Saturday, May 28, 2022

The science behind ‘us vs. them’ | Dan Shapiro, Robert Sapolsky & more | Big Think

Our brain evolved to take what is meaninglessto make it meaningful. Everything you do right now is grounded inyour assumptions. Not sometimes, but all the time. We are kind of hardwired to figure out theintentions of other people. We turn the world into us's and thems. And we don't like the thems very much andare often really awful to them. That's the challenge of our tribalistic worldthat we're in right now. ROBERT SAPOLSKY: When you look at some ofthe most appalling realms of our behavior, much of it has to do with the fact that socialorganisms are really, really hardwired to .

Make a basic dichotomy about the social world,which is those organisms who count as us's and those who count as thems. And this is virtually universal among humans. And this is virtually universal among allsorts of social primates that have aspects of social structures built around separatesocial groupings, us's and thems. We turn the world into us's and thems andwe don't like the thems very much and are often really awful to them. And the us's, we exaggerate how wonderfuland how generous and how affiliative and how just like siblings they are to us. .

We divide the world into us and them. And one of the greatest ways of seeing justbiologically how real this fault line is is there's this hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is officially the coolest, grooviesthormone on Earth because what everybody knows is it enhances mother infant bonding, andit enhances pair bonding in couples. And it makes you more trusting and empathicand emotionally expressive and better at reading expressions, more charitable. And it's obvious that if you just spritz theoxytocin up everyone's noses on this planet, it would be the Garden of Eden the next day. .

Oxytocin promotes prosocial behavior, untilpeople look closely. And it turns out, oxytocin does all thosewondrous things only for people who you think of as an us, as an in-group member. It improves in-group favoritism, in-groupparochialism. What does it do to individuals who you considera them? It makes you crappier to them. More preemptively, aggressive, less cooperativein an economic game. What oxytocin does is enhance this us andthem divide. So that along with other findings, the classiclines of us versus them along the lines of .

Race, of sex, of age, of socioeconomic class,your brain processes these us-them differences on a scale of milliseconds. A 20th of a second, your brain is alreadyresponding differently to an us versus them. So fabulous studies showing this, this double-edgedquality to oxytocin. and this was a study done by a group in the Netherlands. And what they did was they took Dutch Universitystudent volunteers and they gave them classic philosophy problem, the runaway trolley problem,is it okay to sacrifice one person to save five? Runaway trolley. .

Can you push this big beefy guy onto the trackwho gets squashed by the trolley but that slows it down so that five people tied tothe track… Standard problem in philosophy, utilitarianism,ends justifies means. All of that. So you give people the scenario and peoplehave varying opinions. And now you give them the scenario where theperson you push onto the track has a name. And either it's a standard name from Netherlands,Dirk. I think he was a Pieter, which, this is likea meat and potatoes Netherlandish name or a name from either of two groups that evokelots of xenophobic hostility among people .

From the Netherlands. Someone with a typically German name. Oh yeah, World War II, that's right. That was a problem. Or someone with a typically Muslim name. So now they're choosing whether to save fiveby pushing Dirk onto the track or Otto or Mahmoud. And in general, give them those names andthere's no difference in how people would rate it than if they were anonymous. .

Give people oxytocin, where they don't knowthat they've gotten it. Control group has just placebo spritz up theirnose. Give people oxytocin and kumbaya, you arefar less likely to push Dirk onto the track. And you are now far more likely to push goodold Otto or good old Mahmoud onto the rails there. And you are more likely to sacrifice an out-groupmember to save five. And you are less likely to sacrifice an in-groupmember. All you've done there is exaggerate the us-themdivide with that. ALEXANDER TODOROV: There are many, many differentinputs to impressions. .

One is emotional expressions. There's stereotypes about gender. There's cues about age and facial maturity. All of this go into our impressions. Another one that is very interesting is typicality. So as it turn out, we tend to like faces thatare typical. That means faces that are closer to what weperceive as typical in our social environment. Now, there's an interesting wrinkle becausetypicality is also culturally specific, especially if the different cultures are linked to differentethnicities and there's distinctive physionomies. .

