WEIRD People Feel More Guilt

WEIRD People Feel More Guilt

A definition from a Google search for guilt is, “a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation.” This definition is similar to, but slightly different from a Google search for the definition of shame, “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior,” or “a loss of respect or esteem; dishonor.”
 
 
These two emotional responses are similar, but manifest differently in WEIRD and non-WEIRD people. This is an idea that Joseph Henrich explores in his book The WEIRDest People in the World. Regarding guilt, Henrich writes, “the feeling of guilt emerges when one measures their own actions and feelings against a purely personal standard.” Guilt is very internal, and therefore very much an emotion that dominates individualistic cultures. To describe a guilty experience or situation, Henrich gives the example of a vegetarian, “as individuals cultivate their own unique attributes and talents, guilt is part of the affective machinery that motivates them to stick to their personal standards. Vegetarians, for example, might feel guilty for eating bacon even when they are traveling in distant cities surrounded by nonvegetarians.” People external from us likely don’t perceive our guilt and don’t judge us for the actions for which we are feeling guilty, much of the time at least. It’s likely that very few people care whether I blog each morning or go for a run each day. But I feel committed to these things, so when I don’t go for a run I feel guilty. I have felt guilty for not blogging consistently this year. These are internal standards and measures which really don’t mean much to anyone beyond myself. I’ve. created my own personal standards that I feel compelled to live up to, and if I don’t live up to those standards, I feel guilty.
 
 
Shame, on the other hand, still exists within individualistic societies, but is not as dominant of an emotion as guilt. “Shame is rooted in a genetically evolved psychological package that is associated with social devaluation in the eyes of others,” writes Henrich (emphasis his). Shame is more connected to social perceptions and values where guilt is more tied to internal values and opinions. There are likely secrets that we all have which we feel guilty about, and if those secrets get out we might be shamed for them. But unlike my blogging or non-running examples for which I feel guilty, shame involves people looking down on us, our families, or the groups to which we belong. Guilt is experienced by the individual, shame is perpetuated by the individual’s society. “If there is no public knowledge, there is no shame,” writes Henrich.
 
 
These two emotions are interesting to think about when we consider our own lives and the lives of other people across the globe. How we relate to each other, the pressures we feel, and the shame or guilt that we feel can differ to a great degree based on whether we live in an individualistic WEIRD society or in a different society. Guilt can be something that overwhelms us and causes incredible amounts of stress over relatively minor things in WEIRD societies. Shame can be a powerful tool used to punish those who don’t live up to social norms in cultures, even when those social norms are trivial or even harmful to overall societal well being. When we think about people who are different from us and who seem to have different cultural values and practices, we should try to understand the pressures people feel from a guilt versus shame standpoint. This will help us better understand ourselves and others, and better understand how we can work with and cooperate with more people on a global scale.
Conflating Nations & People

Conflating Nations & People

“The term Nation or People came to stand for the individual men, women, and children who made up that nation, and then the political leaders came to stand for the nation,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Conflating nations and people is part of Pinker’s explanation for the two World Wars of the 20th century. Humanity has been gradually pacifying throughout history, but the power of nations and the conflation of nations, people, and their leaders put enormous power and ultimately destructive potential in the hands of a few men. Pinker continues, “a ruler, a flag, an army, a territory, a language, came to be cognitively equated with millions of flesh-and-blood individuals.”
 
 
We are good at losing track of the distinctions between individuals and the groups those individuals form. We do this with nations, we do it with sports teams, and we do it with corporations. We endow these non-human entities with the rights of the humans that form them. The entities themselves, someone like Yuval Noah Harari would argue, are entirely fictitious, but still, we treat them at times like a real human that we have formed intimate connections with. We easily find ourselves within a group and easily lose our sense of our individual self. When a group prospers we feel as though we have prospered, as any sports fan knows. When a group is threatened, we act as though we ourselves are threatened.
 
 
Pinker argues that these dynamics were in play in the 20th century. Globally, humans committed themselves to a nationalistic ethos which rulers were able to harness in ways that propelled an otherwise pacifying humanity into calamitous wars.
 
