Evolutionary Psychology

Science Fact: Red States Treat Blue States Like Foreigners

I just finished reading Douglas Kenrick’s Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life, and I began to think about what evolutionary psychology would say about the current state of American democracy. Regular readers know that I dearly love me some evolutionary psychology. Regular readers also know that I strongly believe that a good diagnosis leads to good treatment, which, in turn, leads to a good outcome. Kendrick agrees stating, the evolutionary perspective can help us understand why humans are so universally inclined to feel prejudice toward members of other groups, but it can also help us understand the factors that make the strength of those inclination go up and down. So, if we can understand the causes of our divisions, then our attempts at bridging our divide might be more effective.

Evolutionary psychology  is the study of behaviors and mental processes as they were passed down through generations because of their ability to allow for successful reproduction. Not all thoughts and behaviors are created equally. Those of us who pondered the identity of the rushing tawny blur probably died. Those of us who responded quickly to it, may have lived. Thus, we have a flight or fight response to things that surprise us. And our relief at finding out that the surprising thing was harmless causes us to laugh. There are many many more such responses that helped us survive as a species. As Kendrick’s put it, evolutionary psychology is inherently concerned with discovering the varying environmental cues that turn adaptive mechanisms on and off.

Red State Blue State

RedStateWelfareWe hear a lot about the Red State-Blue State divide in America. We are told that the country is increasingly divided between the coastal big-city leftest elites and the rural mid-section conservative somethings? What do we call those people that is only as mildly derogatory as elites? I don’t know. We are also told that many red state people are moving from blue states to red states to be with their own kind and vice versa. So that many people live in communities in which everyone is conservative or everyone is liberal.

Liberals tend to support a more robust social safety net including healthcare as a right and access to safe legal abortions while conservatives do not. Liberals tend to want to expand Constitutional rights to other identifiable groups such as the LGBT+ community and conservatives do not.

That these divides exist does not need to be proven here. A Vox article from 2014 might could suffice for any who need further clarification. Vox, The Single Most Important Fact about American Politics.

Evolutionary psychology has some ideas about the behaviors and mental processes that hold groups together, and my concern is that we are violating those time-tested principles that have held cultures and societies together. If we understand these principles and apply them to our current political divide, we will have some insight into our current situation and, hopefully, some ideas on how to rectify it.

Friends, Relatives, & Strangers

One thing Kendrick and other evolutionary psychology researchers have determined is that our brains use different systems when dealing with relatives, friends, and strangers.

Intrinsic Fitness is the tendency of people to help their relatives. The closer the relative, the greater the chance that we will help them. It’s the old, blood is thicker than water thing. We do this because it would help further our genes. No one thinks, I’ll help my sister because she shares half of my genes, and, while they aren’t all my genes, they’ll help some of my genes make to another generation, because all of these choices take place outside of our consciousness. A clever study demonstrated this tendency by morphing a stranger’s and the participant’s faces together so that the resulting image had a familial resemblance to the participant. People then favored those faux-relatives.

Reciprocal altruism is the tendency for non-related people to help one another if each is contributing to the well-being of the other more or less equally. In other words, we pool our risk (kinda like insurance, amirite?) and provide mutual support. The evolution imperative is to ensure that your genes make it into the next generation; even though, this imperative exists outside of our conscious awareness: no one thinks, I want to get with THAT because it will give me one more chance of sending these genes to the next generation! 

Prejudice is the tendency to react to outgroups with hostility and suspicion. Studies reveal that strange men are almost always thought of as threatening. This is because you can’t be certain of what he’ll do. Women aren’t treated with immediate hostility and suspicion. Indeed, they rarely commit violence (about 10% of murders are committed by women), and they might be a potential mate. But, strange men could be a potential rapist or about to bonk you over the head and steal resources from you or try to get you to eat weird food or something.

Outgroup homogeneity is that annoying tendency to find people from other ethnic and racial groups look the same. This may be due to not being accustomed to seeing them. You need to distinguish members of your group, but not so much other groups, so you don’t invest the mental resources necessary to distinguish them. Interestingly, this tendency to mix up members of outgroups vanishes when one of them is an angry man! You tend to remember the stranger who looks angry; he might be about to offer you weird food!

As human beings, we work best in groups. This has been shown in a wide variety of fields from business to education to sociology to economics. The benefits to hunter-gathers is intuitive and clear. If everyone in the group pools their resources, food, shelter, clothing, effort, child-rearing, then all have a better chance of getting through their life alive.

The American Ingroup

Ostensibly, all Americans belong to a one big ingroup. We are all Americans. We should prefer to help other all Americans over non-American strangers even though most Americans are strangers. Indeed, we do help each other by pooling our resources and risk.

