The Biology of Social Media

From what I can tell we all have a love/hate relationship with social media, everyone is on it and they love how it connects them to loved ones yet I hear people complain constantly about how it is used to spread hate and rumors. So why does it seem to bring out the best and worst of us? Biology.

I realize for most, biology was a class in high school and something you probably haven't thought about much since however our biological makeup is part of everything we do and everything we think. Yes, your biology effects how you think and see the world, understanding this will take a lot of the mystery out of why social media is the way it is and will give you some control over how you use it.

First, there are a few evolutionary facts that you need to understand, some of these may be hard to hear because they don't put us in the best light. All I ask is that you keep an open mind and try to keep the focus on yourself. Ask yourself how what I say pertains to you, not others. This can be very difficult and uncomfortable yet these are the reasons that social media is such a circus.

1. All humans are selfish biologically, we are here to pass on our genes and anything that gets in the way of that must be dealt with.

2. We evolved in small tribes and outsiders were a threat, either through violence or disease.

3. We have all evolved a moral compass and a sense of what is fair. We are all convinced we are right and those that differ from us are wrong.

4. We all accentuate our own qualities and moral position to make ourselves look better to others and we all gossip about others to make them look worse, sometimes even people we love.

Before I go any further I want to make myself clear that I am not preaching in this post or am I in any way claiming to be better at this than anyone else. For me this is just like nutrition or movement, my goal is to give you the science underlying what is happening and then leave it up to you what to do with it.

You are selfish, so am I and so is everyone you know including those you see as totally selfless. I am not referring to the way we all act although this is the foundation of a lot of the behaviors we see every day. What I am talking about is our "selfish genes" as Richard Dawkins put it. From a biological standpoint, your primary purpose is to live long enough and be fit enough to pass on your genes to another generation. If you die before you have offspring or you are not fit enough to attract a mate then you have failed according to your biology. So a couple of things about that statement. One is that "fit" in this context means you are well adapted to the environment you live in, not how strong you are. Strength is important but not always the most important, for instance, you may be able to deadlift twice your body weight but if the environment you are in values problem solving over raw strength then you may find yourself further down the fitness scale. Second is that "failure" to your biology does not mean failure in life in the modern world. Although our biological drive to pass on our genes(libido) still affects many of our decisions and actions having kids is no longer our sole measurement of success.

Our selfish genes obviously aren't whispering in our ear making us do things but they are the prime driver behind the evolution of our emotions and other higher brain functions. Because this selfishness starts at our most basic levels, it started with the first single-celled organisms and has been a part of everything that came after, we are instinctively drawn to actions and behaviors that benefit us over others. What this means is that they influence everything we do even though we are sure that we are the ones controlling our lives. We are all genetically predisposed to taking care of ourselves and our offspring(they carry the same genes) first which doesn't sound like too big of a deal until we realize that this self-preservation bent to our nature evolved in an environment where we may only meet a few hundred people in our lifetime. In today's world putting yourself first sounds egotistical and perhaps even narcissistic. We are told that we need to be selfless and to always put others first, even strangers, however, that is not how your biology works and this dichotomy can be a constant source of stress. Even the most selfless people will make choices or comments that expose this underlying selfishness. This fundamental fact underlies the rest of this post.

Now let us look at the fundamental reason we as Homo sapiens have such a hard time getting along with others, tribalism. This is the basic fact that our selfish genes have programmed us to fear other humans that are different than us, and I use human here instead of sapiens because we evolved in a world with other hominids(humans), sapiens just happen to be the only one to survive. The extinction of other Hominid species is now widely agreed was most likely caused by our tribalist nature along with our violent tendencies as a species, some things have never changed. Although tribalism is looked at as a negative today, from a genetic standpoint it was imperative to survival in the ancestral environment. First, we take care of ourselves and our offspring then being social we build a tribe of individuals who are reciprocally altruistic, I will help you with the understanding that you will help me later. This is demonstrated by the fact that all social animals focus attention and resources within the group and will fear and be aggressive to individuals outside of it. This trait evolved because of a tendency for animals who did not fear the different to get eaten, this means they don't pass on the trusting gene to any offspring. The other reason that social mammals, in particular, are extra caring to those in their group is that non-monogamy is the norm, so there is really no way of knowing who is related to you and therefore carrying your genes.

