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More tribal talk

My previous post isn't that much about the climate change in itself. Personally, I don't care if people agree or disagree with my views on the climate change, and I'm not going to convince anyone to change their opinions. So, I was using the climate change discussion as an example, trying to figure out some of the factors which make it so hard to discuss in a rational way. And, to me it seems that our "tribal identity" affects our thinking a lot more than we often are aware of. (But, being consistent with myself, I'm not that interested in trying to convince others to agree with my views on this topic, either. I just write about my own thoughts, and leave it for the reader to evaluate if, how and why they dis/agree.)

For ages it has been a well-known folk wisdom that it easy to spot a tiny error in an other person, but far more harder to spot even a huge error in oneself. Since 1960's this effect has been studied scientifically. To put it short: we aren't that rational thinkers than we'd like to believe. Most of the time we are actually just using pre-cognitive heuristics to reach a conclusion. That is quick and easy, it saves a lot of mental energy. When I was coding the path finding algorithm, I first programmed an accurate routine, which always finds a perfect path, but that turned out to be slow in many cases. So, after that I studied different heuristics to speed up the algorithm - in many cases finding a nearly-optimal path in a split second can be more desirable than finding the optimal path in seven seconds (for example, if you'd need to flee a predator, spending seven seconds pondering about your escape route is sure going to get you eaten by the beast.) And, indeed, I think that during the evolution those heuristics developed first. Our cognitive functions are a relatively young addition in the course of evolution. And to me it seems that for example the horses they don't have an ability to reason logically, but they have very powerful and accurate heuristics which help them make correct decisions quickly, in most of the cases.

There are many studies on how those heuristics contribute to errors in our decision making. When making economical or political decisions, we might make bad decisions just because we are misguided by the very same heuristics which once helped us survive in the jungle. And since those heuristics seem to be somewhat pre-wired in our brain, it means that even the highly educated persons might be equally prone to errors in their attempts at logical reasoning. So, a lot of time a trained scientist might be making errors in collecting and analyzing data, and in representing the conclusions. As, typically, we tend to favour evidence which confirms our initial beliefs, and ignore evidence which could prove our beliefs false. In the science community there has been a growing awareness of these phenomenons, and they've been developing ways to balance out biases of individual scientist and teams. For example, some science teams have started to adopt procedures that even before publishing their results, they give the data to a team they know has a different hypothesis. So, the same data is analyzed both by a team which supports and opposes a given hypothesis, and right on the time of publishing the results we can already read a more balanced evaluation of the study.

Well, but if you ask me, there seems to be a bias in the aforementioned psychological studies. (And Jonathan Haidt would probably agree with me.) Most of those studies have been studying separate individuals - but I suspect that group membership / tribal identity is a major factor contributing towards biased thinking. (Of course, if this is my hypothesis, I tend to pick scientific studies which support my hypothesis, paying less attention to studies which could prove my hypothesis wrong. So, dear reader, be warned - I might be biased, so remember to check and evaluate from your own point of view.) This effect of group membership is often called myside bias and the classical experiment goes like this:

A sample of U.S. residents is given a question: "According to a comprehensive study by the U.S. Department of Transportation, a particular German car is eight times more likely than a typical family car to kill the occupants of another car in a crash. The U.S. Department of Transportation is considering recommending a ban on the sale of this German car. Do you think the United States should ban the sale of this car?". And typically, 78% of the people answer "yes, the car should be banned". No surprise there. But then, an another set of randomized U.S. people are given the same question, but this time the nationalities swapped; an American car is told to be eight times more dangerous, and asked if a German body should ban that car from German roads. This time only 51% of the people answer "Yes, Germany should ban the car." So, the risk is evaluated differently, if the question is "should a dangerous FOREIGN car be banned from driving on OUR ROADS?" or "should a dangerous OUR car be banned from driving FOREIGN roads?" And a lot of people are more eager to ban foreign stuff and to favour their own stuff.

