Researchers say humans can break away from tribalism

Feb 1, 2024 | News

People have the potential to rise above tribalist tendencies and significantly increase their ‘moral circle’ of care, suggests new research

Tribalism exerts a potent grip on us primitive humans, compelling us to place loyalty and familiarity above reason and compassion in all sorts of ways. It can be harmless and even fun, like supporting a beloved sports team, but the so-called culture wars have shown how people can be pushed into tribal corners with much more ominous results.

Take hope, then, from a new piece that suggests humans have the potential to overcome tribalist tendencies and significantly increase their so-called ‘moral circle’ – the people they value and care about. Arranged by a key player at the Global Compassion Coalition and released on Wednesday, the findings are “potentially game-changing” according to the lead researcher.

Research has shown that we are also habitually drawn towards people and groups who look or sound similar to us, our friends and family first of all. This natural tribalism is often cited as a reason why cultural differences lead to animosity and even violence.

What has been less clear is whether it is possible to overcome such tendencies to help us extend our care and concern to people outside their ‘in-group’. To find out, researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia invited people to take part in a study aimed at expanding their ‘circles of concern.’

Participants took part in a two-hour workshop designed to help them develop more compassion for themselves and others. They were then asked to continue with compassion-based exercises for two weeks.

The results showed that the intervention made a significant difference to participants’ levels of concern for individuals beyond their immediate family and friends. This included people who are stigmatised and even so-called ‘villains’ such as murderers. It also increased people’s concern for the environment and for sentient and non-sentient animals, researchers explained.

Crucially, the results were shown to hold over time: a three-month follow-up indicated that once expanded, people’s circles of concern continued to encompass new groups and communities.

We’re showing that humans have the capacity to be deeply compassionate, caring, and cooperative – all attributes that we are going to need

The researchers believe the findings could offer significant insights at a time when the world appears to be becoming more divided and hostile. They argue that not only can these approaches help to heal divides but also create greater unity and cooperation on major issues of global concern, such as climate change and inequality.

“What we’ve seen in this study is that human’s moral circles are essentially elastic,” said prof James Kirby, lead researcher and member of the Global Compassion Coalition. “Under certain cultures, they might be quite narrow, but with help, they can significantly expand – growing to encompass even those people might previously have thought of as being ‘villains’. That this kind of result can be achieved in just two hours, plus some continued practice, is potentially game-changing.”

‘We need leaders who care.’ The research comes in a year of multiple notable elections around the world. Image: Element5 Digital

It shows, Kirby said, that we don’t have to settle for war, conflict, hostility and division. “We’re showing that humans have the capacity to be deeply compassionate, caring, and cooperative – all attributes that we are going to need if we’re to deal, together, with the challenges facing our world.”

Marcela Matos, a researcher at the University of Coimbra in Portugal and chair of the Global Compassion Coalition’s science committee, added: “This groundbreaking study provides important evidence showing that cultivating compassion, even through low-intensity interventions, can have transformative benefits that can go beyond the individual and have ripple effects way beyond their closest circle of care and moral concern.

“Through compassion training, we may spark the inner change we need in our moral expansiveness, which can be pivotal to foster the systemic change we need to overcome some of the sources of suffering we currently face in the world.”

Faced with challenges that cross borders – the climate crisis, poverty and war, to note just three – the skills that this intervention gave participants are exactly those we need to be cultivating in national and world leaders, added Jennifer Nadel, co-director of Compassion in Politics UK and director of Compassionate Politics at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford.

“We need leaders who can see beyond their own tribe and represent the needs, concerns, and futures of all.”

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