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

(cross-posted from my 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.