And that makes it worse. We've done a study where we created morphsof a typical Japanese face and a typical Israeli face. And then we can interpolate the morphs, sowe can imagine like a typical Japanese face gradually turning into a typical Israeli face. Now, if you ask Israeli and Japanese participantsto evaluate the faces, what happens is that as the face becomes more Israeli looking,the Israelis believe that the face is becoming more trustworthy. And the other way around for the Japanese. .

So in a sense to a large extent, what we perceiveas typical is shaped by our natural environment. And it's something that we very rapidly extract. We are incredibly good learners about faces. And most likely, people who live in New Yorkcity, with a hugely diverse face, will have a different notion of typicality if you livein a small rural town where there's not so much diversity. In this case, this can lead to different kindsof sub-optimal outcomes because naturally we wouldn't trust people that do not looklike us not having any other information. DAN SHAPIRO: Once you attach to a tribe, somethingstrange happens. .

No longer is content as important. The substance of the arguments, the policies. That is important. But at the end of the day, the most importantelement in terms of being a part of a tribe is loyalty. Loyalty to the tribe. And the most serious offense that you cancommit against your own tribe is to betray that tribe's trust, its loyalty, its essence. It's to go against the tribe in some way. .

You look at the United States right now, thereare these huge political divides. You see the democratic tribe or tribes. You see the Republican tribes as well. And it's very difficult for either side toeven say, “I understand what you're saying.” Because some on the inside of each side aregonna say, “Nope, they're betraying our tribe.” And betraying a tribe, that's a taboo. If I break a taboo, I can suffer social punishment. I'm gonna be ex-communicated. I'm gonna be ridiculed or worse. .

But that's the challenge of our tribalisticworld that we're in right now. AMY CHUA: We don't wanna get to the pointwhere we look at people on the other side and we see them not just as people that wedisagree with, but literally as our enemy. Western democracies at their best or justany democracies are when people have cross-cutting group identities. So it's like, “Okay, I'm a Democrat or I'ma Republican, but I'm also Asian American or African-American or straight or gay, wealthyor not wealthy. I like Dickens. I like Jane Eyre.” .

Just different ways of dividing yourself sothat you don't get entrenched in just two terrible tribes. It's sort of like if I'm talking about sports,I'm with you, but if I'm talking about food preferences, I'm with you and you could havedifferent groups that neutralize each other. SAPOLSKY: Collectively, this is depressingas hell. Oh my God, we are hardwired to inevitablybe awful to thems and thems along all sorts of disturbing lines of, “Oh, if only we couldovercome these us and them dichotomies. Oh no, why are we hardwired”to divide theworld along the lines of race and ethnicity and nationality and all of those disturbingthings?” .

And what becomes clear is when you look closelyis it is virtually inevitable that we divide the world into us's and thems and don't likethems very much and don't treat them well. But we are incredibly easily manipulated asto who counts as an us and who counts as a them. And those fault lines that we view as, “Ohmy God, how ancient can you get,” that say somebody of another race evokes limbic responsesin us, commensurate with they are a them. They motivate automatic responses. “Oh my God, “s that just the basic fault line?” And then you do something like have facesof same race versus other race. .

And either they are or aren't wearing a baseballcap with your favorite team's logo on it. And you completely redefine who's an us. Us is people who like the Yankees and themare Red Sox fans. And suddenly, you're processing within millisecondswhat damn baseball cap they have and race is being completely ignored. “Oh my God, we are inevitably hardwired tomake really distressing us-them.” We're manipulated within seconds as to whocounts as an us, as a them. Good news with that, we can manipulate usout of some of our worst us-them dichotomies and re-categorize people. .

Bad news, we could be manipulated by all sortsof ideologues out there as to deciding that people who seem just like us really aren'tand they're really so different that they count as a them. BEAU LOTTO: Well, your brain evolved to evolveis adapted to adapt. So a deep question is how is it possible toever see differently if everything you see is a reflex grounded in your history of assumptions? Our assumptions and the process of visionis both our constraint and our savior at the same time. Because our brain evolved to take what ismeaningless and make it meaningful. .

