Human Nature & Political Tribalism

A nation divided. This would have been the story regardless of outcome in this year’s U.S Presidential Election.

Research by Pew shows an ever widening gap in political values over the last few decades.

On twitter, Vox journalist Matthew Yglesias seems perplexed how Republicans could have won in a year where Obamas approval ratings were so high. After all, they are high, but views of him are still the most polarized in recent history.

To understand what is happening here, I think it helps to have a better grasp on human nature. But, its pretty complicated. We aren’t the perfectly rational creatures that inhabit most economic textbooks. In his book, Descartes’ Error, the Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio declares “We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.” Science shows we seem to have quite a knack for “motivated reasoning.” This is why it can seem so hard when trying to engage people on issues like terrorism, immigration, and abortion. Not only are these emotionally charged to begin with, but I think the left has made them more so by engaging in their virtue signaling brand of identity politics.

We are also wired to connect; that is the argument put forth by Matthew Lieberman, a professor in the Deparments of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Behaviorual Sciences at the University of California. In his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect, Lieberman does an excellent job on bringing the rest of us up to speed on the last few decades of research into human psychology.

Most accounts of human nature ignore our sociality altogether, Ask people what makes us special and they will rattle off tried-and-true answers like “language,” “reason,” and “opposable thumbs.” Yet the history of human sociality can be traced back at least as far as the first mammals more than 250 million years ago, when dinosaurs first roamed the planet. Our sociality is woven into a series of bets that evolution has laid down again and again throughout mammalian history. These bets come in the form of adaptations that are selected because they promote survival and reproduction. These adaptations intensify the bonds we feel with those around us and increase our capacity to predict what is going on in the minds of others so that we can better coordinate and cooperate with them…To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central at making us the most successful species on earth.

These adaptions to our brain can best be thought of as intergrated networks that work together to promote our social well-being. These networks effectly allow us to perform three crucial functions that have propelled us to where we are in the natural hierachy.

Connection: Long before there were any primates with neo-cortex, mammals split off from other vertebrates and evolved the capacity to feel social pain and pleasures, forever linking our well being to our social connectedness. Infants embody this deep need to stay connected, but it is present our entire lives.
Mindreading: Primates have developed an unparalleled ability to understand the actions and thoughts of those around them, enhancing their ability to stay connected and interact strategically. In the toddler years, forms of social thinking develop that outstrip those seen in the adults of any other species. This capacity allows humans to create groups that implement nearly any idea and to anticipate the needs and wants of those around us, keeping our groups moving smoothly.
Harmonizing: The sense of self is one of the most recent evolutionary gifts we have received. Although the self may appear to be a mechanism for distinguishing us from others and perhaps accentuating our selfishness, the self actually operates as a powerful force for social cohesiveness. During the preteen and teenage years, adolescents focus on their selves and in the process become highly socialized by those around them. Whereas connection is about our desire to be social, harmonizing refers to the neural adaptations that allow group beliefs and values to influence our own.”

But as much as we are wired to socialize with our tribe, we are wired to be weary of those outside of it. In a recent Ted Talk , professor Jonathan Haidt addresses his work on moral psychology;

Whenever I look at any social puzzle I always apply the three basic rules of moral psychology. The first thing you have to always keep in mind when you’re thinking about politics is that we are tribal.

He references an old arab bedouin proverb as a simple and powerful insight into our tribal nature.

It was me against my brother; me and my brother against our father; my family against my cousins and the clan; the clan against the tribe; and the tribe against the world.

The new left/right divide Haidt describes has moved from capital vs. labor to a “draw-bridge upper or draw-bridge downer.” With the big issue he sees as being immigration. Would you find it shocking that New York Times found Immigration/Terrorism as the top issue for Trump voters? As Haidt points out, these are legitamite concerns that social science research points out.

I think the big issue, especially in Europe, but its also here, is the issue of immigration. And I think this is where I think we have to look very carefully at the social science about diversity and immigration. Once something becomes politicized, once it becomes something that the left loves and right hates, even the social science researchers can’t think straight about it. Now diversity is great in alot of ways; it clearly creates alot of innovation, the American economy has grown enormously from it. But what the globalist don't see, what I think they don't want to see, is that ethnic diversity cuts social capital and trust…The more people feel that they are the same, the more they trust each other, the more they can have a re-distrubutionist welfare state. Scandinavian countries are so wonderful beause they have this legacy of being small, homogeneous countries.

As a Canadian citizen, I get the strong yearning for a Scandinavian style system; I also think the policy wonks on the left need to better come to grips with what the research into human psychology is actually saying. Hope is not lost though. The same research that points out the negative aspects, can also help us tackle the problem.

The nationalists are actually right that if you emphasis our cultural similarities, then race doesn’t actually matter very much. So an assimilationist approach to immigration removes alot of these problems, and if you value a generous welfare state, you’ve got to emphasis that we’re all the same.