Anti-tribalism and positive mental health as high-value cause areas

by Kaj_Sotalakajsotala.fi2 min read2nd Aug 20185 comments


Effective AltruismTribalismWorld Optimization
Personal Blog

I think that tribalism is one of the biggest problems with humanity today, and that even small reductions of it could cause a massive boost to well-being.

By tribalism, I basically mean the phenomenon where arguments and actions are primarily evaluated based on who makes them and which group they seem to support, not anything else. E.g. if a group thinks that X is bad, then it’s often seen as outright immoral to make an argument which would imply that X isn’t quite as bad, or that some things which are classified as X would be more correctly classified as non-X instead. I don’t want to give any specific examples so as to not derail the discussion, but hopefully everyone can think of some; the article “Can Democracy Survive Tribalism” lists lot of them, picked from various sides of the political spectrum.

Joshua Greene (among others) makes the argument, in his book Moral Tribes, that tribalism exists for the purpose of coordinating aggression and alliances against other groups (so that you can kill them and take their stuff, basically). It specifically exists for the purpose of making you hurt others, as well as defend yourself against people who would hurt you. And while defending yourself against people who would hurt you is clearly good, attacking others is clearly not. And everything being viewed in tribal terms means that we can’t make much progress on things that actually matter: as someone commented, “people are fine with randomized controlled trials in policy, as long as the trials are on things that nobody cares about”.

Given how deep tribalism sits in the human psyche, it seems unlikely that we’ll be getting rid of it anytime soon. That said, there do seem to be a number of things that affect the amount of tribalism we have:

* As Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence in general has declined over historical time, replaced by more cooperation and an assumption of human rights; Democrats and Republicans may still hate each other, but they generally agree that they still shouldn’t be killing each other.
* As a purely anecdotal observation, I seem to get the feeling that people on the autism spectrum tend to be less tribal, up to the point of not being able to perceive tribes at all. (this suggests, somewhat oddly, that the world would actually be a better place if everyone was slightly autistic)
* Feelings of safety or threat seem to play a lot into feelings of tribalism: if you perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that a group Y is out to get you and that they are a real threat to you, then you will react much more aggressively to any claims that might be read as supporting Y. Conversely, if you feel safe and secure, then you are much less likely to feel the need to attack others.

The last point is especially troublesome, since it can give rise to self-fulfilling predictions. Say that Alice says something to Bob, and Bob misperceives this as an insult; Bob feels threatened so snaps at Alice, and now Alice feels threatened as well, so shouts back. The same kind of phenomenon seems to be going on a much larger scale: whenever someone perceives a threat, they are no longer willing to give someone the benefit of doubt, and would rather treat the other person as an enemy. (which isn’t too surprising, since it makes evolutionary sense: if someone is out to get you, then the cost of misclassifying them as a friend is much bigger than the cost of misclassifying a would-be friend as an enemy. you can always find new friends, but it only takes one person to get near you and hurt you really bad)

One implication might be that general mental health work, not only in the conventional sense of “healing disorders”, but also the positive psychology-style mental health work that actively seeks to make people happy rather than just fine, could be even more valuable for society than we’ve previously thought. Curing depression etc. would be enormously valuable even by itself, but if we could figure out how to make people generally happier and resilient to negative events, then fewer things would threaten their well-being and they would perceive fewer things as being threats, reducing tribalism.


5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:34 PM
New Comment

Sometimes tribalism leads to the loss of gains from trade, so reality will down-regulate it. At other times it leads to gains through coalitionally resource capture. When the latter is occurring, greater 'mental health', in a biological sense, will lead to increased tribalism. We can use 'mental health' as a euphemism for 'being autistic' but doing so won't change fitness gradients. If tribalism was actually unhealthy, it would be lost by evolution like any other complex adaptation.

If we want less tribalism, or simply more gains from trade, the thing to do is almost certainly to empower less tribal people to understand it better so as to better defend themselves from it via non-tribal patterns of affiliation, which is impossible by definition if you use tribalism as a synonym for coalitional politics. Can we do better?

Great that you're thinking about this issue! A few sketchy thoughts below:

I) As you say, autistic people seem to be more resilient with regards to tribalism. And autistic tendencies and following rationality communities arguably correlates as well. So intuitively, it seems that something like higher rationality and awareness of biases could be useful for reducing tribalism. Or is there another way of making people "more autistic"?

