With the recent launch of my Bettie English Private Eye Kickstarter and the second book in the series investigates a Russian plot to damn the western world, I wanted to have a look into the psychology of espionage and foreign inference in our democratic processes. What I found and what we’re going to be talking about in today’s psychology podcast episode was surprisingly and honestly fascinating. Prepare yourself for a hell of an interesting episode.
This biological psychology podcast episode has been sponsored by Social Psychology: A Guide To Social and Cultural Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. And Bettie Private Eye Mysteries Kickstarter includes a gripping private eye mystery about poisonings. Only available until the 28th July 2022.
How Russian Espionage Links To Evolutionary Psychology?
Whilst I will not be going into the background information for this podcast episode in too much depth, like the Muller Report refusing to rule out Russian interference in the US presidential election in 2016 and claims about the Russians hacking emails, trolling social media sites and secretly taking out online ads to get their own message across. For purposes not necessarily to show support for Trump over Clinton in the 2016 election but to destabilise American democracy so freedom-inclined Russians couldn’t hold America as the shining pinnacle for why Russia should be a free democracy too.
Also I will note you definitely need to listen to this section about the theory behind it, then in the next section I will explain how this actually works in practice.
Instead the neuroscientist and former intelligence officer Eric Haseltine proposes that Russia’s recent efforts are actually a masterful use of evolutionary psychology to weaken their opponent on the world stage.
Since evolutionary psychologists propose that there are what’s known as “Darwinian Scripts” operating deep within the brains of the American public with these scripts encouraging tribal conflict.
As a result of in a 2012 article in the Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society, psychologist Dr Melissa McDonald and peers argued that our brains have evolved cognitive as well as emotional mechanisms to allow us to form deep bonds with a particular social group so we can reap the important benefits of intra-group cooperation. Such as sharing of scarce resources, collective defence against external threats and group child rearing.
At this point I really don’t think there is any reason to doubt or counter this idea too much since social cognition teaches us how our brains have changed to allow us to get involved in social group processes to aid survival.
However, whilst there are all these clear benefits of intragroup cooperation, these same mechanisms also heavily promote outgroup aggression and working against other outgroups.
As well as according to Dr McDonald, this effect is particularly strong for males, as she proposes that the male reproductive strategy for humans encourages this conflict and aggression towards outgroups. Citing the work of noted evolutionary psychologists Tooby and Cosmides.
In addition, whilst I will not cite the work because of its length, the basic gist of the work is in lethal intergroup conflicts, males are more likely to take part in this aggression coalition of the ingroup because their deaths don’t damage the survival chances of the ingroup as much as female deaths. Since if at the end of the conflict there are only ten males but 50 females. Then the males can impregnate 5 females each and the survival chances of the group overall is much higher because of that. As well as if males died during the intergroup conflict then all the reproductive resources would be reallocated among the male survivors, possibly meaning the benefits given to the victorious males could be immense.
In other words, males stand to gain a lot more than they would lose by getting involved in intergroup conflict, so it makes sense from a reproductive standpoint to show intergroup aggression and hostility towards outgroups.
Hence why intergroup aggression and tribalism thrives to this day.
Applying This To The Modern World
Of course this doesn’t mean that modern humans who engage in turf wars or aggressive foreign policies in the political world are actually trying to improve their reproductive status.
Even though the constant revelations of sexual harassment in politics by some ambitious and successful men could suggest that reproductive status remains a powerful motive.
Nevertheless, it does suggest that because our brains haven’t changed too much in the past hundred thousand years, we still retain powerful drives to align with a particular tribe against another tribe.
Resulting in the all-important question of:
How Does This Deeply Ingrained Tribal Aggression Link To Russian Espionage?
With the Russians knowing that these tribalistic Darwinian scripts are running in the brains of westerners, they know they can stimulate these scripts to inflame heated conflicts amongst the various factions and tribes within a country. Resulting in Russia being able to damage their enemies on the global stage. For example, they might decide to inflame divisions amongst the Republicans and Democrats in the USA or the Conservative and Labour party in the United Kingdom.
And what really fascinates me is that Eric Haseltine proposes that Russia wasn’t actually trying to hide that they hacked into DNC emails to leave a trail pointing back at Russia in part to send a message. And in part to create precisely the protracted ugly conflict that persists in the western world about Russian interfering in our elections.
In addition, as Eric Haseltine points out, this does sound like a far-fetched idea but in his new book “The Spy In Moscow Station”. Which I will go into depth about in a moment.
