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This Is Your Brain on Nationalism

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This Is Your Brain on Nationalism

The Biology of Us and Them

Foreign Affairs,

5 min read
5 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Humanity is uniquely adaptable, but can people escape their hardwired biases?

Editorial Rating



  • Controversial
  • Scientific
  • Eye Opening


Humans’ ability to reason has produced enormous scientific advances and social progress; but this capacity does not prevent irrationality from holding sway. A recent resurgence of nationalism and xenophobia around the globe is a case in point. According to Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, the fact that in-group biases continue to shape the world really should not come as a surprise given the ways the human brain is hardwired. In his article for Foreign Affairs, Sapolsky offers an intriguing neuroscientific perspective on contemporary politics which may challenge your view of human nature.


The human brain is biologically predisposed to make split-second distinctions between in-group and out-group members, dividing the world into “us” versus “them” before the rational mind can intervene. This same hardwiring prompts people to treat members of their in-groups favorably while viewing members of out-groups with suspicion, if not outright hostility. The in-group biases begin in infancy and continue into adulthood. Human babies are more at ease with people who share their parents’ race, and brain scans of white adults reveal...

About the Author

Robert Sapolsky is Professor of Biology, Neurology, Neurological Sciences and Neurosurgery at Stanford University and the author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

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