Reflections: Paranoia, Tribalism and Politics

This is one of a series of reflections I plan to write as I wind up my almost twenty year stint as a local elected official. The goal is simple: share things I’ve learned, or think I’ve learned, which I didn’t know before I began that journey. Which will, hopefully, make the interactions of my fellow residents with government more effective and more comprehensible. Because I’ve noticed there’s a lot of confusion out there about how government operates 😊!


The Importance of Crises

A famous saying about politics in democratic (little D) societies is “Never waste a crisis.” That’s because under a reasonably well-functioning democratic system voters, who hold the ultimate power, don’t need to stay closely engaged with how their government operates and can spend more time pursuing their personal interests1. Government mostly gets managed on an exception basis: we notice when things go “wrong” but generally miss or ignore what goes “right”.

The approach works reasonably well…except when changes are needed. Implementing change which even most people agree would be worth pursuing is generally quite difficult under this benign neglect style of governance.

But not during a crisis. Then voter attention gets laser-focused on what’s going on with their community and they’re much more willing to contemplate change. Initially the changes seen as most useful may be the ones which would restore the status quo ante. But if the crisis drags on long enough, or is deep enough, more substantive changes can and will be considered by the electorate. Conversations happen that were unthinkable just a short time before.

And those changes may or may not be worthwhile ones, or serve the broad community interest. Because, as I’ll outline in the rest of this article, crises can be used to create paranoid delusions, which can collectively override community interests.

Everyone who wishes to effect change understands how valuable crises are. Politicians and others working the political process are always looking for ways to identify crises to gain voter attention. It’s the political analog of the old newspaper adage “If it bleeds it leads”. People say they wish they heard more good news. But what sells newspapers is the bad, serious or threatening stuff. And, if you can’t identify a real crisis you can always try to manufacture one.

Enter Paranoia

The reason crises play such an important role in democratic politics relates, I think, to the role of paranoia in the human mind and human society. Paranoid thinking can be viewed as the mental analog of the flight or fight response literally every animal on Earth possesses. But it’s rightly considered an affliction when it becomes too significant. So why does it exist at all?

Here’s one theory. In primitive settings involving isolated and only occasionally interacting populations2 it makes sense to question a new guy’s motives, goals, etc., when he shows up on your doorstep. After you get to know someone — either directly, or indirectly by a mutual friend vouching for them — that impulse can go dormant again. Paranoia, in limited doses, is a survival trait.

Tribalism Is a Survival Trait

But it exists within the seemingly-paradoxical context of a self-centered social species3. Our individual achievements generally occur through the communities which provide a framework, and support, for us. Not even world-class solo athletes win alone. They depend on a big network of trainers, researchers, lessons from competitors, etc. We’re tribal, because tribes are a survival advantage which let us achieve more as individuals.

But while communities/tribes are critical to our success a problem crops up when the “tribe” gets too big. You start having lots of interactions with people you don’t know4, each of which can trigger a paranoid reaction. For all the massive benefits it provides, that’s precisely the situation an advanced, dynamic, highly-interconnected culture creates on a daily basis. We’ve all had to learn to deal with our paranoid reflex being frequently triggered or almost triggered.

One of the ways we compensate in the face of real or imagined threats is to join more tribes. If you work with other people that can become a tribe. So can a church, a book group, sports teams, etc. Anything that gives you an opportunity to belong to a group of people who share a common something can serve. In fact, belonging to tribes is critical to being a well-balanced person. We don’t do well as isolated individuals. Having a sense of belonging, perhaps to multiple groups, provides us a more stable and productive life.

Tribal membership used to be defined almost exclusively by where you were born. That’s expanded over our history as human societies have become larger and more complex. Moreover, there’s a positive feedback loop here: by multiplying and strengthening tribal bonds we became able to achieve more as individuals, which collectively creates more opportunities for new ways to connect with each other.

We’re living through just such a transition in the early 21st century. We didn’t wire the world to enhance tribalism5 but it has made it much easier for people to find others of like mind. That can be good…or bad.

Exploiting the Dark Side

Both these human traits – paranoia and a need to belong – create fertile ground for leaders who would like to convince us to follow them to enact change. And the setup does not necessarily discriminate well between “good” change and “bad” change. It’ll work equally well for both.

The trick is to take advantage of our paranoid and tribal tendencies. If you can trigger a paranoid reaction and then get inside someone’s paranoia you’ve gained a very powerful tool for getting them to follow you willingly. Their own mind will rewrite reality to align with your narrative. Add in a little flattery to bolster the delusion and you’re all set.

You can gain even more power over people by encouraging them to join a tribe which shares the paranoid delusion. Demonstrating others share the delusion validates it in the minds of that particular tribe. The theory must be right because others believe it, too!

History shows this procedure works quite well. Hitler called it the Big Lie and used it to monstrous effect. He faced a problem, though, in that disseminating the paranoid seed was challenging when all you have is newspapers and radio.

Social media is a much more robust platform for encouraging this kind of delusional paranoid tribalism. That’s not to say social media is inherently “bad”. Like any technology or tool it’s “good” or “bad” depending upon how it’s used. But for all of prior history it used to be hard to find potential followers for a Cause. Now they’ll find you, and each other, with only a little work by you.

It’s a Trap!

Because delusional paranoia rewrites reality it acts to lock you into a mental box. Once you’re in it you’re the only person who can get yourself out of it. Attempts by others to move you out will almost certainly get interpreted as threats to the delusion. To escape you’ll have to fight your own paranoid thinking. Not a good situation to be in.

