Scourge of Tribalism

For many thousands of years, human tribes have competed against each other for their very survival. Tribe coalitions that were more cooperative and cohesive not only managed to survive but also were able to appropriate land and other resources from other coalitions.

Thus the idea that humans have a need to belong to social groups is very fundamental in psychology. Belonging does not just feel good but is often essential for our very survival, even in modern times. Insider-outsider distinctions are innate and are well entrenched. This favouritism is the result of substantial benefits derived from group solidarity in early human evolution, and we still live with this grouping tendency even today.

It should not therefore come as a surprise that tribal loyalties tend to override objectivity and rational decision making. One such manifestation of group loyalty was reported in The New York Times, where the Orthodox Jews of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn shunned a neighbor after learning that he complained to police about a fellow Jew who was sexually abusing his son. As an objective person, you would think that a father protecting his son would be the sort of behavior that would be appreciated and endorsed. Unfortunately, such objectivity is thrown to the winds if it is considered disloyal to the tribe.

Something that goes almost unquestioned in many circles is nationalism which is another strong form of tribalism. Mukul Gupta writing in The Economic Times says “Building walls, promoting hate and distrusting refugees, persecuting minorities, fuelling the nationalist propaganda for narrow political gains are all being used for winning elections at the expense of national wellbeing”.

The divide of ‘us’ vs ‘them’

Harvard professor David Ropeik has written a poignant essay on How Tribalism Overrules Reason, and Makes Risky Times More Dangerous. He argues that tribalism is all pervasive and controls a lot of our behaviour, readily overriding our reasoning faculties. He reminds us of the inhuman things that we do in the name of tribal unity. Wars, for instance, are essentially, and often quite specifically, tribalism. Genocides are tribalism with the idea of wiping out the other group to keep our group safe taken to the extremes. Other examples are racism that lets us feel that our tribe is better and superior to the others, resulting in parents resorting to honour killing of their own children when they dare to marry someone of a different faith or colour. 

Another horrific case is the serious plight of ‘Rohingay’ Muslim community of more than a million staying in Myanmar. Many of them had migrated during the British colonial rule, from across the Bay of Bengal, at that time a part of composite India and now Bangladesh. They had settled down mainly in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. The ugly manifestation of  tribalism in Myanmar has resulted in persecution of this community to such an extent that it has been described by international media and human rights organizations as a genocide. 

After fleeing Myanmar army troops, hundreds of Rohingya children struggle for food at Balukhali refugee camp in southern Bangladesh. 

What is playing out in most of the countries around the world is that people with vested interests are exploiting our tribal instincts to create fear psychosis. Fear is a very strong tool in their hands that can completely destroy our rational thinking and then change our behaviour for the worse. 

These tribal narratives are effectively framed and publicised by the tribal leaders in such a way that it creates a strong feeling that the threat from outside is real and will lead to destruction of our tribe. Such a propaganda engenders a sense of urgency in us to act in order to secure a better future for their our children. 

We need to recognise that all nations, religions, cults, gangs, subcultures, fraternal societies, internet communities, political parties, social movements and sports fans are all groups of people that can be called as tribes. They all tend to have a common bond, be it worshipping a certain deity or speaking a certain language or belonging to a certain geographical region or supporting a certain sporting club etc. Their interactions more often happen with one another in the tribe rather than with outsiders. They all develop an internal culture such that members of the groups often like the same foods, wear the same clothing, play the same sports and have the same philosophical beliefs. An excellent example is the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) community in the US and elsewhere. Tribes also tend to develop legendary histories, where they celebrate and exaggerate the deeds of their founders and past champions. They tend to express their pride in their tribe through conspicuous use of group symbols, group attire and other cultural artefacts. 

Victor Hanson of the Hoover Institution and author of ‘The Second Wars’, calls tribalism as one of history’s great destroyers. With tribalism, loyalty to larger commonwealth is gradually compromised as the influence of smaller and more intimate groups like race, religion, ethnicity, local region etc. increase. This leads to gradual erosion of loyalty and commitment to the larger entity over time, giving rise to fissiparous tendencies. We can clearly witness all around the world, that national interests by many countries are overriding multi-national global cooperation thus effectively nullifying the healthy benefits that we had derived from globalisation. As we go down the hierarchy, we can see that allegiance to religious or political or local entities is overshadowing national interests.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor, was very honest when she said “Let me let you in on a little secret. There is no such thing as an international community. There are only self-maximizing, self-interested states that will push their interests as far as possible.”