 
Today we see problems from corporations that have been given the rights of individuals and exercise those rights to further their self-interest at the expense of actual human beings in political arenas. We have not found a way to think about the groups to which we belong without treating them, or conflating them, as human. We still see ourselves as intimately tied to the imaginary groups we form when we coordinate with others.
Evolution Doesn't Care About Happiness

Evolution Doesn’t Care About Happiness

As humans evolve it is not clear that our lives are actually becoming happier. We have more stuff, better technology, and more comfortable lives, but that hasn’t always translated into happiness at the individual level. One reason why we may not be finding more happiness as our societies and technological capabilities continue to evolve may be due to evolution itself.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “according to the selfish gene theory, natural selection makes people, like other organisms, choose what is good for the reproduction of their genes, even if it is bad for them as individuals.”
 
 
Humans desire status almost to the exclusion of everything else. Higher status means a greater opportunity to find a partner and to pass your genes along. It means you have more allies to assist you, ensure your offspring receive assistance, and gives your offspring an advantage as they try to find a partner to pass their genes along. It gives you access to more resources to ensure your survival and that of your offspring, making it more likely your genes will be passed on. Status is almost everything for humans in the evolutionary game of reproducing genes. But constantly fighting for more status flat out sucks.
 
 
At an individual level, the fight for status means working long hours in jobs you may not like so that you can get a promotion, get a fancy title, and become impressive in your career. You are likely to win more allies, attract more romantic partners, and have more financial resources at your disposal if you work hard to rise up the social ladder and become a CEO. Your status will be high, but your actual life may be miserable. You will constantly be stressed over your company. You won’t have set hours and designated time-off to simply enjoy your hard earned financial resources. And if you are like most Americans, you will buy the biggest house possible, the fanciest car possible, and have the most stuff possible to demonstrate your success and status, which means you will have more things to worry about losing if it goes wrong.
 
 
You could alternatively move to a tropical island, wash dishes for a living, and spend most of your time on a beach. You may not have much status, but if you are ok with living quite modestly, you might find a relaxing and enjoyable day to day life. You won’t have the big fancy house and your job might still suck, but you won’t be living with the constant stress of losing everything and managing a business. Instead, you will get to clock off, leave your troubles behind you, and enjoy the sunset on a warm beach.
 
 
Our drive for status, thanks to our evolutionary drive to pass on our genes, makes us more likely to push to be the CEO, to strive for the American Dream, and to desire lots of things to demonstrate our status rather than live on the beach. Individually, evolution has pushed us toward lives that are rather miserable. It helps ensure we, and everyone else, pass our genes along by working hard and having families, but we might individually all be more happy living as beach bums in Southern California. Evolution cares about passing our genes along successfully, it doesn’t care about our happiness in the process.
Exploitation & Poverty

Exploitation & Poverty

“Exploitation thrives when it comes to the essentials, like housing and food,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. People cannot go without housing, cannot go without food, and cannot go without other basic necessities that can be used against them to extract extra profit by those who control capital, markets, and essential goods. This exploitation is an extra rent (using the Dictionary.com definition of profit or return derived from any differential advantage) that doesn’t mean as much to the person profiting as it does to the individuals and communities burdened by exploitation. But we generally don’t focus on this exploitation.
Desmond also writes, “In fixating almost exclusively on what poor people and their communities lack – good jobs, a strong safety net, role models – we have neglected the critical ways that exploitation contributes to the persistence of poverty.” We are caught up on what ghettos, slums, and worn down neighborhoods lack. We blame individuals for ending up in such poor situations and blame them for being unable to escape, even if we somewhat acknowledge how difficult it could be for anyone to rise up given everything impoverished communities lack. Focusing on what poor people lack brings the scale down to an individual level, highlighting a single case in isolation without consideration of larger structural and systemic forces.
The reality is that poverty doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and neither do any of us. As much as we want to think that poverty is an issue for individuals and defined by what they lack, we all play a part in establishing a society and an economy that can exploit the poor. By neglecting systems of exploitation, we tacitly approve of it, and approve of poverty and everything people in poverty lack. Addressing poverty will mean addressing systems of exploitation, and finding new mechanisms to help people in poverty obtain what they need without being exploited.
Social learning and risk aversion

Social Learning and Risk Aversion

In his book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer looks at risk aversion in the context of social learning and presents interesting ideas and results from studies of risk aversion and fear. He writes, “In risk research people are sometimes divided into two kinds of personalities: risk seeking and risk averse. But it is misleading to generalize a person as one or the other. … Social learning is the reason why people aren’t generally risk seeking or risk averse. They tend to fear whatever their peers fear, resulting in a patchwork of risks taken and avoided.”