Moreover, once tribalism gets involved you’ll face two additional barriers to exiting the delusion. Other tribal members will chastise or attack you if you start to drift away. And you will have to fight yourself, because very few people like being alone.

We need to be part of a tribe — it’s part of our genetic heritage — and if the price is suspending our intellectual judgment, skepticism or objectivity, well, that’s a price we’re often willing to pay. It’s more important, for most of us, to belong rather than to be right.

What can be done about the delusional paranoia trap? The best defense is probably “don’t go there”. Don’t assume your paranoid fear about something is valid and worthy of attention unless and until you’ve confirmed, through independent critical, objective thinking, there really is a danger. You’ll almost always have the time to do so although your own paranoia will argue against reflection. One of the many benefits of civilization is that it generally buys us time to reflect before we must act.

And make sure your critical analysis is both independent and objective. Don’t conclude you’re evolving theory is right just because someone else came to the same conclusion. That’s particularly true if you are introduced to others who share your beliefs by a third-party. Because that third party may be looking to create a tribe they can lead to effect whatever change they are pursuing.

Dealing with Paranoid Traps

But this assumes you have at least a nagging sense that you’re sliding down that paranoia slope. How can you assess the state of your own thinking when it starts to go off the rails, particularly in the early stages?

Here’s one thing I’ve used personally with some success. If my theory explains everything or nearly everything…I’m probably in a paranoid loop. Regardless of whether or not other people share the same view. Because the world is a complicated place and no single, simple theory can explain everything6.

How do you get someone out of a paranoid trap? As I mentioned above they have to choose to leave; you can’t make them. But an important thing to keep in mind is that tribal need to belong. Your arguments to leave will have a better chance of working if they’re accompanied by identifying a different tribe which would be happy to accept the person locked in the loop. That way they aren’t giving up belonging to a community. They’re just moving to a new one.

Skepticism Is an Important Defense

To deal with those who you suspect might be trying to manipulate you into a paranoid loop one of the better defenses is skepticism. Whenever someone pitches me — particularly when the pitch includes “this won’t cost you anything” — I always research what’s in it for them. Why are they pitching me rather than just doing whatever it is they want me to do themselves and letting me learn about it through the grapevine?

Years ago a work friend moved to a private investment firm and pitched me on investing in a great ground floor opportunity. It quickly went totally bust…after which I learned that even though he could have done so my former colleague hadn’t invested in the deal personally. Because he thought the risk was too high. Always understand the pitcher’s motives.

Granted, there’s a danger that constantly questioning others motives can create a paranoid loop of its own. But if you keep your skepticism in check you can avoid that. The goal is not to be suspicious of everyone and every new idea but to determine what the underlying motivations of the person pitching you are, and what they hope to achieve by bringing you into their fold.

Skepticism is even important on the individual level. I spent all of my private sector career in finance doing all kinds of analyses. Nowadays I include check sums in my financial models, calculating a metric in a different way from the rest of the model, to guard against errors. Because I learned, on a flight to pitch some investors as the chief financial officer of my company, that we tend not to challenge conclusions which fit our preconceived notions. They just demonstrate how insightful we are! But staying up all night reworking a model to correct egregious errors which would’ve wrecked my pitch is not something I want to do twice. If your careful analysis confirms your preconceptions… double- or triple- check your work.

Managing Paranoia and Tribalism Creates Better Communities

Acknowledging and working against our own paranoid tendencies – which are triggered by perceived negative changes – can result in a better democratic society. If you stay engaged with your community and your government you won’t be surprised by important public issues. Less surprises means less paranoia triggers which means less ways you can be co-opted into supporting something that may not be in your long-run best interest.

To the extent you can, get involved in your communities, and stay involved. That’ll put you in a better position to evaluate the need for change and make you less prone to being manipulated by those who work the crisis pipeline. You may even identify some things you think need to be changed to make things better, too.

Recognizing how our paranoia can be enhanced through tribalism will help protect us against those who would exploit us to serve their own ends. If you guard against attempts to trigger paranoid delusional traps you’ll be much harder to manipulate. If enough people do it our government will function better, and more fairly.

A lot of paranoid traps grow out of, or are fostered by those who wish to encourage, a fear of the future. If we each stay focused on identifying and working community problems instead of fearing the future we’ll end up with a better future in which to live.

Fear, and the paranoia it triggers, does have some role to play on the personal level. But because it tends to shut down critical thinking it’s not good for communities, whose challenges are far more complex than those facing any one individual. Addressing community challenges successfully doesn’t require genius — anyone can help lead if they commit the time — but it does requires a lot of clear and careful thinking.

The Litany Against Fear

Which is why although I’ve always appreciated these next words as an individual they are even more important for communities and their governments:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Frank Herbert, Dune, (c) 1965

Words to live by, I think, both as an individual and as a citizen.


  1. Which is what liberty is all about, after all. 

  2. Which is where we as a species have spent most of our time. 

  3. If you have any doubts of this check out any two year old. They represent humanity in the raw, before we’ve been socialized. 

  4. Behavioral scientists claim there appears to be a natural limit to tribe size, of about 200 – 250 people. Beyond that most of us have difficulty keeping everyone separate in our minds. I’ve been told that threshold is a well-known challenge for growing startups: they have to institute practices and policies to strengthen “tribal” ties which used to just exist naturally. 

  5. We did it to make money 

  6. Even physicists, whose subject matter isn’t self-aware and hence capable of deliberately misleading itself and observers don’t have a single theory of everything. And they’re some of the smartest people our species has ever produced. 

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