Most of the Middle East and Africa remain plagued by tribalism. In Iraq, a civil servant sees himself first as Shiite or Sunni rather than Iraqi, and acts accordingly. A Kenyan’s first allegiance is to his tribal first cousin rather than to an anonymous fellow Kenyan.

The result is inevitably the violence seen in places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Syria or Iraq. Back home in India, there is no attempt to hide the religious, caste and regional calculations during elections. The political parties unabashedly select candidates during elections based on religion or caste or linguistic considerations. A leader from Thakur, Brahmin or Dalit community in Uttara Pradesh or a leader drawn from Lingayat or Vokkaliga community in Karnataka will be chosen for leveraging the particular vote bank that gives maximum advantage. More unfortunately, religious loyalties and political affiliations are trumping national interests in India and there is complete lack of consensus on even important issues, including the critical area of security of the nation.

It is amazing that the Sunni and Shia Muslim sects who had lived for hundreds of years years as fellow citizens in many parts of Middle East have become enemies overnight thanks to Islamic extremists waging global jihad and power struggles. Surprisingly, both Sunnis and Shias look very similar to each other, live around in the same neighbourhood and believe in the same God albeit with small differences in theology. It is the very same violent aspect of tribalism that played out traumatically during the partition of ‘colonial India’ into two nations of India and Pakistan resulting in massacre of thousands of people. 

The level of inhumanity in these tribal conflicts is mind-boggling. For instance, the Fulani tribes in Sahel region of Africa were targeted by the other tribes. A ten day old baby was killed along with the mother. People of the tribe were thrown into a ditch of burning oil before being fired upon. One village chief was captured and summarily executed in front of his own mother. There were also pregnant women and elders who were killed and some people’s throats were cut while others were burnt alive.

When ex-president Donald Trump likened immigrants to poisonous snakes, biologist and behavioural scientist Robert Saplosky had this to say.  The author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” observed that this comparison coming from a powerful leader, is a textbook definition of dehumanization of the ‘other’ group. When group or tribal leaders exhort their tribesmen with phraseology that activates their neurons in the insular cortex, the part of the brain that responds viscerally to disgusting things, then they have succeeded in creating the platform for genocide.

Saplosky had another profound observation.  He says that we do our worst when we are surrounded by a lot of people who agree with us. For example, devout religious belief is not necessarily a predictor of extremism. Devout religious observance also does not give rise to extremism. But devout religious observance in a large group setting does engender extremist tendencies. Studies show that support for terrorism in Muslim majority countries was unrelated to how often they prayed or how devout they were about various religious prohibitions. But it was definitely related to how often they prayed in mosques, in large group setting. The same was also true of right-wing Jewish extremists in Israel. Things take on a new meaning and a different perspective when sacred values are re-affirmed in group settings.

Jonah Goldberg in his new book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy’, describes what he calls the West’s suicidal tendency to surrender to tribal and nationalist forces from both the left and the right. 

World Economic Forum (WEF) Study finds that the world is witnessing a deepening distrust of each other thanks to growing tribalism and intolerance of those with different beliefs and backgrounds. Economic factors are playing a central role in terms of rising inequality, stagnant incomes, job insecurity and the division between prosperous cities and “left behind” regions. But the perfect storm of conditions for social fragmentation is coming from the convergence of economic forces with changes in culture, technology and the proliferating communication media landscape. 

WEF urges political leaders and civil society to appreciate that maintaining the rule of law, accountable institutions, independent media, social trust and strong civil society networks have become extremely critical. It points out the need to lower the barriers so that ordinary citizens are engaged more meaningfully in national affairs instead of restricting such participation to the loudest voices with the most strident views. There is also a crying need to incorporate serious consequences to those politicians, advocates and campaigners who pursue victory at any cost undermining the critical public trust in the system.

