Beware of the Others?
August 30th, 2006

via this post on The Proper Study of Mankind blog:

New research published in Nature shows how biases towards members of our social group, and against those outside it, shape how generous we are to people and how we punish others for transgressing social norms.

Humans are socially sticky: we bond into cohesive groups that commonly share a common identity and, often, similar values. This applies to social circles and local communities as much as to nationality and global religious and political affiliation. Such unity can encourage people within the group to pull together, to help one another when in need – in short, to get along.

But there’s a downside to human ‘groupishness’: a mental division between members of the ingroup, to whom social and even moral obligations apply, and various outgroups, to whom they do not. People who live in different groups — geographical, social or ethnic — often treat outgroup members as ‘others’ (something viewers of Lost will be familiar with), frequently arousing enmity and stoking conflict. Note how groups really come into their own and pull together when pitted against other groups in the human speciality of war.

The ingroup-outgroup distinction has the power to distort and bias our attitudes towards outgroup members in pernicious ways. These prejudices are played out locally and globally on a daily basis. When supporters of our football team brawl with the other team’s, we can easily blame our opponents on starting the trouble ‘They always cause a ruckus, don’t they?’). When our country is at way with another, we’re justifiably retaliating against military aggression (‘We’re merely defending ourselves against those lunatics across the border’). Behaviour of ‘our people’ that is deemed to be tolerable can be judged intolerable or immoral or worthy of punishment when people of other groups do the same thing.

The nature of human altruism (helping others), and the role of altruistic punishment (paying a cost to punish those that don’t help others) in establishing cooperation and a bases for sociality, are currently two of the most active areas of research in the behavioural sciences. Nearly every aspect of altruism and cooperation you can think of is being explored: how altruistic behaviour and willingness to punish non-altruists varies across societies with differing social systems (and also what universal trends underlie human altruism); how this variation relates to economic and demographic factors; how people respond to punishment for not cooperating, in both laboratory and real-world situations; the role of institutions that embody social norms of behaviour in maintaining cooperation; and what’s going on in the brain when we cooperate and defect in games of altruism with other human players.

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