Our Responses to Groups

Our Responses to Groups

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.
Having Many Groups Can Reduce Violence

Having Many Groups Can Reduce Violence

One of the metaphors I think about frequently is the idea of pulling the goalie. This idea comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s podcasts Revisionist History where he argues that hockey coaches should be more willing to pull their goalie and compete with more offensive players on the ice when they are losing. It is a bit taboo to pull your goalie with more than a couple of minutes left in a game, but the math suggests it is a better strategy. As it turns out, pulling the goalie, or at least the metaphorical extension of pulling the goalie, may be a good rule of thumb to help reduce violence within human social groups as well.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “if people belong to many groups and can switch in and out of them, they are more likely to find one in which they are esteemed, and an insult or slight is less consequential.” What this means is that having many groups can reduce violence. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all competing for social status, and within small groups social status is often zero sum. There are only so many people within a group who can be leaders that set the tone and make decisions for the entire group. If one person gains leadership authority, then another must cede or lose that authority. Violence can be an avenue through which authority is gained or defended. However, if society can offer many group opportunities, and if people can switch groups, then violence can be avoided.
If you are part of a group and things are not going well, you don’t have to stick it out as the butt of everyone’s jokes or as the recipient of violence from those who wish to display their dominance over others. You can chose to pull the goalie and change tactics by moving to a new group where you may find more status. You don’t have to stick within the same group and try to assert yourself, defend yourself against a slight, or gain dominance through force. You can simply leave and find a new group where you can fit in and be esteemed without needing to employ violence to defend yourself or advance.
Hopefully most of us don’t have to use violence in any of our groups to build or maintain status. Throughout history many groups have organized around violence. Street gangs use violence to keep order, playground cliques often employ violence, and sports clubs can easily fall into violence. Creating more freedom of movement among small groups, especially for young men, can eliminate the need to employ violence while still participating in a group. Expanding the types of social groups, both online and in real life, can give us more avenues for people to feel connected and engaged in social endeavors without having to fit into a particular culture that requires violence to gain or maintain status.
The Security Dilemma

The Security Dilemma

How do we stop arms races? How do we stop people from fearing that they will be attacked by someone else, and prevent them from constantly gearing up to be prepared to kill someone else before someone else kills them? How do we sidestep the mindset that we have to defeat others so that they don’t defeat us?
This is an important question and in the world of international relations is known as the security dilemma. Even if I am non-violent, even if I generally don’t want to inflect any negativity on another person, I don’t know that they will be the same toward me, and I must therefore be prepared to defeat them and survive at all costs. When everyone thinks this way, we end up in a perpetual arms race where even if we know  there is no threat, we prepare for it just in case. This creates an inevitable competition for means of destruction, even among allies. That competition can lead to violence. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “competition breeds fear. If you have reason to suspect that your neighbor is inclined to eliminate you from the competition by, say, killing you,  then you will be inclined to protect yourself by eliminating him first in a preemptive strike.”
Within the world of international relations and national security, the solution to this problem has been MAD. Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is a byproduct of nuclear weapons. By stockpiling arms that would plunge the world into a global apocalypse, we ensure the peace and safety of the world. But this is not really a solution to the problem. Pinker continues, “whatever peace a policy of deterrence may promise is fragile, because a deterrence reduces violence only by a threat of violence.”
Ultimately, I think that we reduce violence by shifting thinking away from zero sum competitions and mindsets. There are certainly, and will very likely always be, some zero sum competitions in life. Capitalism and market economies rely on zero sum competitions to reduce waste, increase efficiency, and promote technological progress. But in many other areas we can eliminate zero sum thinking and focus less on fears of losing things and more on positive sum thinking. Pushing us to think in terms of zero sum competition encourages fear and the impulse to destroy others, but the reality of our world is that less is truly zero sum than we believe. We no longer live in tribal societies where a single male can dominate all the potential female mates. We no longer live in a society where food and resources are so scarce that we need to control as much as we can and build political coalitions to ensure our survival. We no longer live in a world where losing a job means that you will starve on the streets. We have reduced the zero sum nature of many aspects of human lives and can continue to do so in ways that reduce our need to protect ourselves by shooting first or ensuring the mutual destruction of all. Reducing zero sum thinking is just one way to get to this point, and may help reduce our reliance on MAD.
Only the Strong Survive - A flawed way to view the world? - Joe Abittan - Elliot Liebow - Tell Them Who I Am