Neuroscientists have been researching this field for some time now. When in experiments black and white Americans were flashed pictures of the other race, their amygdala, the brain’s center of fear and anger, were activated so quickly and subtly that the conscious centers of the brain were unaware of the response. The subject, in effect, could not help himself.

On the other hand, when appropriate contexts were added like the approaching black man being a doctor and the white person his patient, things were different. Then, the two other sites in the brain, the cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral preferential cortex of the brain integrated with the higher learning centers, effectively silencing the input through the amygdala.

In a paper published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA showed that the racial sensitivity of the amygdala does not kick in until around the age of fourteen. Such racial sensitivity is also not uniform across people of the same age group. Racially diverse groups had a less strong amygdala effect. In fact, with really high levels of diversity in the group, racially sensitivity almost disappeared. These findings therefore suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.

Living Meaningful Life vs Pursuing Happy Life

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Aristotle

The field of Positive Psychology (PP) has been in the forefront propagating this perspective. PP assumes that people, like all animals, are governed by the instinct of pursing happiness and avoiding pain as much as possible. Consequently, the first wave of positive psychologists focused on painless and easy activities to achieve happiness and success.

PP has tended to be defined in terms of a concern with ‘positive’ psychological qualities. However, over recent years, a more nuanced ‘second wave’ of positive psychology has been germinating, which explores the philosophical and conceptual complexities of the very idea of what constitutes the ‘positive.

The new wave of Positive Psychology (PP), which some people call as PP 2.0, assumes that people are spiritual beings. It accepts that there is more to life than either our physical needs for pleasure & comfort or our psychological needs for power & fame. What we crave for is for meaning in our lives and self-transcendence. Therefore, the second wave of positive psychologists prescribe the long path of pursuing self-transcendence.

The new wave of PP researchers do not bash happiness perse, but remind us that negative emotions also serve a purpose. Anxiety, for instance, helps to alert us to problems before they loom larger. Anger helps us to mobilize ourselves and others to confront challenges or threats. For instance, social psychologist Carol Tavris and others have argued that anger could motivate someone to act against and change an invidious situation that had been hindering their wellbeing. They caution that human experience is complex and sometimes bad things lead to good outcomes. Also, sometimes good things lead to bad outcomes. To ignore this simple truism is to leave humanity undiscovered under a patina of illusion.

The overemphasis of PP on self-directed happiness completely ignores collectivist mindset. People in strong collectivist cultures may be more concerned about securing a better life for their family than for themselves. Many professionals from developing countries work at low-paying jobs in developed countries so that their children can have a better education and a better future. They endure their own marginalization and downgraded social status in order to promote the happiness of their children. Thus, there are cultural differences in the balancing act between Me and We. Positive benefits for self-centred individuals include life satisfaction, achievement, and self-esteem, while positive outcomes for group-centred individuals would encompass harmonious relationships, group morale, and collaborative success.

“He who has a Why to live for, can bear almost any How. Friedrich Nietzsche

A meaningful life is not necessarily a happy life. We feel happy, when we get what we want and when our needs and desires are easily met. We need to realize that such happiness is short-lived. It is experienced in the here and now, and it then fades away. Meaningful life, on the other hand, is enduring. One way we derive meaning is from sacrificing ourselves for the benefit of others and by facing hardship and challenges in life. The meaningful life thus connects us to the others and to the bigger picture and encompasses both the past and the future.

Although researchers are agnostic about what kinds of meaning-in-life can be considered “best”, they argue that as people mature, their concept of meaning-in-life gets increasingly directed at a greater good which transcends their own individualistic desires. Incidentally, this notion of self-transcendence is often a descriptor that is used for people experiencing a mindful mindset.

Researchers have established that we do not become happy by pursuing happiness. We can become happy only by living a life that means something to us. Closely linked to meaningful activity in life is finding one’s purpose. Purpose provides the impetus for getting us out of our beds every morning. One’s purpose might be personal, like rearing children in a loving environment or as noble as saving the planet from environmental destruction.

Viktor Frankl said, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp along with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who managed to live and those who had died in the concentration camps came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he had become aware of very early in his life.

Frankl wrote “To the European it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy’.”

