Enter the Hivemind: An Interview With Sarah Rose Cavanagh

Written by
Karen Costa

Oct 30, 2019

Oct 30, 2019 • by Karen Costa

Are your thoughts really your own? Or are they the product of your social network? Are screens destroying the fabric of society? Will we ever be able to heal the social and political divides that separate us? These heady, hard and timely questions are explored in Sarah Rose Cavanagh's Hivemind: The New Science of Tribalism in Our Divided World (2019).

In 2017, I spoke to Dr. Cavanagh about her book The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion (2016) for WIHE. One of Cavanagh's key findings was that the classroom is a social setting and that a teacher's enthusiasm can spread to her students. Fueled by a desire to learn and write more about the topic of “emotional contagion,” Cavanagh's second book, Hivemind, what she called “a very human book,” was born.

As her research on emotional contagion ensued, two other topics swelled to the surface. First, Cavanagh noticed a growing conversation about the evils of screen time, much of which lacked the nuance this complex topic deserved. Second, the country's shifting political realities were on the minds of all of her interview subjects as she sat down to talk to them about the power and peril of social networks. Cavanagh rode those waves, ultimately folding both of those subjects into the book.

What then is this “hivemind” that can hold space for emotional contagion, screen panic and political polarization?

“The hivemind is the idea that we're a collective species, as much as we're an individual one, and that our knowledge of the world is collectively, rather than individually, formed,” she says. I spoke with Cavanagh about what ideas from her book might be particularly relevant to WIHE readers: Read on, to enter the hivemind.

A Focus on Community

Within the hivemind, there are dangers and opportunities; we'll begin with the latter and focus on the positive. “Communal ties are probably the best path to individual achievement and happiness. We're all focused on individual ambitions, but we need to pay more attention to the communal aspects of ourselves,” Cavanagh explains. In this view, the hivemind acts as a supportive, motivating and protective force in our lives.

For women, Cavanagh saw this force as particularly salient. “I do these retreat weekends with other women twice a year. Having that support system, a sounding board and others to rely on is so important,” she says. “It sounds basic, but it's something we neglect.”

Cavanagh points to research from one of her interview subjects, Jim Coan, on the importance of social support to our health and well‐being. “Jim spoke to me about how our brains rely on social others as resources and expect for them to be there. When we construct our lives so that they aren't, we experience stress,” she explains. “Over time, this wears down our systems and can lead to poor health outcomes.”

We (and the Kids) Are All Right

Cavanagh identifies the current debate (i.e., panic) over screen use as one of her biggest pet peeves. As someone who feels like I'm in a constant battle with myself, and my 10‐year‐old son, over our screen use, I listened to Cavanagh's moderate approach with bated breath.

First, she notes, it's important to recognize that there are different types of screen use. “We tend to lump everything together under the topic of ‘screens,’” Cavanagh says. “These are different activities that will have different implications. Email and Netflix are very different.” In many cases, the connections we develop through our screens can be prosocial and supportive. In others (e.g., lurking on Instagram, green with envy over an influencer's tropical vacation), they can serve to reinforce an individualistic focus.

“We allow the feeling of wishing someone ‘Happy Birthday’ on Facebook to replace getting together for lunch,” Cavanagh says. “We let these social ‘nibbles’ take the place of real human connections.”

Those quick bites of social interactions don't satisfy our social needs, so it's important for us to recognize how, when and why we are choosing to put ourselves in front of a screen. For those who feel like they do need to cut back on screen use, Cavanagh recommends treating it like any other potentially unhealthy habit and setting small goals/rules for ourselves to modify our behaviors (e.g., no screens after 8 p.m.).

Bring Back Complexity and Nuance

In the cacophony of the hivemind, the quiet voice of nuance is often silenced. Cavanagh describes the tendency for people to dive toward their respective “sides” of an issue as a “dangerous area” as a bit like “quicksand.” Of these hard, uncompromising lines, she says, “We have to push back against false dichotomies whenever we can, and as much as possible. We need to bring back complexity and nuance.” But how?

In her college classroom, Cavanagh introduced students to the work of Amanda Ripley, who has written about how to have difficult conversations across divides. “I use this great piece by Ripley that explains how we can ‘widen the lens’ in our conversations, so rather than taking a side ‘for’ or ‘against,’ we instead start by talking about our underlying values,” she says.

That said, Cavanagh acknowledges that these conversations aren't easy, and that there are no pat answers. She further recognizes the tension women face in protecting our energy while staying open to diverse ideas and listening to people with different opinions. “We need to listen to people we disagree with, but it's a complicated dance,” she says.

Writing Advice

With two books to her name, Dr. Cavanagh shared some writing advice with WIHE readers who might be considering publishing their ideas.

“Start with essays,” she says. “Focus on your pet peeves. A lot of my essays started with those. You might just turn your pet peeve essay into a book project.”

She adds that criticism and pushback aren't signs you're on the wrong path, but rather, opportunities to further hone your ideas. She says, “Start small, and remember that there's nothing like some good, critical feedback.”

WIHE readers might consider how entering the hivemind can inspire them to build prosocial habits and support networks, to moderate their screen time and to rethink how they engage with diverse ideas.



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