Befriend an Other, Save the World

This pattern of labeling people unlike ourselves only serves to feed destructive and divisive patterns.

This past Sunday at my church I gave a message about the importance of transcending tribalism. Try as I might, I can’t figure out how to synthesize that 37 minute talk into a 500 word post, so really you should just queue up the talk in your podcast feed — because I think it’s a really important message. Nonetheless, even though I’ve already used up 70 words, here’s the gist of why I think that acquiring (and maintaining) friends who are very much not-like us might be our best hope for saving the world. I’ll get there by connecting four concepts: Tribalism, Moral Circle, Infrahumanization, and Dunbar’s Number.


Throughout homo sapiens evolving journey, our ancestors gained advantages by banding together into larger and larger tribes*. As a result, our brains today crave being part of a group. We long for the safety of being in a tribe, alerting us to who is with us and who is against us.

This ancient program of tribalism, running in our brains, is the classic “us/them” mentality.


There’s a phenomenon known as the moral circle which attempts to name how humans treat people differently depending on whether or not they are in our circle. To oversimplify, if someone is in our moral circle (friend, family, tribe member), we afford them benefits such as: patience, respect, nuance, appreciating the context of their actions, and giving the benefit of the doubt.

For those outside our moral circle? We are far quicker to judge, cancel, and dismiss.


This isn’t because we are bad people, it’s in part because of another phenomenon known as infrahumanization. In short, this is when we (subconsciously) deny another person certain attributes that are uniquely and quintessentially human, which therefore makes them — in our minds, at least — less than human.

Since they are less than human, we can treat them differently (ie, worse) and not feel bad about it. Surprisingly, our consciences are not agitated.


Finally, 30 years ago anthropologist Robin Dunbar put forth the idea that the human brain can only reasonably sustain stable social relationships with about 150 people.

Beyond that, the brain simply doesn’t have the capacity, the room for, or the ability to track details or important information.


Here’s where it gets fascinating (and a bit scary).

Once a person’s limit for connection is reached, should they consider someone beyond their 150 people, what we find is the human brain predictably resorts to combinations of hierarchical schemes, stereotypes, and other simplified models, all as a way to try and comprehend so many different kinds of people.

To say that differently, the brain, in order to function properly, conserves resources by making mental shortcuts for those outside our Dunbar’s number.


The problem, as I see it, is that as a result of social media, hyper partisan news and politics, and globalization via the interwebs, we are becoming more and more siloed in our social networks. Our 150 people have become a sort of bespoke community, specifically curated to look, act, talk, and think like us. We have cherry-picked from within our various tribes who are people are. And tribalism, the ancient program running deep in our bones, rewards us for this.

But the risk to me seems obvious: if everyone in my inner social network reflects basically what I already think about the world, then when it comes to people who believe/think/act differently than me, that sort of person is already outside my 150 limit which means I will, through almost no conscious fault of my own, reduce them to mere labels and stereotypes.

This pattern of labeling people who are unlike ourselves only serves to feed the destructive and divisive patterns we’ve seen wherein we talk about, think about, and treat people who are different from us as less-than-human.

And we don’t even feel bad about doing it (see: infrahumanization above).

Because our brains can’t handle holding the nuance of people’s complicated humanity if they’re outside our tribe.

Which is why, when one of “our guys” gets caught up in doing something morally questionable, we might wait for more information, or dig deeper into context, or hold it in light of who they are and what they’ve done in the past.

But when one of “them” does it? We immediately resort to labels: he’s racist, she’s homophobic, they’re xenophobic, he’s lazy, she’s incompetent, they’re sexist, and so on.

We don’t reserve judgment.
We don’t consider context.
We don’t appreciate nuance.


This is why I think we need to intentionally befriend people who are very much not like us. Because the closer you get to people, the more your brain is afforded the opportunity to see all of their complicated beauty, their strange paradox, the both/and of their warts and (whatever the opposite of “warts” is… smoothness?)

Left to itself, our brains will continue to crave being in tribes with like-minded people. It will reward us for surrounding ourselves with people who make us feel safe. And all of that can be wonderful and serve a purpose for sure.

But I think we need to be honest about the downsides of such a setup. If we want any hope to avoid a world more and more divided and fractured and at war, we must be intentional about building relationships with the political/ideological/religious other.

*I’m aware of the larger conversation surrounding the usage of the term “tribe”. This article in particular was enlightening. However, I chose to keep it in this article due to the nature of it being nested in a larger conversation involving the phenomenon of Tribalism.