Does Prosperity Ruin Social Connection?

Are the circumstances that promote material well-being the opposite of those that promote tight social connection? My take-away from listening to this fascinating discussion between Russ Roberts and Sebastian Junger is that such a trade-off does exist. Their conversation centers around Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

By tight social connection, I mean that individuals have a strong sense of belonging. They care for others. They feel appreciated when they work and sacrifice for the benefit of the group. They are confident that in turn they are cared for by others. They feel that their lives have meaning and purpose.

Junger argues persuasively that tight social connection is most likely to be found in a small group enduring hardship. The canonical example is a small military unit fighting a battle. As he puts it in Tribe,

Humans don’t mind hardship. In fact they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.

But if you want material well-being, you want the opposite. You want to be embedded in a large-scale society, which is conducive to specialization and trade. And you want minimal threats from natural or human enemies, so that people have the freedom and comfort to engage in scientific exploration and innovation.

Junger notes that during the many centuries in which humans evolved, we lived in small bands that frequently encountered hardship. He makes a number of points about the emotional inclinations that proved adaptive under such circumstances.

— The appeal of group connection is shown by the fact that early settlers in America sometimes willingly left “civilization” to join native tribes, but the reverse rarely happened. (I would point out that the material conditions were not so dramatically different. It’s not as if the European settlers had antibiotics, indoor plumbing, and electricity.)

— We evolved to sleep in groups. Only in the past few hundred years and only in England, Northern Europe, and their offshoots do we put children to sleep in dark rooms by themselves.

— Movies about societies in crisis are popular. They also follow a stereotypical formula: a male hero confronts a physical threat; a female associated with him helps with group dynamics; a man who fails to help the group and instead looks out for himself dies gruesomely; and a man who was sent away by the community before the crisis for his troublesome behavior comes back and redeems himself.

— During the second World War, citizens felt a strong sense of common purpose.

— When you are restricted to a small community, you learn to get along with people you don’t especially like. You depend on everyone else in the community.

— The phenomenon of mass shootings in America does not come from the poorest, high-crime areas. Instead, it comes from young men who live in relatively comfortable material circumstances.

Best of both?

Roberts and Junger agree that we do not want to return to the poverty and mortality associated with primitive tribal existence. Is there a way to somehow enjoy the benefits of modern, large-scale society while also experiencing the sense of belonging and meaning that are more readily available in small groups experiencing hardship?

Junger mentions a few experiments in living arrangements. One example is placing nursing homes next to primary schools and having the populations mingle often. Another example is dormitory style living, where people have their own sleeping rooms but share cooking an other communal activities.

I am afraid that the trade-off puts limits on what we can achieve. We want social connection, but we do not want some of the conditions that help provide it. We would rather live comfortably than face war and privation. We would rather choose carefully the people with whom we spend time, rather than be thrown together with a random assortment of folks. And we would rather associate ourselves with major sports teams, political movements, or lifestyles than with the people in our neighborhood.

I don’t think that a market economy forces us to always adopt the behaviors that undermine social connection. But with the prosperity we have gained, the choices we are making appear to entail some unfortunate consequences.