First of all, like it or not - from the viewpoint of evolution, we are herd animals. The changes of a lone human surviving in the primitive jungle are rather slim. The security is with ones own group. We might have a natural tendency to be more forgiving towards members of our own group, and more suspicious towards strangers - and outright distrusting towards the members of an enemy group. And also, it has been vital for us to maintain our group membership - if our actions and words make others annoyed, they might throw us out. In which case we'd either have to find a new group to adopt us, or die alone in the jungle. (Or, in rare cases, collect enough tools and lead a hermit lifestyle, or possibly start a tribe of our own, attracting outcasts from neighbouring tribes. And eventually, if our own tribe grows larger and more powerful, we might even have our revenge against the old group which once treated us bad.)

I mean, a lot of our cognitive abilities and underlying heuristics is not only geared towards finding the truth which is out there - it is equally important to maintain ones group membership, status and rank in the herd hierarchy. My previous story of The Mudheads and The Gearheads was designed to illustrate how tribal identity affects discussion about questions which might otherwise seem mere neutral practical questions - but once they become questions of tribal dignity and honour, all the rationality has to step out as insults, mockery and prejudice take over. But, of course, in modern western societies we don't have that clear tribes any more. But to me it seems that tribal functions haven't disappeared. Of course it is more visible in things like people grouping together to root for their local hockey team. Or carrying the symbols of their favourite Operating System, mocking the supporters of rival OSes. Well, there hardly is a question of offering rational arguments to judge which hockey team is the best - that is found out in the games played. But it all becomes a lot more messy when we try to discuss beliefs and arguments, without noticing to which extent we might be actually just having a tribal war or a sort "OUR group is better than YOUR group!".

But if our brain is pre-wired by evolution to think with biased heuristics, then what can we do? Well, if you ask me: First of all, to become more aware of these things, to reflect on our own reactions, to evaluate our own thinking and starting to recognize these effects also in ourselves, not just blaming the others for being biased and brainwashed idiots. And once we start to better recognize the power of tribal pride, we might start to de-escalate. And by practical training, over the years, it is very possible to learn to think in a more balanced way - or at least, to be more able to review ones earlier beliefs when a need arises.

I'm sorry I don't remember if I have told this before, but I've sometimes been surprised how people react when they hear that I don't celebrate Christmas. To them it sounds as if I'm saying "Hah, I'm not a member of your tribe, I despise your traditions and I think I am better that you are!". So, I'd guess that Christmas is such a strong tradition for some people, that it is a part of their tribal identity, so it appears completely alien to them if somebody has abandoned the central symbols of the tribe. Now, compare this to me saying "Today I wear a green T-shirt". Typically, no-one takes this as me saying "I think everyone should wear a green T-shirt, and I think I'm a better person than those idiots who don't wear a green T-shirt". No, in our mainstream western culture the colour of a shirt is often thought to belong to a sphere of personal freedom, that it doesn't define a tribal symbol. So, the question is: which of our traditions, habits, symbols and beliefs are seen as central to the tribal identity (which should be the same for all the members of the said tribe), and which can have personal variation without that being considered a betrayal of the tribal identity. And on top of that, I'd like to add another question: should we defend our central symbols, always sticking to our traditions - or to which extent we can be open to change, or even neutrally reviewing our habits and traditions, seeking for new ways when need be. And it is exactly here where I strongly support calm and tranquility.

Yes, I do believe that we are more or less evolutionary pre-wired to get offended if our central tribal symbols are questioned. But I think that nothing blocks our way of advancing further from that level of cognitive and emotional development. With a little bit of patience, confidence, benevolence and rationality we can see that there hardly is a need to panic if somebody disagreed or challenges our views, habits, traditions, anthems, symbols, colours and beliefs. As, also, in the course of evolution, what has kept our species alive, has also been our ability to adapt to new situations, the ability to invent new and better solutions, the ability to advance and to improve our ways. So, to conclude this all - what I am once again saying is that one thing which would make our lives easier is that if and when we learn not to get offended so quickly and strongly. An offended mind can't think rationally. A calm and rational mind is better able to evaluate things and to sort out the best solutions to help us survive.

