Me-nies and We-nies: The Relative Merits of Individualism vs. Collectivism

Hi folks, I’ve got some very smart offline friends with things they occasionally want to share, so I’m giving some of them access to this blog to write posts. Their opinions are not my necessarily opinions (and vice-versa!) so the typical caveat lector applies. I likely won’t add this prefix in future, so if you’re not sure, please check the post author!

Scientists love playing with slime molds. One of their favourite games is arranging oats on a surface in such a way that maps the geographic locations of populations, and then watch the little goobers replicate our transportation networks. Despite being single-celled, brainless organisms, slime molds solve problems of population networking about as well as we do – if not better.[1]

While it was the media coverage of slime molds as tiny, gooey, civil engineers that first drew my attention to them, it was another characteristic of theirs that really piqued my curiosity: “When all is well, the slime mold thrives as a single-celled organism, but when food is scarce, it combines forces with its brethren, and grows.”[2] And it’s not just food scarcity that tempers the slime mold’s individualistic behavior. Physical threats, such as exposure to electric shocks or hot, dry air, slow the slime mold’s exploratory behavior.[3]

What struck me about the slime mold was how much it reminded me of what I was studying at the time, which dealt with differences between liberals and conservatives. Jonathan Haidt (‘The Righteous Mind’, et cetera) suggests that while liberals are more individual-oriented (“progressive” policies, focusing on personal rights and freedoms), conservatives are more collectivist-oriented (maintaining cultural traditions and protecting social order). I couldn’t help but wondering (in a half-joking kind of way) if people weren’t just complex slime molds, using elaborate post hoc rationalizations to explain a far more primitive set of responses to stimuli in our environment (real or perceived). After all, liberals are notoriously more open to new experiences, and conservatives are more sensitive to perceived physical threat. But if people really do behave like slime molds, then we should be able to do more than explain individual differences within the population. If humans truly fit the  slime mold (sorry), it is predicted that when exposed to threat, individualistic liberals would become more like their collectivist conservative cohorts – and research suggests that they do!

The political arena, true to its namesake, is a combative one, with liberals and conservatives constantly vying for dominance. If either had their way, this dominance would become permanent, as each side believes themselves to be the correct side – not just today, but always. If there is any truth to the idea that liberalism and conservatism are essentially fancy-pants versions of slime mold behavior, the implication would be that neither side is ultimately and forever right – only conditionally so. When times are good, resources are plentiful, and society is secure, an individualist approach may be the best one. However, when times are bad, resources are scarce, and society is threatened, we may be better served by a more collective approach. The question that should guide our actions then is this – to what extent is our current situation either one of plenty and security, or scarcity and threat?

Unfortunately, we are not necessarily accurate interpreters of our reality. Through some combination of innateness and socialization there are, at any given time, those of us who see the world through very different lenses. So, if we want to behave in a manner consistent with the realities of our world with more regularity, then liberals are going to have to start seeing the gorillas in their midst, and conservatives are going to have stop seeing death around every corner.


[1] Of COURSE there’s a TED Talk about them…
[2] Article
[3] In fact, if you zap the wee beasties at regular intervals, it will actually slow its roll in anticipation of the coming shock!