In an uncertain world, polarisation feeds our need to belong
Our tendency to coalesce in groups is an age old phenomenon. Humans, like many other species, find it brings benefits and it makes us feel safer. Belonging is an innate human need.
Over time, the physical threat we face has thankfully receded. But our prehistoric brains continue to be wired to seek out and reward this sense of belonging. Indeed, it is this that is at the root of polarisation – how our brains interact with groups and the wider environment – each relationship has the potential to reinforce our groupish tendencies, often subconsciously.
From a young age we start to recognise our own groups. Newborns can identify the voices they hear regularly, typically their mum and dad – who represent safety. As we get older we start to look for more signs of groups we belong to. What they wear, the accent they have, where they shop or work.
In recent years in the UK and many other countries we have seen this groupishness manifest in politics. Leave or Remain, Nationalist or Unionist, Labour or Conservative. The conflict between these identities has extended into every aspect of our life. Who we live and work with, who we trust, who we fall in love with. As we coalesce around political labels it causes societies to fracture and divides to deepen. What are the common bonds that hold us together? If we get less practice at spending time with those who are different to us, will it become harder still to bridge divides?
The pandemic is unfortunately only likely to amplify this trend. Uncertainty makes us cling to our groups, and almost inevitably become more wary of an out-group. The pandemic and inevitable economic fallout have been linked to polarisation. You can see this in the rising levels of online engagement highlighted in MHP’s research. More people are signing petitions and writing to politicians as they have sought out others in their group.
Freelancers who have fallen through the support net, fathers desperate to be at the birth of their child.
This shows polarisation is not all bad. Some is good, healthy and essential. It can bring about change and lead to better government. Amorphous blobs are boring, engender poor scrutiny and stifle innovation. But when we segregate, the signs are ominous.
There are crumbs of hope though. Societies have polarised and depolarised before; it does not have to lead to scenes such as those in the Capitol building in Washington DC this January. We can influence this process, and as communicators, leaders and change makers we hold a special role. The environment that can trigger that groupish behaviour in individuals, we are better able to help shape it.