Personally, I think this part, if it’s true, is extremely clever and concerning. Because it means that Russia knows exactly what biological psychology tricks to tap into to get a response, and what makes it worse, it is for all this to be effective, Russia can do these things in the relatively open. It can get western governments to know that they’re behind all of this, simply knowing that little fact of this “knowing” who’s behind it will simply inflame these debates even more. And damage their enemies in the long term.
The Fascinating Evidence For This Idea:
Therefore, in his new book, Eric Haseltine describes what the Russians did to penetrate the security of the US embassy in Moscow from 1976 to 1984. Since when one tribe (the NSA) in US intelligence found strong evidence of the Russian penetration in 1978, other national security tribes (The US State Department and the CIA) fought a protracted tribal battle against the NSA in an effort to deny and ultimately discredit their evidence of a leak.
Resulting in whilst all these different US security tribes squabbled and played a stupid game of infighting, the Russians collected devastating intelligence for over six years.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, this intelligence resulted in the executions of Soviet citizens that were spying for the Americans and it allowed Russia to learn where the American’s positions were on nuclear weapon treatments in advance.
It took the NSA “tribe” 6 years to “conquer” their opposing “tribes” to find out what happened and eventually they plugged the leaks, but I highly doubt at that point Russia was too bothered considering the golden intelligence they had gathered for 6 years. And Russia itself admitted the following (check the references below for proof):
“if we spy aggressively on the Americans we’ll collect sensational intelligence, and the worst that can happen, if we get caught, is that the Americans will tear themselves apart arguing about it.”
Personally, I think this just shows the sheer power our biology can have on our behaviour even to this day. I would love to know what would have happened if the leak was plugged immediately. A lot of Soviet citizens spying for the Americans would still probably be alive and who knows what intelligence they could have provided the west with.
So this really does go to show as well that evolutionary biology, espionage and tribalism can cost lives.
What Can The West Do?
Now that we’re aware of the scary implications of our tribal nature and these “Darwinian Scripts”, I really like to leave this podcast suggesting ways to overcome this and help us move forward in a hopefully more positive way.
Therefore, the first step is to acknowledge the great power of our deep tribal urges because these are not going away. If we haven’t gotten rid of these in hundreds of thousands of years, we simply aren’t, as well as we cannot control these urges if we don’t admit that we have them in the first place.
Then we do to move away from the primitive arguments of the opposing “tribe” is evil, malicious and selfish and ignorant. To something that is more modern and informed. Basically, we need to ask ourselves how much of our hate and aggression towards the opposing “tribe” is true, and how much of it is simply down to our “Darwinian scripts”?
Secondly, we need to recognise that we can only control our tendencies for tribalism, and not eliminate them. Due to any policy or grand idea that seeks to eliminate our nature will only be met with limited success. You only need to read into the history of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to know how that was meant to overcome the tribal conflicts of the US intelligence agencies, but it only intensified them. With the CIA going as far as to point out that “Al Qaeda is our target, but you are our enemy,”
Finally, humans will always view someone as an enemy, it is just part of our social psychology and the only viable way to reduce our harmful internal squabbles is to work hard to refine who that someone is.
As supported by Eric Haseltine’s experiences of working overseas for the US government when he observed that sharing amongst intelligence agencies is very good in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where all these different officers were geographically very close in their work against ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Overall, suggesting that cooperation amongst different “tribes” can be improved and these tribal conflicts reduced, if a much large number of intelligence officers were periodically rotated so they were physically close to their adversaries, where it is a lot more obvious as to do the real “bad guys” are.
Personally, I think that idea is very idealistic and it would never ever happen, but it is a good idea at the very least. I just can’t see politicians and the most senior intelligence officers who ultimately have the deciding vote in these inflamed debates going to these geographical locations where the enemy is ever so close.
Social Psychology Conclusion:
To finish up this rather long but fascinating episode, I want to say that the bottom line is where these tribes are within government, intelligence or business or to be honest, any collection of people trying to work towards a common goal. The best way to make sure you pick the right friends and you avoided distracting debates that hinder your work, is to make sure you pick the right enemies.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Social Psychology: A Guide To Social And Cultural Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local
bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Bettie Private Eye Mysteries Kickstarter includes a gripping private eye mystery about a plot to doom the western world. Only available until the 28th July 2022.
If you’re reading after this, please check out The Russian Case at all major booksellers.
Biological Psychology and Political Psychology References
McDonald, M. M., Navarrete, C. D., & Van Vugt, M. (2012). Evolution and the psychology of intergroup conflict: the male warrior hypothesis. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 367(1589), 670–679. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2011.0301
Tooby J., Cosmides L. 1988. The evolution of war and its cognitive foundations, Technical Report no. 88-1. Institute for Evolutionary Studies, MA, USA
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