 

I agree with Gigerenzer and I find it is normally helpful to look beyond standard dichotomies. We often categorize things into binaries as the example of risk averse or risk seeking demonstrates. The reality, I believe, is that far more things are situational and exist within spectrums. In general for most of our behaviors that we may want to categorize with a dichotomy, I would argue that we are often much more self-interested than we would like to admit and often driven by our present context to a greater extent than we normally realize. People are not good or evil, honest or dishonest, or even hardworking or lazy. People adjust to the needs of the moment, fitting what they believe is in their best interest at a given time with influence from a great deal of social determinants. Social learning and risk aversion helps us see that dichotomies often don’t stand up, and it reveals something interesting about who we are as individuals within a larger society.

 

People have a patchwork of things they fear and a patchwork of risks they are willing to accept. On the whole, we generally won’t accept a bet unless the payoff is twice the potential gamble (there is an expected value calculation we can do that I don’t want to dive into). However, we are not always rational and calculating in the risks and gambles we take. We are much more likely to die in a car crash than an airplane crash, yet few of have any hesitation when buckling our seat for the drive to work but likely feel some nervousness during takeoff on a short flight. We are not risk seeking if we are more willing to drive than fly (in fact it isn’t really appropriate to categorize this activity as either risk seeking or risk avoiding), we are simply responding to learned fears that have developed in our culture.

 

What this shows us is that we are creatures that respond to our environment, especially our social environments. We often think of ourselves as unique individuals, but the reality is that we are dependent on society and define ourselves based on the societies and groups we belong to. We learn from those around us, try to do what we understand to be in our best interest, and navigate a complicated course between societal expectations and our self-interest. Just as we can’t classify ourselves into imagined dichotomies, we cannot do so with others. Social learning and risk aversion give us a window into the complexity that we smooth over when we try to categorize ourselves or others into simple dichotomies.

A Glitch in “Voting With Our Feet”

In the United States, we hold on to terrific myths about the power of the individual. We celebrate (mostly) entrepreneurs like Elon Musk who bring us new technologies and cool cars and we have magazines focused entirely on major business leaders whose insight and innovation power our most successful companies. We believe that individuals hold the power to change the world, and we believe that giving people freedom will lead to rational decisions on the part of individuals to find the best outcome for our country.

 

An idea that pops out of this myth is the idea of voting with our feet. The term refers to people making a decision to go someplace else, to chose something else and to literally move ourselves with our feet to a different option. We might vote with our feet when we move from one city to another, or when we leave one store to shop at another, or quite literally in some state caucuses when we walk from one side of a room to another to support a different political candidate. We believe that our individual choices and where we chose to shop and how we chose to vote will really make a difference in the world.

 

This is only partially true, and only sometimes has the positive outcomes we hope for. In many instances however, our individual choices are just not enough to overcome structural factors which entrench the status quo. Sometimes we vote with our feet, but really move from one option provided by a company to another, without really making a difference in the bottom line of the company we are voting against with our feet (think of moving from Facebook to Instagram, which is still owned by Facebook). Voting with our feet can also have very negative consequences, such as entrenching segregation without having anyone to blame.

 

In The Complacent Class Tyler Cowen writes about the ways in which our society is becoming more segregated through the use of voting with our feet. Across the country we see people move into “nicer” neighborhoods which creates a level of economic, racial, and political segregation that should raise moral concerns. About the issue Cowen writes, “The self-selection process is running its course, and how people are voting with their feet often differs from which is coming out of their mouths.”

