December 18, 2013

Greg Kesich: Which side are you on? Our tribal past still dictates our views

The toughest issues make us examine our gut reactions and built-in biases.

Question No. 1: You are walking by a pond, and you see a little girl struggling in the water. Would you wade in and save her?

(Anyone who said “no” can stop reading now. This column isn’t for you.)

Question No. 2: You are walking by a pond, and you see a little girl struggling in the water. Would you wade in and save her even if you were wearing a $1,000 suit and $2,000 shoes?

(If you even have to think about it, join the people who said “no” on Question No. 1.)

For those still in the game: Question No. 3: How can you spend so much money on clothes? Three thousand dollars would save the life of a little girl who is starving on another continent. Does the fact that she is far away and out of sight change your sense of moral obligation?

For most of us, it seems to. We may not all spend extravagantly on clothes, but most of us spend money on something that we don’t need for survival instead of giving it to fight famine (or AIDS, or malaria, or political oppression). We make up our own plausible stories to tell ourselves why our decision is OK, and even those of us who would jump in the pond without a moment’s hesitation don’t have to work that hard to clear our consciences while we decide not to help someone in need.

Does that make us selfish?

Not exactly, according to Joshua Greene, a Harvard psychologist who has used brain scans and behavioral experiments to examine the hows and whys of moral decision-making.

Greene believes that we are built to care for each other – that cooperation was a key survival advantage for our team-player ancestors. Love, friendship, sympathy, gratitude and other emotional reactions lead us to put others’ interests ahead of our own. These are not learned behaviors – they come to us naturally.

But what also comes naturally, Greene says, is a tendency to organize ourselves in tribes. While our ancestors may have benefited from cooperating with the people in their own group (who helped them survive), they didn’t get the same benefit from helping other groups (with which they were in conflict for resources).

In his book “Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them,” Greene explains why almost all of us would jump in and save the girl in the pond, but most of us don’t have the same unstoppable urge to save children who are far away.

“First, we are tribalistic, unapologetically valuing ‘us’ over ‘them,’ ” he writes. “Second, different tribes cooperate on different terms. Some are more collectivist, some more individualist ... (Tribes differ) in the leaders, texts, institutions and practices they invest with moral authority. Finally, all of these differences lead to biased perceptions of what’s true and what’s fair.”

Tribalism is everywhere when you look for it.

Was that pass interference in the end zone? Do guns make us safer? Should the city sell that park to a developer? Chances are that those questions will provoke a gut reaction consistent with the established norms of people like yourself.

This may have worked well for our prehistoric ancestors (without history, it’s hard to say for sure), but it definitely creates challenges in a complex world where many tribes have to live together.

Former Maine U.S. Rep. Tom Allen described those kinds of challenges in his book “Dangerous Convictions: What’s Really Wrong With the U.S. Congress.”

Allen wrote that he and fellow liberals thought that conservative members of Congress must be lying when they said things like “tax cuts pay for themselves.” He later found that they sincerely believed what they had said, but the same conservatives thought that Democrats were just trying to buy votes when they talked about programs for the poor.

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