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
We 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.