Even in a society like the United States that is highly individualistic, we still understand who we are in relation to the groups we are a part of. No one exists in isolation, and no one thinks of themselves in pure isolation. We think of ourselves as part of some type of group or coalition. Whether it is a fandom, our profession, or a characteristic we share with others, we cannot help but think of ourselves as part of a group.
Steven Pinker writes about groups, coalitions, our responses to groups, and violence in his book The Better Angels of our Nature. Groups and coalitions are important if we want to understand the trajectory of violence across the long arc of humanity. “A part of an individual’s personal identity,” writes Pinker, “is melded with the identity of the groups that he or she affiliates with. Each group occupies a slot in their minds that is very much like the slot occupied by an individual person, complete with beliefs, desires, and praiseworthy or blameworthy traits.” Just as the modern US legal system sees corporations as individuals, we see and understand groups of people as individuals. This is how we end up at a place where we say that all members and supporters of the opposing political party are evil and crazy. The larger group becomes part of each person’s identity and our minds view the groups as singular individuals, not as diverse collectives. The individuals of a group meld into a singular entity in our minds.
While collectives and communities are important for our survival and are key parts of a healthy and functioning society, they can also push us in negative directions. Pinker writes, “the dark side of our communal feelings is a desire for our own group to dominate another group, no matter how we feel about its members as individuals. … A preference for one’s group emerges early in life and seems to be something that must be unlearned, not learned.” We develop natural biases for our own groups and want to see our groups dominate others even if our groups are essentially meaningless. We want people who wear the same shoes as us to do well in athletic competitions. We want our neighborhood to be snow plowed more frequently than the other neighborhoods. We want the people who look like us to win elections. Sometimes these preferences are silly and inconsequential, but sometimes they are serious and have deep and lasting impacts on our lives and the lives of others.
And this is where the danger of our responses to groups and coalitions becomes serious. While many resources in our world are not zero sum, some resources are, like snow plowed roads, power, and status. Increased economic output benefits everyone, but at a certain point, neighborhoods with nice views, space between houses, and relatively short commutes to where we work are limited. If other people occupy those homes, then I (and people like me) cannot. When we see ourselves and groups as individuals in competition for scarce resources, we become defensive and combative, and our desire to dominate other groups becomes harmful. This puts us in a place where we can disregard positive sum games and scenarios in pursuit of those purely zero sum resources. We can make decisions which cut out individual rights and equality in favor of our group preferences and dominance, harming those who are dominated and possibly subjecting those groups to violence.
It is important to understand these responses to groups and coalitions if we want to build a world that maximizes positive sum games and situations. If we cannot recognize and work to unlearn group preferences and biases, then we will lean into zero sum competition and make biased decisions with serious and negative consequences.