Only the Strong Survive

In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow included a short conversation about war he had with a homeless woman. The short conversation ended with the following quote from his conversation partner, “Some people believe that only the strong will survive. Can you imagine going through life believing something like that?” This line is almost a throwaway line in the book, and honestly within context the line seems relatively unnecessary and distracts from the larger point Liebow made with the larger conversation. However, I think the question is an excellent one to think about.
Our world has just wrapped up the 2020 Olympic Games, delayed one year by the COVID-19 pandemic. I watched a decent amount of track and field and caught a few commercials that reflect the general idea that most people have about the Olympics and the Athletes competing in the games. That typical notion is not far off from the idea that only the strongest survive, a message that is a little grating at a time where the pandemic is making another surge, right when we all hoped it would begin to fade away. Nevertheless, numerous commercials encouraged us to strive toward greatness, to be our best, to be strong, to persevere, and to overcome – by purchasing a new Toyota, using an American Express card, or doing/buying whatever the commercial was advertising. With this year’s Olympics, the idea was perhaps a little muted but still present – only the strong survive.
To live with this mindset is effectively to see the world as zero-sum. It is to see the world as split between the strong and the weak, the fit and the unfit, the survivors and everyone else. It is also to be constantly weary of not being enough and fearful of no longer being strong and able to survive. This mindset works within athletics and the Olympics, where people are pushing for gold medals and world records, but it doesn’t fit with life in modern, complex, and cooperative societies. As the woman that Liebow quotes seems to suggest, this mindset can be counterproductive and unhealthy in the real world.
A zero sum mindset means that you have to get all that you can, because if anyone else takes more than you, you are directly harmed. The strength of others is constantly a threat to you – potentially a mortal threat – since you can only guarantee your survival by being the strongest. This mindset also seems to dismiss the poor, the weak, and the disabled. It excuses a lack of concern for them, because our concern must be on making ourselves as fit as can be, and those who are weak are hopeless and helpless. Only one can win gold. The medal can’t be split among all, and trying to help those who you compete against means that you sacrifice your own strength and won’t end up winning in the end. An athlete who stops to check on a fallen competitor doesn’t get the gold, doesn’t get the world record, and doesn’t get the glory.
If instead we chose to believe in human rights, community, and the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, then we have to abandon the idea that only the strong survive. We have to come together as a society and help each other all survive and pursue happiness in our own ways that allow us to work together. We have to create systems and structures that are positive sum, so that we increase the size of the pie, rather than compete for smaller and smaller slices as the strong take the most for themselves. To live in modern society we have to find ways to engage the disabled, to empower those who have been left behind, and to cooperate and coordinate together to make life better for all of us. In the end it is a less stressful and less threatening way to live, even if it means we will miss our individual glory of standing atop the podium, the strongest survivor of them all.

Generous Leadership

We tend to select leaders who see the world in a positive sum. We like leaders who can look ahead and project a way to create a rising tide that will lift all boats. We want leaders with empowering visions of the future and shared prosperity for all. We don’t want greedy leaders who are cunning, ruthless, and don’t care to share their bounty with the rest of us.

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson tie ideas of generosity and charity to leadership. Being charitable, giving away of lot of money, and investing a lot of time into something, shows that a person is willing to put others first, is willing to sacrifice something of their own for the good of society, and genuinely cares about other people and not just themselves. The authors write,

“This helps explain why generosity is so important for those who aspire to leadership. No one want leaders who play zero-sum, competitive games with the rest of society. If their wins are our losses, why should we support them? Instead we want leaders with a pro-social orientation, people who will look out for us because we’re all in it together.” 

Leadership is challenging because people don’t want to follow someone who is acting in their own self-interest. For all of us, it is a challenge to get beyond our own desires and to think about what is needed beyond our immediate concerns. To be a leader requires thinking beyond ourselves and having other people in mind when we decide what we are going to do, how we will use our resources, and generally how we will orientate our lives. We can’t be a leader if we are setting out to just be more than or better than others. People will see through us and our leadership will never take off.

The Challenge of Trying to Enlarge the Pie

I often feel that we are moving so fast toward the future that we are advancing beyond our means. I think we are in some ways exceeding the capacity that we have evolved to fit, and this is creating great challenges for humans across the globe. We have new technologies, new social structures, and new understandings of our places in the world and in the universe more broadly that exceed the type of living that we evolved to succeed within.


A passage from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain highlighted this for me. They write, “Despite the fact that it’s possible to cooperate, politically, in ways that “enlarge the pie” for everyone, this is the exception rather than the rule – especially for our distant ancestors. In most contexts, for one coalition to succeed, others must fail. Importantly, however, members within a coalition can earn themselves a larger slice of the pie by cooperating – a fact that makes politics such an intoxicating game.”


The line about our ancestors being incapable of expanding the pie for everyone is important. Without much technology, without shared languages and translation, and in a state of constant threat from nature, it is easy to see why our early ancestors were limited to a state of competition with each other for social status, sex, and resources. There simply were too few humans, too few easily accessible resources, and too few scalable technologies for everyone to be sufficiently comfortable and connected.


We now live in a new world, where literally 7.5 million people in the San Francisco metropolitan statistical area are constantly thinking about ways to build new technology to scale to improve the lives of all people, not just the people they are connected with. We understand that our actions can have global manifestations, and that we need global solutions to address climate change and other existential threats. Our technology and ways of thinking have surpassed the world our ancestors lived in, and have created a new game for us to play, however, we are still stuck in the zero-sum mindset of our ancestors, asking what we can do to get a bigger share of the pie for our narrow coalition.


Understanding why we fall into thinking about narrow coalitions is important. Recognizing the way our brains work and why they are limited helps us see new potentials. Understanding how we can change our thoughts and how we and others will react in a world that offers so much more is key to actually living up to our new potential as a global species.