If you go back to the ancestral environment you would find tribes of sapiens living together that relied on each other for survival. These tribes were not harmonious love fests, they were political, devious, and potentially violent groups, with individuals vying for status and power. One of the reasons we know this is that not only are we like that now but so are our closest genetic relatives the chimpanzee. For a very interesting look at chimp social structure, I highly recommend "Chimpanzee Politics" by Frans De Waal. We will talk about the effect that living in such tribes had on our brains in the next section. So if tribes were so cutthroat then why did we stay in them? Because it was a known enemy, you knew the individuals in the tribe and could play the game right along with them but outsiders represented an unknown and therefore greater threat. For example, a common practice among mammals and even primates is infanticide when a new alpha takes over a group. By killing the nursing offspring of other males the females will then return to a biologically ready state for breeding, however, the males within the group are less likely to do this because of the possibility of the young being theirs. Another thing to remember here is that not all of these evolutionary steps were taken during the roughly 200,000 years that sapiens have been here, many were passed down from much older ancestors. This does not make them any less real or influential.

Diseases were also a threat from outsiders. A stranger carrying something that your tribe did not have an immunity to could be catastrophic. Obviously, our ancient relatives did not understand germ theory but our genes did and they gave you a wonderful feeling to prove it, disgust. The reason things that smell bad or people that are dirty make us want to move away is our genes trying to protect themselves. Look at the propaganda of any dictator and you will find references to their enemies being dirty or unclean, this speaks to us at a primal level and is a great way to get their group to dehumanize others.

This very ancient fear of anything outside of one's tribe was often the impetus for violence and this has not changed, the number of tribes has just gotten larger. Today we belong to a multitude of tribes, nations, political parties, religions, sports fans, even which truck you drive can be used as a reason to shun you. If like me you have seen people start a physical altercation over which football team is better and wondered why, this is the reason. This biological fact, I believe, is the number one hurdle facing equal rights and world peace. We all feel this fear, most of us will not admit it or even realize it but it is there and you are making decisions about how you treat others based on it.

Morality and fairness are not something that many of us would put in the biology category yet this is where they start. Yes, we take these further and make them a much larger part of our lives than any other species but we are not the only ones who feel them. It has been shown over and over that a sense of what is right and fair is felt by multiple species. For example, squirrel monkeys will repeat a trained behavior for one grape all day unless they see another monkey get two grapes for the same behavior, then they refuse to cooperate until the rewards are fair. Another example of demanding fairness was demonstrated by chimps when presented with a problem to be solved that required two individuals, the chimps were willing to cooperate when both were rewarded equally. When they were rewarded differently the chimp receiving less refused to help even though he got nothing as well. This is also why human resources departments don't divulge what everyone at a company makes because if you don't know that the other person doing the same job makes more than you, you will be happy, if you find out about the discrepancy you are more likely to become less productive or quit even though you were content with your salary before. This unshakable feeling of unfairness and that gut feeling of this just isn't right is built into our DNA. This stems from the fact that we lived in these political tribes. Social animals evolved this morality to protect themselves from being taken advantage of and losing resources, therefore lowering their chances of having healthy offspring.

Most of us would agree that having a moral compass in life makes us better people and I agree, however realizing that this sense of morality starts from a place of genetic selfishness helps explain why our morality is flexible at best. This is why the golden rule is so hard to follow, we are not built to treat others the same as ourselves, in order to do so we must go against our nature and that can be done but I think we all can agree that it is not easy, especially when someones morality is different from our own. Because of our personal sense of what is right stems from such a primal place it just feels so right and therefore anyone that disagrees must be wrong. The hard part is to remember that the person you see as so obviously wrong feels the same way about you. This is why arguing with someones moral position is typically useless, they feel just as justified and right as you do. Try this, think of something that you believe is morally wrong to do and then try to imagine someone arguing with you and changing your mind, probably not gonna happen, they feel the same way.

The second part of the morality equation is that we want to look as moral and fair as possible because this makes it more likely we will be accepted by the tribe and acceptance means they will share resources and you have a better chance of survival. Wanting to look good in front of others is driven by our genes as a survival technique, disapproval meant possible banishment, and that meant an increased chance of death. This is why when someone rejects you it feels like the world is ending, in the past, it very well could have been. So if we are driven to look as good as possible to the tribe there are two ways of accomplishing this, over accentuating our own morality and fairness and downplaying others.

We all know that we like to talk about how great we are and tend to downplay or ignore the less fantastic parts of ourselves. What many of us don't realize is that our brains have evolved to make us believe our own self aggrandizing delusions. Why? Because we lie better if we believe it. Remember that evolution is not concerned with right or wrong, only survival of the genes. If we knew we were amoral and unfair a lot of the time and we had to pretend not to be we would get caught, and out of the tribe we go. So we evolved a brain that can justify our own behavior and allow us to believe we are moral and fair even if our actions don't support that conclusion. I know that your initial reaction is to think, not me, yet we all feel that way, that's the point. Every person on the planet believes they are moral and fair and are justified in their actions, all of them. Let that sink in.