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Comments

Lol. I love the Onion. I used to subscribe to the dead-tree version back in college, back in the days when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. :3

It seems to me like "safe spaces" are modern word for "segregation". I thought we decided that segregation was bad and got rid of it years ago....... And these are the people who will be the future of my country. :(

But back to the topic of discussion, hehe. I see where you are coming from, and I think I mostly agree. But I do think that a certain amount of preconception or bias or whatever may be necessary in order for us to think coherently. I don't think it is always a "bad" thing, as long as we are aware of it and prepared to reevaluate our preconceptions and biases when we absorb new data. The danger though (in my opinion anyway) is when we go too far in either direction. That is, to become so firmly rooted in our biases that we cannot reevaluate them. But I also think it is dangerous to go too far in the other direction, or we adopt a completely relativistic internal belief system (or lack thereof), and become unable to engage in coherent reasoning.

The way I see it, I think it is perfectly fine to adopt a tribal identity, and to even be proud of that identity and share it with others in hopes of bringing them (at least partially) into your own tribe. As long as in the process, we are not taking away the freedom of others to do the same with their particular tribal identity as well. This is one thing that worries me a great deal about the insanity that is going on at US college campuses right now. Somehow it seems like actual open-mindedness and free speech have been replaced with segregation and censorship through social ostracization and some kind of mob-mentality. Indeed, it strikes me as a shade Orwellian, and I find that to be worrisome.

But I guess I can't really do anything about it, since I am one of those terrible awful old-fashioned cis white males (sarcasm lol) who believes that everyone should be free to speak their beliefs, even if I (or anyone else) is offended by it, because that is how things are supposed to work here. I just wish they would extend the same courtesy, lol.

When writing that blog entry I had a vague feeling of being somewhat unclear and not managing to deliver my line of thinking in a crisp and clear way. So, here I think that in your comment you manage to re-phrase some of the central ideas in a pretty neat way =)

When reading those scientific studies about biases, I felt that there is something little off with their focus on "sources of error in our reasoning." Historically speaking, I understand it, as especially in our western tradition there was this strong assumption that human soul is entirely rational - and then the scientist have been surprised to find how often we actually fail with rational reasoning, and that it happens also for highly educated people. So they had to find out why is that. Hence the focus on "errors".

But to me it seems that those pre-cognitive heuristics are essential for us to function in this world. They are neither "bad" nor "good", they are just natural and necessary tools of survival. Otherwise the mere amount on sensory data in any given moment would just paralyze us, as the rational apparatus is not effective enough to process all the data that quickly. In order to make some sense of the stream of sensory data, in order to navigate the world and in order to take sensible action, we just need those heuristical processes running inside our minds.

No problem with that. So the question is to be aware of that. And to accept the fact that we are running on heuristically produced estimations, interpretations and guesses about the world. Once we accept that, there isn't that much reason to get so furious about other people having different kind of guesses and interpretations. Of course here the trap might be falling into endless relativism. But I think it is the world which keeps us going - if we see our biased guesses and interpretations as tools of navigating the world, then we can actually have a meaningful discussion with other people who have slightly different tools. Instead of fighting who is right and who is wrong, we can just discuss and share experiences, to learn how others use their tools, and maybe to adopt some new stuff for ourselves, or to invent some new modifications for our existing tools.

Then, the problem is that you can't have that kind of neutral and friendly discussion with other tribes, if they are somewhat fundamental about them being right and others being bad and delusional. That kind of tribal mentality leads to the kind of orwellian world, yes. So, they way I see it, the solution need not be abandoning all of the tribal identification. But maybe to find a more relaxed attitude towards ones own tribal identity, and the heuristical tools and moral intuitions associated with it.

Hi Erkka! I just wanted to wish you a merry christmas or a happy solstice or whatever is appropriate for your particular socio-cultural paradigm. :D I have had great fun this past year following your blog and discussing things here, and I wish you all the best in the coming year. :D

Ah, thanks! All of my warmest wishes for you, too. And for everybody out there reading my blog. In so many ways we are all contribute to the atmosphere and the content of this blog. For example, if there were a lot of angry comments launching outright insults all the time, it certainly would affect how it feels to read the blog, it would discourage people from commenting and sharing their own experiences and thoughts. So, I'm very happy that we aren't in that kind of situation. You are all great, thank you!

For the celebrations of this time of the year, it is the solstice for me. Today the sunrise was at 9:47 and the sun will set at 14:57. From now on days will be getting longer and longer.

Right on, man. I am looking forward to the longer days, too. I sleep so much at this time of year, and it seems like I never get anything done! Lol.

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