Primal Tar Pits
In-Group Bias and Tik Tok Tics
“All war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal.”
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but people are becoming more polarized…
OK, unless you decided to go off the grid decades ago, this is not news.
Join the Revolution
I worry that polarization is a topic millions of people simultaneously commit to discussing endlessly and actively not solving. Much research has been done about people who know that they should change but cannot succeed, but I find it far more depressing when someone knows that they should change and simply decides that they won’t.
One of the things we’ve learned in this newsletter is that when people are acting tribal, they are not acting “irrationally”; they are acting exactly as the human mind is designed. Sometimes, we don’t want to admit what that says about us, but perhaps it is comforting to know that, in the end, all of us are seeking the same things.
In Group Bias
The Israelites are not immune to polarization, and one of the things I find fascinating is how the Torah attempts to bind the tribes of Israel together, while also recognizing their distinctiveness, as exemplified in Parashat Tetzaveh’s description of the hoshen, the priestly breastplate that contained stones representing each of the twelve tribes that would be worn by the kohanim (priests). The fact that the Israelite priests must wear something that represents each of the tribes suggests that there is an inter-group tension between the tribes that the Torah wants to avoid.
If you read the Torah as a divine document, the tribes need to be united because of the competition engendered by the dysfunction of Yaakov’s sons; if you read the Torah as a human-made document, the tribes existed before the Israelite nation, and the Torah needs to explain how previously separate groups became a single entity (without offending any of them). Either way, the soap opera of the tribes of Israel is a perfect opportunity to zoom in on “in-group bias.”
William Sumner articulates what becomes known as “in-group bias” in his 1906 book Folkways. Sumner argues that “primitive” societies were largely organized around small groups, and in those small groups “a differentiation arises between ourselves, the we-group, or in-group, and everybody else…the others-group, [or] out-groups.”When the insiders interact, it is through “peace,” and when outsiders interact between groups, it is through “war and plunder.”
However, what’s key about in-group bias is that people tend to favor people in the same group as them even when membership is assigned randomly.Sociologist Muzafer Sherif ran a series of experiments in the 1950s called the “Robbers Cave Experiments,” where a group of boys came together at a summer camp to see how they would react when separated into artificial groups (spoiler: they reacted poorly). Here is a helpful video summary.
In essence, these studies demonstrate that people favor others in the same group because their in-group wants to get more resources than the other groups.
Does this idea sound utterly unrelated to your work with the Jewish community?
I won’t blame you if it does, but consider this…
I’ve never understood why certain debates in the Jewish community even need to be debated when the obvious answer is that both options are important. Does the Jewish Community need brick-and-mortar synagogues or should we invest in paradigm-changing spiritual communities? Should the Jewish Community focus on outreach to interfaith couples, or focus on expanding the active core? And so on…
The answer is that we should be able to fund all of these things; every Jewish organization is important to someone, and usually for a good reason. But ultimately, in a philanthropic world, choices must be made about resources. And thus, there is a temptation for organizations that want those resources to diminish the needs of other groups. Too often, we fall into that temptation…
We are more like our “primitive” ancestors than we want to believe.
I’m not sure how Amanda Ripley continuously finds incredible stories to write, but I hope that she keeps doing whatever she’s doing. Ripley first caught my attention when she wrote a book about the best school systems in the world, and recently wrote an incredible profile about the most productive committee in the United States Congress (you heard me right).
But my favorite book by Ripley is High Conflict, which touches upon the themes of polarization and in-group bias. Conflict exists in any organization, and no leader can avoid it. However, Ripley argues that there is a major difference between “good conflict,” where people debate to reach a resolution, and “high conflict,” where the conflict itself is the goal.
When people need to make a decision about a funding priority, there is nothing wrong with a serious debate taking place; someone will be unhappy, but in the end, a decision will be made, and one will need to judge the consequences. The fact that people disagree about something important and consequential is a feature, not a bug, of good conflict. However, Ripley argues that high conflict is more like sinking into a tar pit:
“It [High Conflict] draws us in, appealing to all kinds of normal and understandable needs and desires. But once we enter, we find we can’t get out. The more we flail about, braying for help, the worse the situation gets. More and more of us get pulled into the muck, without even realizing how much worse we are making our own lives.”
Bringing this article full circle, ultimately conflict between the Israelite tribes is largely “good conflict” because it is reasonable that these groups want to meet basic human needs and thus fight over resources. However, when we focus on the kind of polarization that inflames our politics, Ripley argues that “the conflict is the destination. There’s nowhere else to go.”And that is frightening.
Amanda Ripley and Krista Tippett?
The Dubious Rise of Imposter Syndrome: I am going to focus on this topic in greater depth in a future issue, but “imposter syndrome” is an important, but complicated topic, in the context of what we are learning. Here’s an important take from The New Yorker.
How Teens Recovered from “Tik Tok Tics”: The side effects of excessive social media usage continue to mount, and Tik Tok is no exception. Read this powerful account from The New York Times.
The Ethics of Misinformation: Misformation is harmful, but is it unethical? The Conversation has an important take.
Neuroscience Has a Race Problem: One of the reasons why people need to learn about systemic racism is that racism afflicts all parts of our lives, even ones we do not realize. I found this article from Nautilus powerful; I hope that you will, too.
The Bizarre Relationship of a “Work Wife”: I’ve definitely used the phrase “work wife” on more than one occasion, yet I’ve never thought about what it really means. The Atlantic did; check it out.
I suppose it would weirder if you decided to go off the grid, and the first thing you did when you went back on the grid was read this newsletter. But I won’t judge.
William Sumner, Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (1906), 12.
In other words, we can construct all kinds of rationales for why a man might favor other men, a Jew other Jews, doctors other doctors, and so on. And sometimes, it might make sense to favor people in our long-established in-group over others, particularly our family. But what if we just assigned a random group of people into a completely random set of groups? The point of the bias is that we will show bias to our in-group even when the group has no intentional meaning.
Sports is probably the best real-life exactly of randomly assigned groups that take on extreme meaning based on little more than an accident of birth. I love the Orioles and Ravens, but if I had been born somewhere other than Baltimore, my fandom would be completely different. It’s a fluke.
That said, I’ll never forgive Jeffrey Maier…that was totally fan interference. And even worse, Maier helped Derek Jeter, the most overrated baseball player of my lifetime.
See what I did there?
If you think that modern humans are too civilized for this kind of behavior, I have just two words for you: “Black Friday.”
Alternatively, if you avoid Black Friday as I do, rewatch this cold open from The Office when Dwight starts a real fire to teach the importance of fire safety:
And if that’s not enough, here’s George Constanza knocking over women and children to escape fire at a child’s birthday party:
I rest my case.
I first heard Amanda Ripley mention this article about Congress on The Political Gabfest, one of my favorite weekly podcasts. That said, much of the podcast is about current events, and not relevant for the weekly podcast recommendation. If you want to hear the interview with Ripley, feel free to listen below:
Amanda Ripley, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped And How We Get Out (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021), 27. Sadly, I will confess that I read this book when I had a tough conflict with a longtime colleague and friend. As much as the ideas resonated with me, I was not able to get out of the high conflict.