We pool our risk and support each other through state and federal governments. Both state and federal governments provide social support for needy citizens. We all pay our taxes to contribute to this common weal. While we’ve often disagreed on how much aid is given, it is commonly agreed that we there are times when our fellow citizens deserve support. So, the idea of reciprocal altruism suggests that we would gladly pay into such a support fund because if it ever becomes our turn, we would be able to draw from it. But, alas and alack, that is not what is happening.

Blue states contribute more to the federal government by and large, and red states take more from the federal government. However, the people living in the red states do not seem to feel obligated to support the less fortunate of our country. In part, this may be due to the role of the federal government obscuring the transfer, but there are other reasons that evolutionary psychology points us towards. Other very troubling reasons.

Red State “Facts”

Indeed, many red state residents feel that the blue states consist of takers who are milking their tax dollars equating such uneven taxing and spending with theft. Arlie Hochschild in her informative Strangers in their Own Land: Anger & Mourning on the American Right lists several non-factual beliefs of the conservative Christian voter. I’ll list some here:

Welfare is a major expenditure by the government. More people are on welfare. Welfare is for the jobless. Once you’re on welfare, you’re dependent on it for income. All poor people get government help. Black women have more children than white women. None of these are true. NONE.

  • Eight percent of the 2014 federal budget was spent on income-tested benefits.
  • Since 1996, most federal income-tested benefits have been time limited causing a 20% decrease in the families receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Due to the Great Recession, the number of people receiving food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)) increased between 2008 and 2013 when the economy had recovered sufficiently to allow them to begin decreasing again. It should be noted that this is how the program was intended to work.
  • In 2013 51% of Medicaid recipients were children and five percent were over age 65.
  • Corporate welfare – companies that pay so little that even full-time employees qualify for means-tested welfare benefit – consisted of 36% of food stamp recipients and 32% of TANF families were employed. Those numbers break down by sector as 52% of fast food workers, 46% of childcare workers, and 48% of homecare workers.
  • When these results are reported like this, For the poorest 20% of American, only 37% of their total income in 2011 came from the government; the rest was payment for work, it is understandable why people don’t always get it. One-third of the income of the poorest Americans was in the form of welfare. Two-thirds of their income was earned.
  • Not all states distribute their federal welfare dollars equally. Vermont has 78 out of 100 qualifying people receiving some form of government means-tested assistance while Louisiana has four out of 100. FOUR. Tell me again why Repubes dominate Louisiana government? Cancer alley and 4% of eligible people receiving government assistance. Why should we trust states to distribute federal dollars equitably? It is fucking criminal. CRIMINAL.

Reciprocal altruism is the glue that keeps groups of people working together to accomplish all that we have accomplished as a species. Reciprocal altruism means that I have confidence that if I give you part of what I have now, you’ll give me what I need in my times of need. It is based on trust. Essentially, we are violating that trust now. We are disputing whether other Americans legitimately need help. We are accusing other Americans of laziness, shiftlessness, dependency, and seeking handouts over work. We should be treating other Americans as if they are friends, but instead, we are treating them as if they are strangers.

Foreigners and Strangers

Fear is one of the most powerful human emotions and influences how we react to strangers. When people are fearful, they tend to interpret photographs of emotionally neutral people as angry, but only black men and Arab men and women!  Only by participants who had negative attitudes towards Arabs projected anger their emotionally-neutral faces. Everyone saw black men as angry.

The participants in these studies are mostly white college students, and surveys suggest that they viewed black men and Arabs as physical threats as do many Americans white, black, Hispanic, Asian, or any other ethnic group. In many ways, black men have gotten the rawest of deals in our society.

This tendency for white college students to fear black men extends to the biological as well. When white participants were shown pictures of black men while lying in an fMRI machine, their amygdala showed high levels of activity. The amygdala is the area of the brain that handles emotional reactions. Interestingly, they only reacted fearfully to pictures of strange black men, but not to black celebrities, except for Bill Cosby, of course (I’m making that part up).

Disgust and Disease are what most people associate with all things foreign. This is true across cultures and time. Even the Romans equated foreigners with trash. I don’t know why anyone would be surprised by that, though, they were Romans after all. Being disgusted by foreigners and associating them with disease may have been functional once upon a time when exposure to unknown people might have brought diseases like the plague and smallpox and the flu and them wanting to eat weird food. There is some flexibility in this reaction since we needed to trade with foreigners and take brides from foreign groups to mix up our genes not because exoticness is hot or anything.

Canadian students who participated in a study assessing the reaction of germophobes to foreigners reflected that those who were more fearful of disease were more xenophobic toward unfamiliar groups than they were towards more familiar groups like Europeans or Asians. Those are the clean good foreigners, not like the blacks and browns.