 

Many people who believe that schools and communities should be more diverse are moving to areas with less diversity. They are not consciously choosing to live in more segregated areas, but they are voting with their feet to leave areas of worse economic condition but greater diversity in favor of more economically sound and culturally homogeneous regions. Sometimes the goal is to move into a more wealthy neighborhood, sometimes the goal is to move to reduce a work commute, and sometimes the goal is to move to be closer to a better school. Often the results are neighborhoods with more similar people in terms of race, income/wealth, and cultural values and backgrounds, ultimately, more segregation.

 

This process is playing out because we empower the individual in our society and don’t want to do anything to limit the power of the individual’s choice. Segregation is a result of the power to vote with our feet, but it is also the dismantlement of the myth of the individual. The rational individual is not making individual choices that make the world a better place. Instead, the individual is working on feelings that lead to a desire for greater similarity between themselves and their neighbors, ultimately creating a worsening system of segregation. We should learn from this example that our individual choices are both not sufficient to bring about the best outcomes for our society and planet, and that simultaneously our individual choices can have a serious negative outcomes when left unchecked. We must think first about the systems that structure our decisions, and then think about how we can make the most of our choices for positive, rather than negative outcomes.

A Close Look at Individuals

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander finds a common ground between Republicans and Democrats when looking at who we consider change agents in our system. Both groups look at the power of the individual as the driving force of America and see the individual as the mechanism through which change and a better future are possible. The two camps may see the actions of the individual a bit differently, but nevertheless both focus on the individual.

 

Throughout her book however, Alexander is critical of the idea that the individual is capable of creating and instigating the changes in America that are necessary to overcome enormous challenges. There are too many structural barriers for individuals to overcome, and even if the individual does rise to the top, the idea that they can lift an entire group is unrealistic. The individual may play an incredible role, and in America the strength of the individual may be fantasized by popular culture, but the individual exists in a complex society that can only truly change and advance through the mobilization of entire social groups. I agree with Alexander that the structural barriers are too great for us to address on our own, and I want to look at how we think about the individual versus the collective, and examine the ways that Alexander believes this plays out in our criminal justice system.

 

Since our founding, the idea of the individual has been a palpable force in shaping our democracy. Protestant settlers tended to believe that their hard work would be rewarded with great riches from above, and success was (and still is) viewed as an individual’s divine blessing, given by a greater power to those who are hard working, virtuous, and special. If one was successful it was because a divine being had recognized and rewarded them, and through this same view, those who were not successful were in their position due to individual moral failures. On this foundation we built a nation and a constitution that centered around the strength and responsibility of the individual for personal gain. Our primary responsibility was to be a good Christian so that God would bestow great bounty upon us, and if we all focused on this goal as individuals, collectively we would all find an everlasting success. Failure was a result of individuals not living up to the contract from above, and within this lens we developed the idea of the deserving and undeserving.

 

From this foundation our nation has developed to where we are today. Describing the role of the individual in The New Jim Crow, Alexander writes, “Here we see both liberals and conservatives endorsing the same meta-narrative of American individualism: When individuals get ahead, the group triumphs. When individuals succeed, American democracy prevails.” Alexander is critical of this theory and I think she is right to criticize the focus on individualism. I do not believe there is a liberal and a conservative America, because when we use those terms we mean different things in different contexts, so I will drop her terms and simply use Republican and Democrat because party identification is more consistent and to me seems to be more causal than liberal or conservative ideology.

 

Alexander describes the Republican Party as being focused on individuals changing the system through entrepreneurship and insight. The individual can create great innovations if they are not constrained and limited by the system within which they operate. The Democratic party sees the individual as the flagship leader, raising up and pulling the status of the group and the fortunes of others up with them. Both of these views see power as resting with great individuals and leaders, and see exceptional leaders as the key to growth, progress, development, and a better future. Alexander finds this narrative lacking and dangerous, and I agree with her that it is an incomplete view.

