Flipping On the Hive Switch

excerpt from The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain
Annie Murphy Paul

Human nature is 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee, says Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at [New York University’s] Stern School of Business…. In the main, we are competitive, self-interested animals intent on pursuing our own ends. That’s the chimp part. But we can also be like bees—“ultrascocial” creatures who are able to think and act as one for the good of the group. Haidt argues for the existence in humans of a psychological trigger he calls the “hive switch.” When the hive switch is flipped, our minds shift from an individual focus to a group focus—from “I” mode to “we” mode. Getting this switch to turn on is the key to thinking together to get things done, to extending our individual minds with the groups to which we belong.[1]

Flipping on the Hive Switch
Rev. Josh Pawelek

I don’t want to mince words: there’s a lot at stake in this concept of the hive switch, coined by the social psychologist Johnathan Haidt in his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (a book I know a decent portion of you have read since a decent portion of you have recommended it to me over the years.) I recently re-encountered it in science writer Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. She argues that in our larger society we don’t flip the switch enough, and our capacity to think well suffers as a result. I’m with Annie Murphy Paul. I love her notion that there are ways to enhance our thinking by extending our minds into our bodies (which I spoke about a few weeks ago), into the natural world, and into groups of other people. Given that our ministry theme for October is cultivating relationship, I want to share with you some of Murphy Paul’s findings on how to think well in groups, how to flip on the hive switch. If nothing else, I believe her findings can help us in maintaining a healthy, growing, vibrant congregation, especially as we begin coming back together in person at what we hope is the end-stage of the pandemic.

Murphy Paul’s findings are not particularly radical. However, as I contemplate flipping on the hive switch, I encounter some inner resistance. You may as well. I suppose this resistance begins with the lessons many of us receive as children in dominant US culture: “Think for yourself.” “Find your unique voice.” “Speak Your Truth.” “Find Your Passion. Pursue it.” As a society we put enormous emphasis on individuality, creativity, innovation and inventiveness. Certainly these are prominent values in Unitarian Universalism. They are good values, and I certainly can’t imagine life without them, but they don’t immediately support a shift to thinking in groups. Hence, I feel some internal resistance.

But the resistance runs deeper than that. I’m remembering the work of the 20th-century German-American, liberal theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr (a favorite—some of you may remember—of Presidents Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter). His 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society argued that while individuals are often capable of using moral reasoning to make sound moral decisions, including transcending their own interests for the sake of the group, groups are not nearly as capable of such moral reasoning and decision-making. Groups, especially nations, ethnic and cultural groups, religious groups, and political parties are fundamentally self-interested and amass power to serve their interests regardless of how they impact other groups. According to Niebuhr scholar, Wilfred McClay, participation in “groups [makes] individuals worse rather than better.”[2] Niebuhr wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society as fascism was beginning to rise in a number of European nations, certainly a problematic version of flipping on the hive switch, an indication of how easily it can be manipulated by charismatic leaders.

Probing just a bit further, the Orwellian-sounding term groupthink comes to mind, the idea that internal group pressures can lead group members away from critical thinking, reality testing, and sound, moral judgement.[3] The January 6th attack on the US Capitol comes to mind as a recent, high-profile example of groupthink. The psychologist who originally coined the term, Irving Janis, did so in a 1972 book which analyzed the decision-making that guided a series of US foreign policy fiascoes during the 1960s. The hive switch is flipped on, but effective thinking is nowhere to be found. As I said at the beginning, there’s a lot at stake when we flip on the hive switch.

Annie Murphy Paul acknowledges the dangers. “Uncritical Group thinking,” she says, “can lead to foolish and even disastrous decisions.” But in her view, individual thinking “is simply not sufficient to meet the challenges of a world in which information is so abundant, expertise so specialized, and issues are so complex. In this milieu, a single mind laboring on its own is at a distinct disadvantage in solving problems or generating new ideas. Something beyond solo thinking is required—the generation of a state that is entirely natural to us as a species, and yet one that has come to seem quite strange and exotic: the group mind.”[4] So, yes, it’s essential that we learn to flip on the hive switch when we want to think well; and it’s potentially dangerous. There’s much at stake.

Murphy Paul lowers the stakes by not focusing on nations or ethnic or cultural groups (though certainly some cultures are much better at thinking collectively than others). She’s not talking about political parties—though they could really use some enhanced thinking skills these days. She writes a lot about classroom and work environments where people have to learn and solve problems together. While she doesn’t talk about religious institutions, I certainly am looking at this material through my minister’s lens, mindful that our congregation is a group, and that we meet each other in a variety of ways: Sunday morning worship, coffee hour, religious education classes, affinity groups, small group ministries, the policy board, the program council, all the committees. We have many opportunities for group thinking.