It is worth emphasizing that what makes us uniquely human is our ability to care deeply for other people and for causes larger than ourselves. Putting our selfish needs aside, helps us to realize that there is more to a good life than just the pursuit of happiness. Deep happiness comes from using whatever strengths, skills and talents that we have to somehow make the life better for others. Prof Stew Friedman of Wharton, puts this into words beautifully in his book ‘Leading the life you want’. He says, “Significant achievement in the world results from consciously compassionate action, from using one’s talent to make the world somehow better. It’s a paradox that leading the life you want actually requires striving to help others.”

Behavioural economist Prof Kathleen Vohs says “While happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others, people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others”.

UCLA’s Semel Institute of Neuroscience has identified a part of the brain, the posterior superior temporal cortex, that seems to be hard-wired for contributing to others. Researchers hypothesize that altruism has allowed us to survive as a species by compelling us to help one another. The reward for helping comes in the form of a rush of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin – what neuroscientists call the ‘happiness trifecta’. Oxytocin supports empathy and social bonding. Dopamine plays a major role in motivation and movement. Serotonin regulates mood.

The feeling that one’s life has meaning can come from any number of things. It could come from the work we do that we feel is worthwhile. It could come from our cherished relationships, from religious faith or even from sitting down and appreciating the sunset regularly. While it does not matter what gives us the purpose, it does matter that we do find it somewhere.

Prof Jennifer Aaker of Stanford and Emily Garbinsky claim that people who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. They say, “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need”.

In his book ‘Springboard’, Prof Richard Shell of Wharton, describes ‘deep happiness’ as a kind of feeling that transcends momentary happiness. Its source connects us to our souls, our purpose and to something larger than ourselves. As Shell writes, “It is the path that leads to look into ourselves and to build deeper connection with others. It is a path that is very likely to include tension, challenges and struggles along with happiness”. Thus people who pursue happiness for the sake of happiness may be missing out on this kind of deep happiness which is experienced when we live a more meaningful life.

People’s perception of their own purpose may have profound consequences not only for the legacy they leave behind for others, but also for the quality and quantity of their own life. We have all heard of anecdotes of people who have suffered tragedies in their lives only to persevere and move forward with newfound purpose and zest for life. Current research in an area called Purpose in Life (PIL) reveals exciting correlations between higher levels of PIL and variety of positive health benefits. Researchers, for instance, found that a higher baseline PIL was linked to a lower risk of heart attack. They also found that for each standard-deviation increase in PIL score, adults reduced their stroke risk by 22 percent. One study found that a strong sense of purpose was associated with a 72 percent lower rate of death from stroke, a 44 percent lower rate of death from cardiovascular disease, and a 48 percent lower rate of death from any cause.

One particular area of health where PIL is proving to be very useful is the CNS or the central nervous system. Research has shown that knowing one’s life purpose and mission may help protect the brain physically, increasing its ability to withstand greater injuries. In particular, PIL seems to help people protect what is known as a cognitive reserve or cognitive resilience, which is the human brain’s ability to recover from trauma and protect against diseases.

Similarly, a study in 2019 by JAMA Network Open (Open access medical journal published by the American Medical Association covering the biomedical sciences) found that adults over the age of 50 who scored highest on a scale that measured “life purpose” had a longer life expectation and were also much less likely to die from heart, circulatory or blood conditions. This was further endorsed by Eric S. Kim, PhD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who said “There have been a number of studies suggesting that a higher sense of Purpose in Life is associated with reduced risk of early death”.

Research has shown that people with higher levels of meaning-in-life had increased connectivity within nodes of the default mode network of their brains, implying that purposeful people have stronger mental connections between the many functions the default mode network plays. What’s more, people with more meaning in their lives had better cross-network connectivity, indicating that it was easier for their brains’ limbic and default mode networks to work together.

The default mode network and the limbic network are two key sets of structures in the brain. The limbic network controls emotions, motivation, and long-term memory, among other functions. The default mode network regulates our sense of self, our memories, our emotions and helps us envision the future.

Meaning is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future. In other words, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the struggles and sufferings of the past as well as things they want do in the future, felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Even our achievements have their own set points. When we achieve them, we feel happy but this happiness does not last long. Once the condition is met, we start looking for the next goal that we need to pursue to remain happy. What we might eventually discover is the idea that happiness is not at all related to setting goals and achieving them, but in finding that sense of happiness and joy within ourselves and in our daily lives.

