How Mindful Meditation Can Save Us from the Tribal Abyss

There’s a reason some people laugh when I say that mindfulness meditation can save the United States—that it can dampen the political polarization now dividing the country; that it can defuse the hatreds that have propelled the word “tribal” into our political vocabulary and have led serious commentators to compare the US in 2017 to Northern Ireland, even Yugoslavia, in the 1990s.

Actually, there are two reasons people laugh. One is that they can’t imagine a huge number of Americans—especially those in the Trump tribe—actually sitting down and meditating. And I, too, have trouble imagining a sea of MAGA hats enveloping a statue of the Buddha. For that matter, I’m not under the illusion that most anti-Trumpers get up every day and meditate. But for reasons I’ll explain, I don’t think these harsh realities are fatal to my American salvation scenario.

The other reason people laugh at this salvation scenario is that they think the point of meditation is to cultivate love or compassion or some other warm and fuzzy feeling that might heal the nation. But in fact, mindfulness meditation isn’t fundamentally about love or compassion. Other kinds of Buddhist meditation—such as “metta” meditation—take on that challenge more directly.

More broadly, mindfulness meditation isn’t warm and fuzzy. In a certain sense it’s cool and clinical. It involves, among other things, examining your feelings and deciding whether to buy into them, whether to let them carry you away.

Obviously, America could stand for people to be a little less susceptible to getting carried away by their feelings. But the contribution mindfulness can make to bridging the great tribal divide is more powerful than that simple formulation suggests. To appreciate this potential, you have to understand how subtle the psychology of tribalism is.

Tribal psychology involves, at one level, some obvious ingredients: rage, vengeance, loathing—the kinds of raw emotions you might imagine when you imagine tribes literally at war. But the psychology of tribalism also involves—in fact, I’d say, it mainly involves—cognitive biases that warp our perception of the world.

Cognitive biases have gotten a lot of attention in the popular psychology literature over the past decade. For example, confirmation bias—our tendency to accept and retain information that supports our views and reject or not notice information that contradicts our views—is now pretty famous. But the term “cognitive bias” misleads people about the nature of this problem. “Cognition” is often thought of as separate from feelings—it’s the kind of rational, logical process a computer can execute—but in fact feelings often influence cognition. And they seem to play a key role in cognitive biases.

Consider the role confirmation bias can play in “fake news,” false or deeply misleading information that spreads widely, typically via social media.

Such information is sometimes spread cynically and knowingly. But often it is spread unknowingly, by people who click “retweet” or “share” without first investigating what they’re sharing. And the reason they don’t do this critical investigation is because the information they’re sharing supports their world view—because, in other words, they are victims of confirmation bias.

I sometimes spread dubious information this way myself. And when, having discovered my mistake, I reflect on what made me do it, the answer I come up with is this: Clicking “retweet” made me feel good. After all, the information I was spreading reflected favorably on my ideological tribe and unfavorably on the enemy tribe. What’s not to like?

Indeed, if you pay close attention at the moment you’re sharing this kind of news on social media, you may observe a sequence of feelings: a positive feeling upon seeing the news, the subtle but palpable urge to spread it, and the feeling of gratification you get upon spreading it—a gratification that is deepened if this addition to the nation’s discourse then gets a lot of retweets, shares, or likes. These are the feelings that can make you part of the fake news problem.

If, on the other hand, you see information that reflects unfavorably on your tribe, you may notice a negative feeling well up, and you’ll probably feel no urge to share the information; you’ll either dismiss it and move on or inspect it critically, looking for flaws. And if you find flaws, this will feel good, and will likely feed an urge to publicize them.

So confirmation bias is a “cognitive” bias that is driven by feelings from start to finish. In that sense it’s feelings, more than thoughts, that propel false or misleading information through social media. Yes, Russian bots and conspiracy-theorist crackpots and other nefarious actors have played a role in systematically spreading fake news, but much of the false or misleading information that is now muddying discourse and sustaining the tribal divide is spread unknowingly—innocently, in a sense—by people on both sides of the divide who are acting in accordance with human nature.

This is where mindfulness could come in. In my experience, and in the experience of many others, spending 20 or 30 minutes on the cushion every morning doing mindfulness meditation makes you more aware of feelings—not just as you meditate but as you go through the day. When feelings well up that you might otherwise obey reflexively, you’re more likely to reflect on them and decide whether to obey them.

Obviously, meditation won’t singlehandedly end fake news. But I think it would reduce the fuel supply for false and slanted information. And that could make a big difference, because the problem with such information isn’t just that it confuses the people who believe it. It also has an unfortunate influence on the people who don’t believe it—the people in the tribe who didn’t spread it. It reinforces their belief that the people in the other tribe are, at worst, knowingly lying and, at best, deeply confused.

And probably the former. After all, we tend to interpret the errors of our enemies and rivals in an unfavorable light, while explaining away the errors of our allies in more innocent terms.

Indeed, this tendency itself involves a cognitive bias, one that is less famous than confirmation bias. It’s called “attribution error,” and it, too, is dividing America.

In a context of intense tribalism, attribution error works like this: If people we identify as members of our tribe do something bad—if they’re mean to someone, say, or they break the law—we tend to attribute the behavior to “situational” factors. They had been under stress at work, or they were pressured by bad actors into misbehaving, or whatever. If members of the enemy tribe do something bad, we’re more likely to explain the behavior in “dispositional” terms—the bad behavior emanates from their basic disposition, their character. It’s just the kind of thing that people like them do.

Good behavior works the other way around. If members of our tribe do something good, the explanation tends to be dispositional—their behavior is a simple reflection of who they are. If members of the enemy tribe do something good, the explanation will likely be situational—maybe they were “virtue signaling” to a particular audience, or maybe they did the right thing because all other options were foreclosed.

