Here’s an idea that might make some in this audience feel a little smug (and let’s face it, we can be quite smug): Thinking beyond borders and having only a loose attachment to national identity could be a sign of good psychological health. Conversely, nationalistic views are associated with insecurity and low self-esteem. That’s according to Dr Steve Taylor, psychologist and senior lecturer at Leeds Beckett University. He found that individuals who had reached higher levels of self-actualization also lost any strong feelings of group identity. This week on the podcast, Dr Taylor explains his research and we explore the roots of our us vs. them tribalism going back to the earliest humans. We also discuss how narcissistic leaders exploit those traits and what the world can look like when leadership meets psychological health.
Read a short excerpt of our conversation below or better yet, listen to the episode. (Full transcript available on the website.)
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Isabelle Roughol: Humans break up into tribes like animals do in packs and herds. Isn’t that natural to us?
Steve Taylor: To a degree. Human beings have always been tribal. Early human beings, and also some indigenous hunter gatherer peoples who are still alive today, even though they are tribal, it's not normal for them to be in conflict with each other and to have a very distinct sense of tribal identity. Tribes are actually quite interchangeable, fluid. People often change membership. They cultivate agreement and ties with each other. It’s a myth that early human beings were intensely war-like. The anthropological research doesn't support that.
So where does that competition come from?
That comes later. There is an almost total lack of evidence for warfare until about 5,000, 6,000 years ago. Then warfare suddenly becomes endemic. In order to fall into conflict with other groups, you have to have a strong sense of distinct identity and a strong sense of otherness. If you were closely linked to that group, you'd be more likely to cultivate agreement and some form of ties with them.
There are signs that human beings developed a stronger sense of individuality, a stronger sense that we were individual beings living inside our own mental space. That creates a sense of separation. And separation creates a sense of otherness, a sense that you are different and distinct. It's one of the essential things which differentiate the first so-called civilizations from the earlier groups. The ancient Greeks had this strong sense of individuality, which went along with their strong desire for power and wealth and to conquer other peoples.
It's probably connected to farming and settlements. As hunter gatherers, we were very mobile. So there wasn't a strong sense of attachment to one particular place. But once human beings settled down and grouped together into towns, they became more territorial and that sense of territory was clearly connected to warfare and identity as well probably.
What makes us relate to some individuals more than others and develop that us vs. them mentality?
If you feel separate, if you feel that you are an individual living inside your own mental space, then you feel a sense of lack. You're like a fragment, which has been broken off from the whole. There's something missing. You're looking for things to cling to, to strengthen your sense of identity. And I think that is a factor in a strong sense of nationalism.
When people feel strongly nationalistic, it's not a sign of good psychological health. It's a sign that there is a sense of low self-esteem, a sense of insecurity. Psychologically healthy people are not nationalistic. And that's one of the things I've found in my research. Psychologically healthy people are transnationalistic. They go beyond a sense of national identity. They feel a kinship with all human beings no matter the seemingly superficial differences.
What stands out in people who feel that way?
I've done some studies of people who attain a level of psychological development where they feel a strong sense of wellbeing, of connection to other people, to the world around us, to nature.
Sometimes that's called in psychology self-actualization. I found that it sometimes occurs after long periods of psychological turmoil (addiction, bereavement, cancer…) In reaction to the trauma they've been through, they actually undergo long-term positive psychological development. It's sometimes called post-traumatic growth. It's sometimes quite a radical transformation to the point where people feel almost as though there are different people to who they were before.
When people undergo this shift, they feel a tremendous sense of wellbeing. They lose their anxieties. They feel very compassionate, very empathic to other people. And they feel a strong sense of security, of completeness. They lose the need for group identity. They transcend any national sets of identity, any kind of religious sense of identity too. They don't identify as Christians or Muslims anymore. So it takes them beyond the need for identity.
Does that mean we could attenuate nationalistic conflict by encouraging psychological health?
To a degree. It's something that can be cultivated. We're really talking about transcending a sense of insecurity and separateness. Fundamentally, it comes down to personal development, psychological development, even spiritual development. That's why I'm a big advocate of meditation. When your mind becomes quiet and your thoughts slow down, you feel this natural sense of connection to the world around you. Your sense of insecurity and anxiety decreases. You feel compassion to other people. You see them as part of you and you feel a natural sense of empathy towards them. And that obviously negates any need for conflict or competition.
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