In his book ‘Out of the Darkness’, bestselling author Steve Taylor of Leeds Beckett University, tells the stories of more than 30 people who have undergone permanent spiritual awakening after intense trauma and turmoil in their lives. These “suffering-induced transformational experiences” include being diagnosed with terminal cancer, or suffering bereavements, or becoming seriously disabled, or losing everything through addiction or having close encounters with death during combat. What all these people had in common is that after undergoing intense suffering, they felt they had “woken up”. They stopped taking life, the world and other people for granted and gained a massive sense of appreciation for everything. They spoke of a sense of the preciousness of life, their own bodies, the other people in their lives and the beauty and wonder of nature. They felt a new sense of connection with other people, the natural world and the universe. They became less materialistic and more altruistic. Possessions and career advancement became trivial, while love, creativity and altruism became much more important. They felt intensely alive.

Fortunately, we do not have to go through intense suffering to experience these awakening effects. There are also certain temporary states of being when we can sense meaning which Taylor calls as ‘awakening experiences’.

The most common characteristics of these experiences are positive emotional states, including a sense of elation or serenity, a lack of fear and anxiety, intensified perception, and a sense of connection which can be towards other human beings, nature, or the whole universe in general. Other significant characteristics include a sense of love and compassion, altered time perception which often includes a sense of being intensely present. Then there is this strong sense that a person has transcended a limited state and that awareness has become more authentic than normal.

Scientists have coined the phrase self-transcendent experiences (STEs) for these transient mental states of decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness. This occurs under certain circumstances when the subjective sense of one’s self as an isolated entity temporarily fades into an experience of unity with other people or one’s surroundings, involving the dissolution of boundaries between the sense of self and “other.” These temporary mental states are experienced along a spectrum of intensity that ranges from the
routine like when losing ourselves in music or a book, to the intense and potentially transformative like when we feel connected to everything and everyone, to states in between, like those experienced by many people while meditating.

Professor William Damon, one of the world’s leading researchers on the development of purpose-in-life, offers another approach to help people to develop a sense that their lives have been worthwhile, even in the face of difficulties and wrong turns. The idea is to reminisce one’s past in ways that balance negative events with positive achievements which can lead to feelings of gratitude and tranquillity. Life satisfaction does not mean avoiding all misfortunes which anyway is impossible. Nor does it mean always avoiding mistakes which is also impossible. Rather, we aim to do the best we can, learn from our past experiences, and remain hopeful for the future. In this way, our past, present and future selves become integrated into a positive identity that can provide the fulfilling sense of ego integrity that development psychologist Erik Erikson described. Erikson wrote that ego integrity, the most fulfilling form of personal identity, requires a positive sense of where we’ve been, who we’ve now become, what purposes we are seeking to accomplish, and where we hope to be heading.

Every human life, even the most fortunate, is filled with pain. Painful loss, painful disappointments, the physical pain of injury or sickness, and the mental pain of enduring boredom, loneliness, or sadness. Pain is an inevitable consequence of being alive. Thus all the good things in life entail suffering. Writing a novel, running a marathon or giving birth to a baby – all these cause pain and suffering but are done in pursuit of the final joyous results.

How much are we influenced by others?

How much are we influenced by others?
The simple answer is “Quite a Lot”

In the African Bantu language, the word ubuntu means that a person becomes a person only through other people (Interview of Desmond Tutu, New Scientist, April 2006).

Neuroscientists endorse this view that our brains are continually reshaped by our interactions with other people. We can easily visualize that the physical presence and even the mental image of another person influences our brain, our behavior and our attitude. While our social interactions are mainly through our communication in all its forms, they also include cooperation, competition, imitation, helping, playing, informing, questioning, negotiating, bargaining, bluffing and so on. These interactions are strongly influenced by our own personalities, our own developmental history, stereotypes we wish to imitate, our own concepts of how things operate in our environment etc. Also “social emotions” such as pride, envy and regret influence and drive these interactions.