Given this and other observations (e.g., autistic people seem to have lower mental health, on average), it seems a bit hasty to focus on increasing general mental health as the most effective intervention for reducing tribalism.

II) Given our high uncertainty of what causes tribalism and how to most effectively reduce it, it seems that more research in this area could be one of the most effective cause areas.

I see at least two avenues for such research:

A) More "historical" and correlational research. First, we might want to operationalize 'tribalism' or identify some proxies for it (any ideas?). Then we could do some historical studies and find potential correlates. It would be interesting to study to what extent increasing economic inequality, the advent of social media, and other forces have historically correlated with the extent of tribalism.

B) Potentially more promising would be experimental psychological research aimed to identify causal factors and mediators of tribalism. For example, one could present subjects with various interventions and then see which intervention reduce (or increase!) tribalism. Potential interventions include i) changing people's mood (e.g., presenting them with happy videos), ii) increasing the engagement of controlled cognitive processes (system 2) (e.g. by priming them with the CRT), iii) or decreases the engagement of such processes (e.g. via cognitive load), iv) using de-biasing techniques, v) decreasing or increasing their sense of general security (by e.g. presenting them with threatening or scary images or scenarios). There are many more possible interventions.

C) Another method would be correlational psychological research. Roughly, one could give subjects a variety of personality tests and other psychological scales (e.g. Big Five, CRT, etc.) and examine what correlates with tribalistic tendencies.

D) Another idea would be to develop some sort of "tribalism scale" which could lay the groundwork for further psychological research.

Of course, first one should do a more thorough literature review on this topic. It seems likely that there already exists some good work in this area.


Even more sketchy thoughts:

III) Could it be that some forms of higher mental health actually increase tribalism? Tribalism also goes along with a feeling of belonging to a "good" group/tribe that fights against the bad tribe. Although at times frustrating this might contribute to a sense of certainty and "having a mission or purpose". Personally, I feel quite depressed and frustrated by not being able to wholeheartedly identify with any major political force because they currently all seem pretty irrational in many areas. Of course, higher mental health will probably reduce your need to belong to a group and thus might still reduce tribalism.

IV) Studies (there was another one which I can't find at the moment) seem to indicate that social media posts (e.g. on Twitter or Facebook) involving anger or outrage spread more easily than posts involving all other emotions like sadness, joy, etc. So maybe altering the architecture of Facebook or twitter would be particularly effective (e.g. tweaking the news feed algorithm such that posts with a lot of anger reactions get less traction). Of course, this is pretty unlikely to be implemented. It also has disadvantages in the case of justified outrage. Maybe encouraging people to create new social networking sites that somehow alleviate those problems would be useful but that seems pretty far-fetched.

Notice the implicitly Cartesian attitude, in your post, in the citations and in the comments: It's those OTHER people who are tribal, who feel threatened and unsafe. We ourselves are enlightened and absolutely know better, don't feel emotionally attached to fellow in-group members. don't evaluate arguments based on who made them, but only on their merits... While in reality the enemy is us.

One cynic's view: Tribalism is just an extension of (or maybe an evolved tactic in support of) individualism. The root cause is the fact that persons want things which conflict with other persons' wants. Combine this with your point III that most humans seek a sense of belonging, which is easier to find in shared conflict than otherwise.

I'm not sure I'm ready to push for reduction in individuality or distinctness of persons. I'm also not sure that reduction in tribalism and the desire for group-solidarity is possible without such a deep change in the definition of human.

It _may_ be feasible to keep the same level (or even increase) tribalism, but redirect it so that tribes are larger and more inclusive, and more importantly so that enemies are more abstract and less personal (not "my tribe vs other tribes" but "my tribes vs the un-feeling universe"). Uniting to eradicate hunger, or to build a better smartphone, or whatever, seems more likely to succeed than trying not to unite in the first place.

I think historically, most of the gain of increasing cooperation has occurred not by opposing tribalism, but rather by channeling it in broadly socially-useful directions. Democrats and Republicans might not kill each other, but that's not because they aren't "tribes" of some sort. Indeed, it's not clear how politics itself could even work absent some degree of 'tribalism' (which should rather be called factionalism, but never mind that) as a basic organizing principle.