The Narcissism of Small Differences Is a Product of Evolution

narcissism of small differences Mercer Deel

By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

and Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

In our ongoing series about contemporary disagreements in the U.S., today we are talking to Dr. Gary Deel, Faculty Director in the School of Business at American Public University.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Welcome, Gary. Can you give us an overview of your background and your research interests?

Dr. Gary Deel: Sure. As you mentioned, I’m obviously a faculty director for the School of Business. And my role here involves oversight for the transportation and logistics, supply chain, reverse logistics, defense management, accounting, finance, entrepreneurship, and analytics programs.

However, my professional background includes work in hospitality management and law, so much of my research and writing spans those fields. Also, I recently completed several degrees in space studies, so I’ve recently been writing a lot on astronomy and aerospace.

I should also note that my research writing interests are rather diverse. I’ve written previously about education, government, criminal justice, time travel, ethics and morality, and all manner of other subjects.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: After reading my initial article about the narcissism of small differences and reading some of Sigmund Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents,” what are your initial reactions to this concept?

Dr. Gary Deel: I found your initial introduction to this concept intriguing. I remain a fan of Christopher Hitchens’s work, and I think he really got at the heart of the concept of narcissism of small differences.

In my view, this phenomenon is a product of our evolutionary wiring to fear that which is different — or more importantly, perceived to be different — from us. Our studies of psychology and human behavior have taught us that we are pre-programmed to scan our environments and be wary of the unfamiliar.

This quality should be unsurprising in the context of our understanding of evolutionary biology. It has real survival value. In the primal world of predators and prey, the principle that one should fear and avoid that which is unknown or unfamiliar is useful.

Imagine an early human ancestor resting under a tree in the wilderness, say, a million years ago. This ancestor hears a rustling in the bushes nearby. He doesn’t know what it is, but it doesn’t sound friendly.

If he’s fortunate enough to carry a healthy predisposition for fear toward the unknown, he’ll likely spring to his feet, ready his spear, and slowly move away from the threat, all the while never breaking eye contact with the bushes from which the noises are coming. And if they continue to come closer, he may strike out blindly into the brush, to attempt to injure or kill whatever seems to be stalking him.

But if he lacks such a predisposition for fear, he might ignore the noises. Curiosity might get the better of him, and he might seek out the source without first putting his guard up. And he might, in such cases, get eaten.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the people who occupy the world today carry with them a relic of fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. We modern humans are the descendants of those who survived the encounters with rustling bushes in the woods through an abundance of caution and wariness.

We inherited these qualities, as they were essential to survival in a world long past. The problem is that they’re not always well-attuned, and in today’s civilized world they can actually create more conflict than they avoid.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: How do you see the narcissism of small differences in contemporary U.S. culture?

Dr. Gary Deel: Narcissism of small differences in contemporary U.S. culture is apparent in the way that people conduct their political, religious and sociocultural lives. We as Americans are all fortunate to live in a country of shared values that revolve around ideals such as democracy, personal freedoms, liberties, rights and the belief in justice.

But of course, we interpret these ideals in different ways, and this leads to feelings of opposition within our own society. Sometimes these differences seem irreconcilable, and we lose sight of the commonalities that we all share as citizens of this nation. Because we live in this society together and we’re not always looking out at the rest of the world to examine how wide the spectrum of difference can really be, we perceive subtle differences here to be total non-sequiturs for peaceful coexistence and cooperation.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: How is the narcissism of small differences dividing U.S. culture?

Dr. Gary Deel: In my opinion, a big part of this divide comes from a different aspect of our evolutionary wiring: the fact that we are not programmed to recognize a group allegiance among 400 million people across nearly 4 million square miles of homestead. We know from anthropological investigation that the average human group or family or clan in the day of the early nomadic hunter-gatherer communities was small — perhaps a hundred at most.

So we evolved into small families, where everyone within a group knew each other intimately. The average early human of a million years ago would spend his or her entire life with the same hundred people, never making contact with anyone else. Now think about our modern lives, where many people study, work, go shopping, and engage in other societal activities in the company of total strangers.

Particularly in large and populous cities, we are inundated every day with new faces we’ve never seen before and will likely never see again, just based on the sheer numbers and likelihood of us crossing paths with the same individual more than once. This is not a circumstance that our evolutionary states are in any way prepared to handle.

And so this misalignment between the early design of the tool and the new environment in which it now operates means that our minds are probably often defaulting to wariness and mistrust toward those unfamiliar to or different from us — even when such differences are, in reality, nothing of which we should actually be fearful.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: What could be done to help bring people together to avoid the infighting that is exemplified with the narcissism of small differences?

Dr. Gary Deel: I think awareness is probably our best weapon against this kind of miscalculated hostility. We know, for example, that it is possible to counter an implicit bias in our decision making if we are aware that the bias is present.

We also know that it’s even possible to overcome a fear or phobia if we take the time needed to examine it, recognize the irrationality inherent therein (as applicable), and reason our way through our feelings. It’s by no means easy but it’s possible.

And so I submit that if we all spend more time examining what feelings we have toward others and the reasons why we have those feelings, we can work to override our primitive “fears of the unknown” and instead set out toward understanding and fraternity with fellow Americans who might be different from us in inconsequential ways.

About the Authors

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. He writes about culture, leadership, and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Bjorn Mercer also writes children’s music.

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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