Herb Kelleher, cofounder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, was hailed as the most beloved leader of our time and Fortune magazine voted him as “Perhaps the best CEO in America”. Neuroscientists studied the firing of social neurons in various participants while analysing a video of Herb Kelleher. When Herb Kelleher was strolling down the corridors of the airline’s hub, the researchers could practically see him activate the mirror neurons, oscillators, and other social circuitry in each person he encountered. He offered beaming smiles, shook hands with customers as he told them how much he appreciated their business, hugged employees as he thanked them for their good work. Typical was the flight attendant whose face lit up when she un-expectedly encountered her boss and she gave him a big hug.

Psychologists define “Theory of Mind” as our ability to interpret the mental states of ourselves and that of others which enables us to come up with reasonable explanations of behavioural patterns of others. Psychologists explain that we become aware of others only because our brains can apply this “Theory of Mind”. Part of “Theory of Mind” consists in thinking about what other people are thinking about some other people. As an example, “What does Kumar think about Joseph’s behavior towards Ahmed, given that Ahmed is already upset about his father’s illness?” This is a very complicated kind of mental ability and is unique to humans. It is interesting that evolutionary anthropologists contend that our brains have evolved over the years to become as big as they are today for a reason. It is for enabling us to increase our deep intellectual abilities so that we can manage our relationships with other people more effectively.

The importance of human social connections cannot be overemphasised. Prof John Cacioppo of Chicago University has researched loneliness for thirty years. He has shown quite convincingly that lonely people are unhappier, live shorter lives and are more likely to be depressed. He explains that loneliness is an evolved mechanism that alerts us to a lack of social connection and social support. This is somewhat similar to hunger alerts that we feel when we need food. As a corollary, he claims that as a fundamental component of wellbeing, human beings require good quality social connections with other people and more importantly with close friends and family members. He also found that the frequency of interactions and the feeling of being connected to larger groups such as clubs or nations are also important factors in warding off loneliness.

It is worth noting that the social norms that guide our everyday behaviours and create social influence are mainly derived from our culture. We can look at culture as representing a group of people, normally living within a given geographical region, who share a common set of social norms, including religious and family values and moral beliefs. The culture in which we live also affects our thoughts, our feelings, and our behaviour. It is our culture that defines our lives as much as our evolutionary experiences.

We would like to think that we are largely in control of our day-to-day lives, yet most of what we do, from what we eat to who we sleep with, and even the way we feel, is significantly influenced by those around us and also those around them. It may surprise us to know that our actions can change the behaviours and the beliefs, and even the basic health of people that we may have never met.

Social media is a more recent phenomenon which has projected us into an age in which people are encouraged to express whatever they know, think, and feel. This means that, apart from information and opinions, emotions are also spread all over the net world.

A fascinating study by the New York Times Consumer Insight Group revealed various motivations that drive participants to share information on social media. These include a desire to reveal valuable and entertaining content to others, to define themselves in desirable ways to others, to grow and nourish relationships and also to speak about brands and causes that they like or support.

The use of social media has skyrocketed over the past decade and a half. Only five percent of adults in the USA were using a social media platform in the year 2005. This number has jumped to more than seventy percent today. Media psychology researchers are trying to understand how the time spent on social media is impacting our day-to-day lives.

Looking at the benefits of social media we can see that it is particularly helpful for those with family members spread out in different parts of the world, or perhaps people trying to make a long distance relationship work. We can easily relate to how we communicate despite time differences and distance by simply texting or phoning someone. By having the power to upload photos and send messages at ease, we manage to stay in each other’s lives despite being hundreds, or even thousands of miles apart. When we think about how far we have come since having to send letters and postcards, it is indeed pretty amazing. The addiction to social media and its serious consequences have been subject of lot of discussions everywhere and is not covered here.

A study has discovered that the average person checks their device 85 times a day, spending a total of five hours browsing the web and using apps. This equates to around a third of the time a person is awake, and is twice as often as many people realise (stock image)

Schadenfreude is a German term composed of Schaden, that means ‘harm’ and Freude which means ‘joy’. So the word Schadenfreude refers to the pleasure at another’s misfortune. The Japanese have a saying: ‘The misfortunes of others taste like honey’. The French speak of joiemaligne, a diabolical delight in other people’s suffering.