So we believe we are better than we probably are yet that is not all, we also believe others are worse and we tell everyone about it. The ability of sapiens to communicate with complex language is one of our defining characteristics. So why did this ability evolve? One of the theories for why our brains evolved the level of complexity and functionality it did was because of gossip. Gossip is a dirty word in modern society yet we may not be here without it. In fact, it is not just gossip that we excel at, it is morality based gossip. We all talk about other people and the vast majority of those conversations are about how they are morally inferior or acting unfairly. Of course, we don't use that language when we do it, we say things like, I can't believe he would do such a thing, or she should not let her kids do that, the unspoken meaning being that we would never do that because we are morally superior. Anytime we say someone should or shouldn't do something we are making a moral judgment based on what we believe, and remember our beliefs are based on our own self-aggrandizing delusions. Wow, that's a lot, and we all do it.

Ok so let us talk about social media. We have all seen things that make us cringe, and most likely have made others do the same with our posts. What we see happening online and on social networks is what happens when you take a brain that evolved in very limited social settings and you drop it into a network of billions. We are not prepared biologically to deal with this, it's like using a desktop from the eighties and trying to run today's operating systems on it.

Remember the four evolutionary points from earlier:

1. Like every other animal on the planet, we are fundamentally selfish and looking out for our own best interest.

2. We fear those that are different than us.

3. We believe we are moral and fair even though we are probably not as good as we think and we love to tell others how great we are.

4. We gossip about others to lower their moral status and boost our own.

Social media gives us a platform to take these biological truths and magnify them into ridiculous and even dangerous proportions. I do realize that the majority of people using social media are on there to stay connected with loved ones and are not trying to hurt anyone, just like in real life, however, you can still see the effects of their biology. We all know people whos online persona is a highly polished version of their lives. They post only the good things that they do and if they do post anything negative it tends to be about how someone else's selfishness or lack of concern for others has caused the negative thing to happen. When we see these posts we often think, wow he/she/they are hypocrites. We know them to be selfish and unconcerned about others at times yet they talk about others, he/she/they shouldn't do that. The other post you will see very often, even from compassionate caring people is about how others are destroying something that is important to them. This could be how religion is pushing itself into government and schools or how the lack of religion in government and schools is the problem, maybe its how one political party is the answer and the other is pure evil. In fact, the myth of pure evil is rampant these days. I see things every day that try to convince me that this or that is completely wrong and evil and so are the people who do it. This is tribalism because no one is completely good or bad, moral or immoral, but if we admit that we have to admit we may not be superior. Remember we all have a morality that we feel in our bones is right, even people who disagree with you. This can be incredibly difficult to wrap your primate brain around and that is the point. Your genes don't want you to see their side, they want you to feel morally superior because that is the best way to survive in a hostile environment.

So now the hard part, look at your feed. I know this can be very uncomfortable, as true self-reflection always is. To turn our critical, judgmental, self-aggrandizing brain on itself is something no other animal does, of course, no other animal has the ability to kill each other by the millions either. I know some of you may be thinking that you don't think your all that, in fact, you have low self-esteem. This is different, those of us who have struggled with depression and self-worth still love to gossip about how others are living, and if we are being honest we tend to justify our issues as being caused by something outside ourselves. Again I want to reiterate that I do all of this as well and I am in no way claiming that I am not a hypocrite, we all are, that's the point.

So what should you do with this information? That's up to you. My goal with all of my coaching is to give you the information and let you decide what to do with it. I know and love so many of you who are fighting for causes that you feel passionate about and I don't want you to stop because I truly believe the world is getting better because of individuals who are willing to stand up for what they feel is right. All I ask is that you remember that the individuals on the other side of the debate are just as firm in their rightness as you are, and just as stubborn about changing their mind. So when you feel the urge to judge others for their moral position or to make yourself look better than you are, do what Dragonfly reminds me to do, Pause Breath Listen. Take a second and then take a few deep breaths and listen to where the urge is coming from before you act. Understanding this genetic pull on our emotions and decisions allows you to pause and step back from a given situation, or post, and look at it with a new perspective. Just because our genes are pulling us in one direction does not mean we need to follow them, that is the benefit of being the most advanced of the great apes, we can choose to follow our instincts or not. The trick is to understand why we feel the first impulse and then make a decision.

The other thought exercise I recommend is to think of something you have a strong opinion on, religion, politics, abortion, and picture what it would take to change your mind and then treat the individuals on the other side in that way, I can almost guaranty it won't be with harsh words or violence.

From this hypocritical self-aggrandizing primate to you I wish you nothing but the best this crazy world has to offer.

Keep Evolving, E