Why is it so difficult for our world to work together on global problems of mutual concern? On a rational level, there is a shared interest in collaborating to improve the environment, enhance security, and promote physical and mental well-being. But competition for resources, prestige, power, and information can pit stakeholders against one another, producing a dangerous mindset that I call the tribes effect. The moment a group feels threatened, they enter into this mindset and start to see the conflict in adversarial terms: it becomes us versus them, and innovative solutions for mutual gain are replaced by myopic policies that satisfy one tribe over another. Each group argues that their perspective is right and legitimate – and closes their ears to the other’s perspective as they rally their own troops for battle.
In my new book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, I describe a powerful set of emotional dynamics that lure us deeper and deeper into this tribal mindset. First, we get consumed in the vertigo-like frenzy of the conflict and lose sight of our broader purpose: is our goal to win the debate or improve human welfare?
Then, as the lines of division solidify, we reenact longstanding, counterproductive patterns of behavior to deal with the situation. This compulsion to repeat the past takes a familiar form: we dredge up historical grievances, interpret the other’s intentions as devious, and commit to the belief that their position will never change. Consequently, we execute an adversarial strategy and create the very enemy we feared.
To make matters worse, once this dynamics is at play, it becomes taboo for us to engage in constructive problem solving with the other side. Any such act is viewed as a betrayal of our tribe – and the punishment for such a breach can be severe.
The deepest forces of tribalism arise as we view the other’s rhetoric as an assault on what we hold as sacred. Nothing more intensely roils the fury of passion than a threat to our deepest beliefs and values. In fact, the savvy leader may intentionally invoke longstanding grievances into the contemporary political narrative to turn loose followers into tribal loyalists.
What would a potential way out look like? Whereas the tribes effect turns the nuances of conflict into a binary divide, a communal mindset opens up space for mutual understanding and creative problem solving. In this mindset, we aim to appreciate each other’s perspectives through an intense process of listening, mutual learning, and interaction. There is no need to come to agreement on the “right” viewpoint. The goal is to find merit in each other’s perspective and thus establish a foundation for moving forward together.
This process is easier said than done, however. Consider the challenges inherent in creating an expanded system of global cooperation. While a federal government may cede some control to local units, what psychological factor would ever entice a nation-state to cede power to a system of global governance? The federal and local governments are likely to see each other as part of the same tribe – a sense of mutual loyalty pervades their relationship. But the nation-state may distrust the political intentions of non-citizens on a global governing body.
Social psychology offers a crucial insight to address this problem. We can emotionally attach to a global identity with as much fervor as to a national one. The core principle of identity formation remains the same: we imbue emotional significance to our membership in the group and commit loyalty to that entity. In fact, there is no inherent tension in having every person on our planet identify as a citizen of the world, because the category of inclusion is so broad.
Problems tend to emerge as more localized identities clash, whether between nations or neighborhoods. Mitigating such tension requires that our systems of global cooperation build a strong institutional sense of camaraderie while simultaneously ensuring that members feel sufficiently free to determine fundamental aspects of their provincial identity.
To enhance international cooperation around global challenges, we must remember that nothing holds greater meaning than human connection. A threat to our tribe can lure us toward adversarial behavior that may not serve our long-term, rational interests. The development of a strong global identity – one that does not threaten the local one – can stack the cards in favor of increased cooperation around the most perilous threats of our time.
For more in-depth methods on how to deal with conflict in our own lives and in the world around us, see Dr. Shapiro's newest book, "Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts" (Penguin, 2017). The present article was published in Psychology Today and is adapted from Dr. Shapiro's contribution to the Global Challenges Quarterly Report, 2017.