Psychologists found that when the Dutch team missed a goal, the smiles on German fans appeared more quickly and were broader than when their own German team scored a goal. Let us not fool ourselves. When it comes to making ourselves happy, we humans have long relied on the humiliations and failures of other people. The more we envy someone who is better off than we are, the greater is the pleasure that we feel when they fall down.

It is relevant in this context to talk about Social Anxiety. Virtually all of us have experienced concerns about being judged negatively by other people from time to time. Being concerned with other people’s opinions of ourselves is something we learn to live with from childhood onwards. For some individuals, however, these concerns about negative evaluation are so extreme and frequent that they impair everyday social life and becomes psychopathology, called Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD).

Social anxiety disorder is also known as social phobia. Anxiety is a fear that arises in anticipation of an event whereas phobia is an irrational fear of certain objects or situations.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that twelve percent of adults in the United States experience social anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime. It is more common in females than in males.

We can not but talk about sympathy, empathy and compassion when we are looking at any society. Sympathy means that we can understand what the other person is feeling. Empathy means that we actually feel what the other person is feeling. Compassion on the other hand goes beyond sympathy where we are willing to relieve the suffering of another.

Thanks to the mirror neurons in our brain, empathy may arise automatically when you witness someone in pain. Research indicates that empathy has a genetic component but is also influenced by parenting, the schools, the community, the environment and the culture.

Prof Paul Bloom of Yale University, makes the case for rational compassion rather than just empathy. He argues that empathy is counter-productive because it enmeshes us in the feelings that are not our own. Instead of taking on the problem as our own, having compassion means we understand where the person is coming from without adopting the emotion ourselves.

By the way, empathy is not reserved only for unpleasant feelings. We can feel empathy when we witness joy, too. When someone walks into our room smiling, we ourselves tend to smile.

When we are sympathetic, we are not really experiencing the feelings of another. Instead, we are able to understand what the person is feeling. For example, if someone’s father has passed away, we may not be able to physically feel the pain that the person is undergoing. However, we can understand that our friend is sad. This explains why we send sympathy cards when our friend’s loved one has passed away. we are not feeling that person’s pain, but we want our friend to know that we are aware of her suffering.

Dr Thupten Jinpa associated with Dalai Lama posits that compassion is a four-step process:

  1. Awareness of suffering.
  2. Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering.
  3. Wish to see the relief of that suffering.
  4. Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering.

We all experience emotions all the time. Emotions are a defining aspect of the human condition. They pervade our social and professional lives, influence our thinking and behaviour and profoundly shape our relationships and social interactions.

We need to recognise that emotions are ‘intentional’, in the sense that they are always ‘about’ something: they have an object, and that object is very frequently social. It could be a person like a rival for our loved one’s affection. It could be a social group like an organisation that does inspiring work in developing countries. It could be a social event like India winning the cricket series in Australia. It could also be a social or cultural artefact like a piece of music. Of course, we sometimes experience emotions in response to non-social stimuli like fear of heights or of spiders, but social objects are much more likely than non-social objects to be the source of our everyday emotions.

Many emotions are either inherently or functionally social, in that either they would not be experienced in the absence of others, or they seem to have no other function than to bind us to others. Emotions such as compassion, sympathy, maternal love, affection, and admiration are ones that depend on other people being physically or psychologically present. Fear of rejection, loneliness, embarrassment, guilt, shame, jealousy and sexual attraction are emotions that seem to have as their primary function the seeking out or cementing of social relationships.

We tend to share our emotional experiences, some of which may be painful or shaming, with intimate people because we trust them not to share our secrets with others. And yet these people are the very ones who are likely to empathise with us and therefore will experience the emotions themselves listening to what we divulge. This makes it likely that they will in turn engage in secondary social sharing.

For technically minded, neural basis for social influence has been subject of research by many neuroscientists. It is found that persuasion directed toward social norms specifically activates a set of brain regions including temporal poles, temporo-parietal junction, and medial prefrontal cortex. Persuasion against an accepted norm, on the other hand, specifically uses the left middle temporal and supramarginal gyri. Moral judgment has been associated with the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, vMPFC, and the striatum.