 

To me, this focus on individuals is misplaced. What we get from our focus on individualism is instability, delays, and stagnation as often than we get flashes of brilliance, advancement, and progress. An incredible leader and voice may come along to lift up an entire group, as Dr. King Jr. did during the Civil Rights movement, but expecting a great leader to instigate meaningful change causes delays in achieving justice, making scientific advances, and solving substantial problems that impact people’s every day lives. This focus also creates instability since people change and die, and pinning all of our hopes on an individual leaves movements of change and advancement  vulnerable, as the assassination of Dr. King Jr. demonstrated.

 

The real power of the individual is not in change and progress as both Democrats and Republicans would hope. The true power of the individual is in the status quo. It is the power to defend the injustices that exist, the power to delay advancement and equality, and the power to be a barrier that limits other individuals. The reason why an individual has greater power to be a pest and not a hero is because we live in a society that requires collective action. The Republican Party has demonstrated that a few high minded individuals with great influence can derail the ideas of societal responsiveness and democratic representation. As an example, Grover Norquest’s anti-tax pledge is a commitment to abandon the collective more than it is a commitment to improve society. The Koch brother’s campaign against moderate candidates (candidates who more accurately reflect the majority of the country) is a demonstration that a few individuals can block progress and block the strength of our social groups while upholding structural barriers. President Donald Trump clearly shows us that a single individual can reverse and hold up equality and group advancement, while President Barack Obama showed us that even the best among us can only make so much of a dent without the support of broader communities.

 

In America we love our superheroes that pull the world back from the brink of destruction and manage to triumph in the face of adversity. We focus on what the individual can achieve and use material and financial success to demonstrate our value as individuals. What hides below the surface of our love for the individual is the fact that no one can be a superhero without some form of support from a larger group. What we hide in our past is that those who became incredibly wealthy in the early days of our society did so by exploiting the black body, justifying their actions as divinely ordained and rightful by biology and manifest white destiny. This attitude continued and the white individual was able to achieve their own success while holding the entirety of black society back. If we focus on individualism we allow such evils to persist. We must find a new way to be individuals and be successful on our own, but with the understanding that our individual success in terms of wealth, possessions, jobs, and family has as much  to do with with us as individuals as it has to do with the stability and protection offered by the larger society in which we live.

Groups & Individuals

In American politics we often complain about the polarization of ideas amongst politicians and their lack of ability to accomplish anything.  Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds examines the behavior of individuals relative to the behavior of groups, and what he presents is an explanation for our government’s fractured state.  In regards to decision making Wiseman writes, “being in a group exaggerates people’s opinions, causing them to make more a extreme decision than they would on their own.”  He explains an experiment by James Stoner in which an individual was asked to consult a mildly successful author about whether or not they should stop writing cheap thrillers and take a risk by writing a larger novel that is outside of the typical genre in which she publishes. Individuals were less likely to recommend that she strive towards the risky novel than groups were.
Wiseman’s conclusion is that the groups we belong to push us further in whatever direction we already lean. In the example from Wiseman’s book, if we tend to be slightly more risky, then in a group we become much more risky.  This explanation of our behavior translates nicely to our political system. I studied political science in college and I remember discussing the impact of party leadership on Congress. What studies had shown is that the longer a politician serves in Congress and the more they become part of party leadership, the less likely they are to vote along the lines of what their constituents actually want.  Part of the explanation for this behavior could be related to Wiseman’s findings of group behavior pushing an individual to more extreme ideas.  The more control party leaders have over the other members of congress, the more they are likely to shape their decisions, and the longer an individual is in Congress, the more likely their decisions will become polarized. I think that Wiseman’s understanding of group decisions versus individual decisions does an excellent job breaking down part of our government’s breakdown.
On a personal scale I think it is important to be aware of the impact that groups will have on us.  Building our ideas in a group, as opposed to individual study and idea formation, may mean that we adopt more extreme ideas on a given topic.  In addition, when trying to brainstorm ideas, Stoner’s research shows us that groups will push us towards decisions and ideas that are more extreme than those we would find on our own.  I think this also translates into the ways we act and think about everyday topics.  Groups may be much more likely to push us towards having more extreme opinions about other people, act in more polarized ways toward others, and make us think in a different way about social issues and occurrences.  If you are building your self awareness, recognizing the impact of groups on your thoughts and opinions is crucial.