not my group and I was never accepted by them. It is easy to cause distress in someone’s life  when this happens because it is such an essential need, to be part of a group.

We have the power to make others feel loved or tormented. The key is remembering that we are often reacting and interacting subconsciously from a primal place, controlled by irrational beliefs and fears. Not only have I learned to appreciate open-minded and caring individuals as an adult and the importance of finding my place in a group, but I will, in turn, remember how important it is to be caring and open-minded to new colleagues,  as well as creating an inclusive “tribal” mentality in my classroom.


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