How do most conservatives view liberals? As Arlie Hochschild tells us, they view liberals with suspicion and distrust. They feel like they’ve followed the rules and were waiting in line for their turn at the American dream when a bunch of liberals grab folks from the back of the line (blacks and Mexicans) and foreigners who weren’t even in line (immigrants and Muslims and other strange brown folks) and try and put them in line AHEAD of them! And, it is not even fair.

Evolutionary psychology suggests that conservatives are treating liberal Americans like foreigners with disgust and fear. Those are the emotional reactions that inhibit reciprocal altruism and trigger prejudice and hostility. If this is the case, if Americans are now treating each other as we would potential enemies, it does not bode well for us to begin working together again to solve the problems we face.

It also suggests that they are much more likely to accept a friend of a friend, Russia, rather than the friend of their enemy, Obama’s intelligence agencies. The trend goes further still. They increasingly distrust the US government witness the Ted Bundy and wilderness madness. Christ, they couldn’t even be convicted of ANYTHING!

In these challenging times, when our cynical and craven politicians are pitting us against each other, we are truly at risk of becoming two separate countries within a country. And, if we let that happen, we truly are the United Fucking States of Fucking Stupid.


23 replies »

  1. I also just saw this article which brought back a flood of memories. I was 12 when I saw Ruby Bridges on the news and was so outraged at the bigotry towards this little girl and motivated by her extreme bravery as she walked courageously past a sea of white bigots shouting at her. Even at age 12 I knew I had to become an activist for equality. I had to fight for change., and I have never stopped fighting. Sadly, America has not changed as much as I had hoped…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Suze!

      Now that I’m feeling much better, I think I can give you a more satisfactory reply. It’s always gratifying to have a someone repost a post. Thank you, again. I thought I had reposted the narcissism abuse survivor article you had reposted, but, apparently, I didn’t. I’ll try it again when I have a moment. It is funny how your brain can get addled and you think you’ve done something when you haven’t.

      The times make political activists out of all of us, whether we want to be or not.



    • Howdy Suze!

      Thank you for the pingback! I did something with your other article about narcissistic abuse survivors being better prepared to resist. I have a cold and am a little fuzzy about what I’ve done and thought about doing and stuff.

      We’re out of cottage country and back to god’s own country, the kind with internet connections. I’ll write again tomorrow when I’m more coherent and have more energy.



  2. How interesting. I really appreciate this post as it clarifies things for me. I have always been baffled by people who are bigoted and have never understood why the red states, who tend to take more from the government, consistently vote against their own interests. But, this does help clarify things and makes it a bit easier to understanding why conservatives think as they do. It is still baffling to me, but this helped. As a Jewish girl who grew up in the suburbs of Ohio, I knew prejudice existed, I knew that welfare existed, but in my family’s circle of friends it was considered something that NO decent person would ever do. You didn’t talk badly about others and any job was better than taking from the government. Hard work, helping one’s family and friends, was instilled in me since childhood, and was also part of the teaching of my faith. (Doing a mitzvah or good deed every day, was how I was raised.) That being said, I WAS aware, that even in the north, while my schools were integrated, our housing communities were not. I can’t say I thought about it much as a child, because I had friends of color at school and many little girls of color were in my Brownie troupe, so I didn’t see real racism until my family moved to Florida in 1960. It was there that I was literally smacked in the face with “No colored allowed” signs everywhere and discovered that there were hotels in Miami that did not allow Jews. So at 12, when my family and I moved to the south and sat down at a Jewish Deli in 1960 everything changed. A black woman dressed in a maid’s uniform sauntered into Wolfie’s to order something at the counter. Every person turned their heads and the owner rushed out, whispered something and the woman smiled and then went to wait outside. My parents had to quiet me down because at 12 I was outraged and spoke up at how unfair this was. It was like a scene from the movie, “The Help.” I remember holding back crying saying how tired the woman looked and all she wanted was to eat something. My father told me to keep my voice down and he would explain it later to me. A few minutes later,the owner walked outside with two bags of food and returned into the restaurant. He did not refuse to sell her food. I realize now that he just was scared to let her eat it inside or wait amongst the white patrons. That was my introduction to South Florida. My parents and I had a strong discussion on the way back to our hotel, in which my older brother (who grew up to become an attorney graduating from Columbia law school, and for the much of his career helped the less fortunate), said nothing but took it all in. I on the other hand, who was the rebel of the family, and protested throughout the 60’s and 70’s and even NOW continue my protests with the resistance against the current administration, fought with my parents about what was right and what was wrong. They tried to explain to me that of course I was right, but businesses needed to survive the best way they could and sometimes had to make decisions like the owner of the restaurant did. He did not want to turn the woman away. But he also did not want to lose his clientele. THAT was South Florida in 1960. I thought we had come so far, since South Florida became the “north” of my state always voting blue. It is so interesting how people in one state can think so very differently.