Most of the research Murphy Paul surveys was conducted and published prior to the pandemic, so there’s very little about how to extend our minds into online groups. She identifies some techniques for online group facilitators to make sure everyone is engaged and participating; but for the most part she writes about techniques that require us to be physically present to each other. For example, she writes about radio taiso, Japan’s celebrated morning calesthenics routine broadcast over National Radio and practiced by millions of people in schools, corporate headquarters, factories, community centers, all moving the same way at the same time for fifteen minutes at the start of the day. She also writes about military drilling, soldiers moving together in formation, sometimes for hours on end. These are examples of “behavioral synchrony—coordinating our actions … so they are like the actions of others—[which] primes us for … cognitive synchrony: multiple people thinking together efficiently and effectively.”[5] She cites studies showing that pre-school and elementary age children who engage in synchronized movement—say swinging on a swing set at the same exact rate—will cooperate and perform better on group problem solving than children who engage in nonsynchronous activity.[6]

Apparently, engaging in synchronized physical movement really does have an unconscious priming effect. It bonds us emotionally to the people with whom we are moving. It enhances our ability to communicate with and learn from them. It signals to us that cooperation is possible. One researcher said synchronization sweeps us into a ‘social eddy,’ “in which the press of our individual interests is diminished and the performance of the group becomes paramount. When we are carried along by the social eddy, cooperation with others feels smooth, almost effortless.”[7] There is even emerging evidence that as groups achieve behavioral and cognitive synchrony, they also generate neural synchrony. That is, their patterns of brain activity start to resemble each other.[8]

Murphy Paul also writes about the power of sharing attention. As groups focus on the same objects or information, as they literally gaze in the same direction at the same time, learning and recall are enhanced. She cites a study of physician teams performing simulated surgeries, which shows the more experienced teams synchronize their gaze 70 percent of the time during the procedure, compared to novice surgeons whose team members synchronize their gaze only 30 percent of the time.[9]

If, during the course of the pandemic, you have experienced a decline in your own or a group’s ability to think well in a work, educational or church context, it may very likely have something to do with the fact that so much interaction has been virtual, and we have not had the regular benefit of behavioral synchrony, of physically aligning ourselves with our friends, co-workers, classmates and fellow worshippers. We have not been flipping on the hive switch, and thus we have not been able to extend our minds into our various groups.

It won’t be surprising that Murphy Paul argues some of the time and effort we devote to cultivating our individual talents would be much better spent cultivating teams that are what she playfully calls groupy. They possess the quality of groupiness. How do we become more groupy?

First, people who need to think well together ought to engage in learning and training together, in person, together, at the same time, availing themselves of the benefits of synchronized behavior and cognition.

Second, people who need to think together ought to feel together, in person, at the same time. That is, as the group has experiences, it is important to periodically pause and invite members to share how they are feeling about the experience. Such sharing often leads to deeper dialogue and stronger interpersonal relations which enhances group cognition.

People who need to think together ought to engage in rituals together, in person, at the same time – as simple as eating a meal together prior to engaging in problem solving or even during problem solving. I love the finding that people from different companies, working on a deal, who conducted their negotiations while sharing a meal, generated on average 12 percent higher profits as a result of their deal than those who negotiated while not eating.

There’s so much more, but I’ll stop there. If you want to learn more about The Extended Mind, over the next three months our UUS:E Humanist Study Group will be reading an discussing it. That group meets on the third Tuesday of the month at 4:30, for the moment in Zoom where we will not have the benefit of synchronized behavior, but oh well. The first discussion is this Tuesday at 4:30. You do not have to have read the book to join us. Contact me for login information.


Earlier I read the meditation, “In Gatherings,”[10] from my colleague, the Rev. Marta Valentín. She writes:  In gatherings we are stirred / like the leaves of the fall season / rustling around sacred trees, tossed hither and yon / until we come to rest together, / quietly, softly… /

We come to gather strength from each other. / We come to give strength to each other…. / When our hearts sing or when they frown / it is the way of compassion telling us to give. / It is the way of peace telling us / to share our gifts, / for we are happiest / and most powerful / when Love is made apparent / in and through us.”

In gatherings we are stirred. For me, these words sum up the spiritual implications of the findings in Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind. When we come together, when we gather, in person, at the same time, for worship, for learning, for conducting the business of the church, for celebration, for ritual, something happens below the surface. When we rise to sing, when we speak words in unison, when we check-in around our circle of concern, something happens below the surface. When we attend to the same object, gaze in the same direction, share the same meal, kindle the same flame, something happens beneath the surface. Somehow we think better—that’s what the research reveals. But it’s more than that. Somehow we activate an almost forgotten feature—an ancient feature—of our human lives. We merge, we mix, we meld. The interdependent web in action.

It’s not particularly radical. In fact, it’s really quite simple. But there’s a lot at stake. Our faith informs us we are part of realities larger than ourselves. Flipping on the hive switch makes some of those realities—the very human ones—more available to us. Carefully, with both earnest and playful intention, let us learn to flip the switch, to recognize and pursue what is good for the group—yes, to be groupy together—to be good humans in gatherings, happy, powerful, sharing our gifts, making love apparent.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Paul, Annie Murphy The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021) pp. 218-19.

[2] For a fairly in depth but readable overview of Neibuhr’s views, see “Obama’s Favorite Theologian? A Short Course on Reinhold Neibuhr,” the Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle Conference on Religion, Politics and Public Life, May, 2009. See: https://www.pewforum.org/2009/05/04/obamas-favorite-theologian-a-short-course-on-reinhold-niebuhr/.

[3] For a brief statement about the origins of the term groupthink in psychological literature, read the following preview to Hart, Paul’t, “Irving L. Janis’ Victims of Groupthink,” Political Psychology, Vol. 12, No. 2 (June,1991): https://www.jstor.org/stable/3791464.

[4] Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 214-15.

[5] Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 217.

[6] Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 217.

[7] Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 218.

[8] Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 221.

[9] Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 221-223.

[10] Valentín. Marta, “In Gatherings” in Parker, Kayla, ed., Becoming: A Spiritual Guide for Navigating Adulthood, (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2016).