Human’s have egos, and that causes a lot of problems. To be clear, it is often not the ego itself that causes problems, but our feeling that we need to be right, that we need to be powerful, that we need to have important friends and connections that becomes problematic. Humans evolved in small tribes where survival often depended on being high status. Men had to be high status to pass their genes along and being high status meant that people would come to your aid if you needed help. Knowing useful things, being physically imposing, and having useful skills all contributed to make us higher status. Today, the drive for higher status is often understood as ego, and it is still with us, even if survival and evolutionary pressures toward super high status have declined.
One way in which this status and ego pursuit manifests to cause problems in our lives is in our intellectual discussions and debates. We often pursue our own ego rather than accurate knowledge and information when we are in debates. We are both signaling to our tribe and trying to dominate a conversation with our strong convictions rather than trying to have constructive discussions that help us get to correct answers.
Mary Roach writes about this phenomenon in her book Spook when discussing paranormal phenomena. She writes, “hasty assumptions serve no one. To make up one’s mind based on nothing beyond a simple summary of events – as believers and skeptics alike tend to do – does nothing to forward the pursuit of solid answers.” When we get into debates on religious topics, questions of psychic or paranormal phenomena, and complex social science questions, we often fall into reductive arguments that are mostly aimed at people who hold the same assumptions and beliefs that we already hold. We make hasty assumptions because our ego wants us to appear decisive and correct without spending time in ambiguity carefully considering the truth. The goal for us should be to become less wrong, but that is not a mindset that is generally rewarded by the ego, which for much of human evolution was rewarded by conviction and demonstrations of loyalty. Making changes so that more considerate thought is rewarded over ego-centric thought is crucial for us to move forward, but it runs against evolution, our self-interest, and what gets the most attention on social media today. Hasty assumptions may not be helpful, but they do get strong reactions and generate support among like-minded individuals.
Loyalty in social tribes is important. If you are consistently loyal to a strong, smart, and well connected individual in a small group, you can receive a lot of direct benefits. Being disloyal, failing to conform, and only occasionally supporting the person in the social group with the highest social status will not get you the same level of benefits. In our world today we still do this, though it is probably less of a major driver of whether we pass on our genes and have enough food to eat. In the world of our tribal ancestors, however, this likely played a huge role in who was able to pass their genes along, who got to eat from the communal dinner, and who was left out in the cold when there was not enough shelter.
Our relationships involve a certain amount of loyalty, and loyalty cannot be ascertained or demonstrated by just asking someone, “to what degree are you loyal to me?” Loyalty must be demonstrated and shown in subtle indirect ways. When a wife asks, “do these jeans make me look fat?” she may really be asking how loyal and loving her husband is, as opposed to actually asking about her appearance in a pair of jeans (as a guy, I would like to note that I may be 100% dead wrong on this particular example – forgive me if I am totally missing the mark here).
In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write, “we often measure loyalty in our relationships by the degree to which a belief is irrational or unwarranted by the evidence.” So a group or tribe may adopt a completely irrational belief as a type of test, to see who is the most loyal and the least willing to question the leader or cut against the tribe. “It only demonstrates loyalty to believe something that we wouldn’t have reason to believe unless we were loyal.”
I think a lot of religion includes these types of tests. I also think we see this in sports relationships, our relationships to some consumer products, and clearly in our political parties. We need coalitions to do great things or we will only make it so far. People won’t want to join our coalitions unless we can demonstrate loyalty and group belonging. Believing something clearly inaccurate is a good way to show loyalty in an indirect sort of way and to signal to others that we are on their side and have their back.
One thing I have written about on the blog a lot is our tribal nature and how we now live in world that demands global solutions and thinking that we seem to be unable to achieve due to our tribal evolutionary past. We face great challenges today and have opportunities to put in place policies that lift everyone, but often spend much of our time fighting among each other over meaningless tribal points. We become raving sports fanatics for no sensible reason, we will get in fights about which students from which college major is better, and we will form clubs around the typed of truck we drive and literally get in fist fights because we drive Fords and those people over there drive Dodges. For some reason, we feel compelled to be loyal to these groups, even when there is no tangible benefit (in the sense of really prospering or attracting new mates) to being so loyal to a meaningless group.
Our loyalty within these groups is a phenomenon that I find extremely interesting, and at times deeply troubling. One of the reasons why it can be so detrimental and scary for our society is well explained in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, “When a group’s fundamental tenets are at stake, those who demonstrate the most steadfast commitment – who continue to chant the loudest or clench their eyes the tightest in the face of conflicting evidence – earn the most trust from their fellow group members.”
Groups favor and actively reward loyalty even when loyalty is undeserved. We praise those who stick with the party when the leader is clearly in the wrong. We say that true sports fans still show up and root for the team even when the team flat out sucks and isn’t even fun to watch. We encourage our fellow group members to stick with our side even when overwhelming evidence shows that our side is in the wrong.
This leaves me asking how we ever move forward based on shared understandings of reasonable facts? How do we improve our society if all we do is advocate for things that benefit our social group, even if those things are bad for everyone else? How do we create common understanding if we don’t acknowledge our group and our efforts to advantage our group over others?
I think a key is to begin working to show how meaningless many of the groups we belong to can be. On an individual level we need to develop skills to recognize when we are being defensive about something and showing group loyalty over an idea or to a group that just doesn’t matter. When we can start to step back and admit we were wrong and that changing our opinion doesn’t matter, we can start to move forward. The great challenge is doing this on a societal level, especially if bad actors don’t have the incentive to behave the same way.