One consequence of attribution error is that once you’ve been categorized as an enemy, it’s hard to get that label changed. The bad things you do will be attributed to your essential nature, and so reinforce the label, and the good things you do will be explained away as not reflecting the “real you.” So the more Americans there are who are looking at each other through this bias—the more Americans there are who identify with one tribe or the other, and the more intense the identification—the deeper the challenge of near-term reconciliation.

This cognitive bias, like confirmation bias, seems to be triggered by feelings. You don’t have to be all that sensitive to pick up on the negative feeling that accompanies the thought of an enemy. This feeling can infuse your very perception of the person with a sense that they possess a kind of “essence of enemy,” an essence that then shapes the way you think about them.

So with attribution error, as with confirmation bias, anything that helps you reflect on your feelings before letting them take root, before giving them your obedience, could help. And mindfulness meditation does that. It can make you less reactive, more reflective, less buffeted by unexamined emotion, more equanimous. It can make you at least a bit less inclined to embrace and hang on to that “enemy” vibe when it surfaces.

I hope all of this explains why I think that, if most Americans meditated, the prospect of ever-intensifying tribal warfare could start to recede. What it doesn’t explain is why I hold out hope for salvation by mindfulness even though most Americans don’t, in fact, meditate. And, worse still, what meditators there are seem to cluster on one side of the aisle. When I’ve gone to meditation retreats, the parking lots have featured a number of Volvos, Subarus, and Priuses, few if any pickup trucks, and zero bumper stickers that say Make America Great Again.

There are four reasons that I nonetheless hold out hope.

First, parking lots can be misleading. I have a sister who is a conservative Christian and voted for Trump and has dabbled in mindfulness meditation. One reason that last part shouldn’t surprise you is that mindfulness meditation has in many settings, including the growing number of schools and workplaces where it’s offered, been severed from its Buddhist roots and packaged as simple self-help, as therapy. Such as: “mindfulness-based stress reduction.”

And viewing stress mindfully can lead to viewing other feelings mindfully. Indeed, people who teach meditation as a way of handling stress or anxiety often wind up helping students deal with rage, anger, resentment, and other feelings that warp our perception of the enemy tribe. Besides, using mindfulness to deal with any given problematic feeling naturally tends to lead to greater awareness of, and more critical reflection on, other feelings as well, including even the subtler of the feelings that may drive cognitive biases. What starts as simple self-help can wind up making you a better person and a better citizen.

Second, meditation on one side of the tribal divide can exert a calming influence on the other side. The way figurative tribal warfare becomes literal tribal warfare is through a positive feedback loop: Hatred and hyperbolic rhetoric on one side lead to more of that on the other side, and vice versa. Well, the positive feedback works in the other direction too. If there is less hatred and less accusatory, hyperbolic rhetoric coming from one side, the amount of hatred and hyperbolic rhetoric on the other side can drop in response.

Third, meditation has established a pretty big beachhead and is gaining momentum. A National Institutes of Health survey conducted in 2012 found that 18 million American adults meditated and 21 million practiced yoga, which often has an element of mindfulness. And both numbers were growing.

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Finally, science is providing more reason to meditate—not just by documenting the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness but by showing that our mental processes are in need of clarifying, and suggesting that clarifying them could involve changing our relationship to some of our feelings.

In a landmark study conducted during the 2004 election, researchers scanned the brains of strongly partisan Americans as they were shown evidence of hypocrisy in three people—George W. Bush, John Kerry, and a “neutral” figure, such as a famous actor with no well-known ideology. In all three cases, they were then shown “exculpatory” evidence that offered a way to explain the conduct in question without deeming it hypocritical. It’s no surprise that, in opining about which political candidates had indeed committed hypocrisy, Democratic and Republican partisans tended to nominate Bush and Kerry, respectively. More interesting is what went on in their brains as they moved toward these judgments.

For both Democrats and Republicans, a part of the brain associated with emotion tended to be activated upon seeing signs of hypocrisy in both Bush and Kerry, but not upon seeing signs of hypocrisy in the neutral figure. But some of the details depended on whether the candidate who seemed hypocritical was from their party. If he was, the study’s authors reported, then an initial “emotionally aversive” reaction was followed by a second phase that they described this way: a “combination of reduced negative affect (absence of activity in the insula and lateral orbital cortex) and increased positive affect or reward (ventral striatum activation) once subjects had ample time to reach biased conclusions.”

In other words, our “cognitive” biases seem to rest on a foundation of affective rewards. We think what it feels good to think. And it feels good to think that our tribe makes sense and the other tribe doesn’t.

Mindfulness meditation has roots going back more than two millennia, as do the Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist psychology that inform it. And Buddhist psychology has long emphasized the fine intertwining of cognition and affect, of thinking and feeling; our feelings make us cling to some thoughts and flee from others. Indeed, this is a big reason that, according to Buddhism, meditative practices which loosen the grip of feelings can give us a clearer view of the world, can lead in the direction of enlightenment.

According to Buddhism, these practices aren’t good only because they’re clarifying. They’re good because a clearer view of the world reduces our suffering and the suffering we inflict on others.

Modern psychology (as I’ve argued at greater length elsewhere) is broadly corroborating the Buddhist view of our situation: We are naturally afflicted by confusion, including cognitive biases, and this confusion is indeed abetted by feelings, and one consequence of all this is needless suffering. With Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament getting more and more scientific validation, maybe it’s time we started paying attention to the Buddhist prescription.


Robert Wright (@robertwrighter) is the author of The Moral Animal, Nonzero, and The Evolution of God. This article is adapted from his new book Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Wright has taught in the psychology department at Penn and the religion department at Princeton and is currently visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He also runs mindfulresistance.net.

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