    My youngest son moved to Atlanta last year to work in the film industry. He bought a home in an up coming neighborhood that was not the wealthy suburbs, but filled with every ethnic background you could think of.. He refers to his neighbors on either side as the “Cowboys and the Indians.” A family of old rednecks live on the left and a lovely educated family of color are on his right. And he is in the middle. My son, a 28 year old young man with a Jewish mother and a father who was Portuguese-Irish.. (Actually when my son did his DNA with me we discovered on his father’s side his grandfather came from the azores and they were conversos. (Jews that had to covert during the inquisition). So rather than being 50% Jewish he was 75 percent Jewish. (DNA is very cool.) Anyhow, he said that before he put up his menorah his first December in his new home, he wanted his neighbors to get to know him first. It WAS the south after all and he did not want his new home burnt to the ground. So he held a super bowl party and invited his film friends, his neighbors, and regular friends, and unbelievably he said everyone got along. There were rednecks laughing and chatting with gay make-up artists and costumers, and liberal actors talking to conservative car mechanics who were supposedly so called southern rednecks. Everybody got along. So his take was, if people just get to know each other they become less afraid and find their similarities. The little old souther lady next store now brings him home cooked meals and he goes over and fixes her electronics and even set her up with cable TV and internet. Unlikely friendships are made when people give each other a chance. To bad “We The People” have gotten so vast that we can’t have neighborhood parties anymore and get to know and understand one another again. Great post. I am going to send to my son.


    • Howdy Lesley!

      I sometimes am amazed by our similarities. I had an uncle who told me that if a black person ever stepped foot inside his church, he’d never go back. Even if they were just asking for directions? I asked him incredulously. Even then. Even one foot. They were from very rural Tennessee Appalachia. I remember objecting to singing Onward Christian Soldiers during Sunday school because I didn’t think Christians should be soldiers. The Sunday school teacher and all the students were shocked. Not to mention my mother afterwards.

      People usually do fine together. Arlie Hochschild who wrote the book, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” got to be close friends with many of the people she got to know during her research in Southern Louisiana. I’ve always had conservative friends being from a military family and growing up on military bases and in neighborhoods around military bases. One of the problems is that people are self-segregating based on their political views. Liberals are moving to liberal areas of the country and conservatives to conservative areas, which, of course, means that we rely more on stereotypes to imagine the other side.

      Oh! I just realized that the fear and disgust reaction to things “foreign” helps explain the vitriol and rudeness of our political discourse — how could I not have realized that sooner? I may have to update that post or write a new one!

      You’re becoming my muse, I’m afraid. Thanks, Lesley!


      Liked by 1 person

      • I am delighted to be your muse! You inspire me as well. I wrote a long response and then hit the wrong key and it erased, so unfortunately I can’t recreate my first response…. and that is always the best… but basically I said I would have loved to have had you as a student. I gravitated toward the out of the box thinkers… the ones other teachers called trouble makers were my favorites. The students who asked question after question, who saw beyond the topic and initiated discussions etc. I would have enjoyed your bright young mind in my classroom. I think perhaps, even though we are generations apart, we both are thinkers and people who seek the truth, or at least answers to our questions. We don’t follow rules that make no sense or are unjust. The consequences never seem to matter if we make our point or enlighten someone along the way. I am still not understood by most people…. I know my mother thought I would grow out of being the odd thinker…. but it is who I am. Perhaps we are the modern day philosophers, .. we seek to understand, to express our thoughts, and promote change. If we inspire one another then maybe, just maybe we can each read a few souls and open a few minds…. And yes, fear is certainly what promotes discourse…. but it can also create discussion and hopefully that can ease the fear…. we MUST keep trying….. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Lesley!

          I don’t think we’re generations apart. I make it to be no more than ten or so years! That said I would’ve loved to have been your student or colleague. My teachers rarely ever got me… a couple were amused by me, but no one really got it. It’s funny, I never thought I’d end up teaching high school. I got a job just out of social work school doing groups therapy with grief survivors through an social services agency. They got a contract to hold groups on school grounds, and, I swear, walking onto those campus was really hard. I hadn’t been back to a public school since I graduated. I loved working with the kids, but hated the settings. Now, I teach high school! I think I’ve made my peace with it and now can reach for the next generations.

          One of the things that makes mental health counseling work is that feeling of being understood and accepted. We should never discount how important that is to human beings, but we rarely ever recognize it as a human need. We have to keep trying to understand each other which means talking to each other. I sometimes think my editorial style might put people from the other side off and, in that sense, be counter productive. I sometimes think I should tone it down a bit in order to help foster that discussion, but, on the other hand, I’m pissed off, and I’m writing what I think needs to get said! Writing these articles is a great catharsis for me.



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