Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Very Ancient History of Outgroup vs. Ingroup

According to this very technical biological article, the appearance of people from our own ingroup (tribe, political party, what have you) triggers certain hormonal responses, while the appearance of outsiders triggers other hormonal responses, and these responses are so ancient that we share them with all other vertebrates, including primitive fish:
The challenges and threats posed by out-groups have major effects on human social behavior and how individuals interact with one another. We briefly review evidence here that out-group threat similarly affects nonhuman animal behavior. Actual and potential threats posed by out-group individuals (unfamiliar and genetically nonrelated individuals of the same species) affect social behavior promoting “out-group” avoidance and “in-group” bias and enhancing in-group (familiar and/or genetically related individuals) affiliation and interactions. Individuals from out-groups present risks of pathogen exposure as well as being threats to resources, territory, and offspring. All of these threats function to promote in-group bias in humans and nonhumans. There are also striking similarities in the underlying neurobiological mechanisms mediating the responses to out-group threat and the expression of in-group bias. In particular, the evolutionarily conserved, hormone-regulated nonapeptide systems (oxytocin, arginine-vasopressin, and homologous neuropeptides and their receptors) are involved in the mediation of the detection and avoidance of out-groups and response to in-groups and facilitation of in-group responses across multiple vertebrate species. Consequently, comparative investigations of both the behavioral expression of and the mechanism underlying out-group avoidance and in-group bias are necessary for a full understanding of the evolution of social behavior and responses to in- and out-groups.
So much for eliminating nationalism.

Via Scott Alexander.


G. Verloren said...


"So much for eliminating nationalism."

The trick is to exploit our instincts to our benefit, rather than let them control us.

Yes, we have certain hormone responses based on whether we view people as "Us" or "Them", "Ego" or "Other". But those hormone responses are based entirely on our psychological connections - not genetics.

Consider, for a simple example, adoption. Barring other factors, adopted children and their adoptive parents don't view each other as part of an "outgroup", even when they share wildly different genetics. They love each other. They are a family. Their instinctual drive to include each other in the "ingroup" (based on the nature of their mutually beneficial relationship) vastly outweighs any instinctual drive otherwise.

The trick is getting people to have as big of an "ingroup" as possible, and as small of an "outgroup" as possible. And that's entirely achieveable through psychology and culture.

Look at domesticated animals. They view humans as part of their "ingroup". Yes, some of that is genetic predisposition through breeding, but much of it is behavioral and experiential learning - id est, culture.

Take the tamest, most domesticated animal you can think of and put it in an abusive, stressful environment where it begins to psychologically associate humans with suffering, and voila - you've changed humans from "ingroup" to "outgroup" for that animal. A beaten dog flinches away from even the gentlest touch, it grows paranoid and neurotic, it begins to bite and become violent, and it becomes unable to trust others. Its "ingroup" has been reduced to include only itself - everything else is a potential threat, and must therefor be treated as "outgroup" to protect the miserable animal from further pain.

Humans are no different. Nationalism is the product of cultural indoctrination and individual suffering leading people to seek scapegoats for their discontent. Happy, well adjusted people don't hate other people. People only come to hate others by being harmed or by being taught.

G. Verloren said...


Thus, there are three kinds of bigots.

The first kind is The Naively Intolerant - people whose upbringings instill in them certain biases against others, but who are otherwise happy and reasonable people, and who therefor will reconsider said biases when eventually confronted with conflicting data.

These are the casual bigots - the sort of people who grow up hearing their intolerant uncle or grandfather rant about some minority group and not knowing any better than to accept it as truth, but who eventually actually meet and get to know people from their cultural "outgroup", at which point they realize "Huh. These people are ultimately the same as anyone else. Uncle Bob was full of shit."

The second kind is The Conspiratorially Miserable - people who aren't actively raised to hate others, but who lead miserable lives and who can't understand why they're so unhappy, and thus are driven to find someone or something to blame. Humans hate not being able to explain why they are unhappy - it's far easier to cope with pain and suffering if you can point to a supposed cause and condemn it.

Thus why this sort of bigotry is so insidious - trying to convince people that their biases are wrong is much, much harder when they're psychologically invested in NOT being proven wrong. If someone thinks the Jews are out to get them, and you can prove to them that they're completely wrong, you've suddenly deprived them of a major source of psychological certainty and security that they were probably relying on to cope with their unhappiness. You've effectively pulled the rug out from under their feet, and now they're unhappy AND massively uncertain as to why, and that makes them even MORE miserable.

It's a lot easier for them emotionally to just ignore or discount your arguments, fall prey to confirmation bias and other fallacies, and generally resist admitting they're wrong for as long as possible, to avoid becoming even more personally vulnerable and scared than they already are.

And the third kind is The Double Whammy. These are people who not only are miserable and seeking someone to blame in order to cope with their unhappiness, but who have ALSO already been primed through their entire lives to ignorantly believe the worst about another group, which of course makes them the natural choice of scapegoat.

These are, unsurprisingly, the most difficult to deprive of their delusions. Their upbringing lays the foundations for bias, but their misery cements it into place. These bigots only ever admit that they are wrong if they undergo massive psychological rebuilding - either unexpectedly finding lasting happiness, or suffering a psychological break.

Either they no longer need to blame others and regress to being merely The Naively Intolerant (which can be cured through exposure to the other), or they are faced with such overwhelmingly contradictory evidence against their position that they are forced to abandon it entirely (having a rare life changing "conversion" experience of some sort) and then receiving outside help to identify, confront, and ultimately accept the ACTUAL cause of their unhappiness, rather than just pick a new scapegoat to blame as they would be naturally inclined to do.

Anonymous said...


So much also for the theory that everything is just discourse. Yay!