If you're not sure that was a predator, itwas too late. So your brain evolved to take this meaninglessdata and make meaning from it. And that's the process of creating perception. And then we hold on to those assumptions. They create attractor states in your brain. And they become very stable. So how could we see differently? It’s by engaging the process of creatingperception. Well, the first step in that is to not justadmit, but embody the fact that everything .

You do right now is grounded in your assumptions. Not sometimes, but all the time. Because if you don't accept that, then you'llnever create the possibility of seeing differently. So much of deviate, if people walk away withanything, it's knowing the process of perception, in some sense, I want them to know less atthe end than they think they know now. Because nothing interesting begins with knowing,it begins with not knowing. Because the next step is to then identifyyour assumptions. Because most of everything that we do, wedon't know why we do what we do. And then the final step is to question thoseassumptions. .

But questioning assumptions is incrediblydifficult. Because to question assumptions, to doubtwhat you assume to be true already, especially if that assumption defines who you are, isto do the one thing that our brain evolved to avoid, which is uncertainty. TODOROV: The reason why we will never be ableto get rid of first impressions is because they serve important psychological functions. That is in the absence of any other information,we are trying the best we could to figure out what the other people are thinking. That doesn't mean that we wouldn't changeour minds. .

On the contrary, when you have a good diagnosticevidence about the person or when you know about past behavior, that would change yourinferences based on appearance. But most of the time, if you don't have anyother information, people will act on this. And that may not be in their best interest. Starting back with Cesare Lombroso, who wrotebooks like the “Criminal Man” and the “Criminal Woman,” and he claimed that he can identifythis inferior types based on their facial features. To Francis Galton, who invented the compositephotography. And in fact, all of the today's morphing methodsare based on this method of composite photography. .

And the first application of the method wasto identify the criminal type. So it has a very long history. I think a very reasonable argument could bethat we are kind of hardwired to figure out the intentions of other people, of the peoplearound us. Because what is the most important thing inour social life. It's other people. And in interactions with strangers, you'realways trying to figure out what are their intentions? Are they good? .

Are they bad? What are they going to do? Can they hurt me? Whether that's physical or in a non-physicalway. So these are the things that have always beena concern for us. But let's think in terms of evolutionary history. Well, for most of our evolutionary history,we basically lived in extended families, typically between five to eight individuals. All of these changes in the last 50,000, infact, even less, maybe in the last 20,000 .

Years, when you have large societies. If you imagine the human evolution compressedwithin 24 hours, we have been living with strangers, surrounded by strangers in thelast five minutes. So it's not obvious at all that we are kindof in doubt of reading the characters of other faces. I think there's very good evidence, there'sgood comparative evidence that in fact, we are very good at picking up on social cuesin the immediate situations. So if you look, for example, at comparativestudies, you look across all primates. It turns out that we are the only primatewhich has whites of the eyes. .

That is, our iris is dark. Then you have the white sclera. And then have a darker skin. There are no other primates with this kindsof coloration. So why is that interesting or important? Well, the fact that you have the white ofthe sclera makes it super easy to detect eye gaze. An eye gaze is very important for sharingsocial attention. We can communicate from a long distance. .

Similar emotional expressions are very important. The fact that we have kind of the naked apeand the fact that our faces are not completely covered by hair, makes it very easy to detectchanges in skin colorations, which is often an indication of different kinds of emotionalor mental states. So we are very sensitive to changes, momentarychanges in what we are observing. Because this momentary change is indicativeof what is important in the situation? What is happening right now? But it is hard to make the argument that somehowwe are in doubt also to read into the faces the character furthers. .

I think we have the natural propensity tryingto figure out what this other people are thinking or feeling right now. But that doesn't mean, and I think the problemwith physionomy and the modern version is this assumption that because you can makethis rapid influences, they're also informative.

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