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!

Optimizing for the Apocalypse

If you’ve read many of my past posts, you’ll know that I have sometimes struggled with an internal conflict between what I would basically characterize as conservative or right-wing intuitions, and a fairly liberal or left-wing set of concrete beliefs. It’s also one of the things that I mentioned in my initial brain-dump of a post after reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I guess this is technically a continuation of the posts spawned by that book, but it pulls in enough other things that I’m not going to number it anymore.

Haidt’s book doesn’t really address my internal conflict directly; what it does do is talk about liberal and conservative moral intuitions in a way that I found really clarified for me what the conflict was about. Conveniently, in the way that the universe sometimes works, shortly after thinking about that topic a bunch I then read A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum. This post by Scott Alexander has nothing to do with Haidt, except that it ends up doing for the “why” of the question what Haidt did for the “what”. And so I now have a pretty nicely packaged understanding of what’s going on in that section of my brain.

Moral Foundations Theory

Let’s start with Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. According to Haidt there are six “moral foundations”: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Each of us has moral intuitions on roughly these six axes, and the amount of weight we put on each axis can vary between people, cultures, etc. Conveniently according to Haidt, the amount of weight we put on each axis tracks really nicely as part of the right/left political divide present in the Western world. Libertarians (sometimes called “classical liberals”) strongly value liberty; liberals (the left) put much more emphasis on harm and fairness while mostly ignoring the others; conservatives (the right) value all of them roughly equally, thus leaving them as the effective champions of loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

This is already a very helpful labelling system for me, since it lets me be clearer when I talk about my conflicts. I tend to believe in a lot political ideas that are associated with the left, like a robust social safety net. But, I believe that loyalty, authority, and sanctity have real moral value, and are generally undervalued by the modern left. This isn’t a direct logical conflict (there’s nothing about loyalty that is fundamentally incompatible with a robust social safety net) but it does put me in a sometimes awkward spot between the two “tribes”, especially as the left and right become increasingly polarized in modern politics.

Thriving and Surviving

So Haidt’s system has already been pretty helpful in giving me a better understanding of what exactly the conflict is. But it doesn’t really explain why the conflict is: why I came to hold liberal views despite conservative intuitions. I imagine most people with my intuitions naturally grow up to hold fairly conservative political views as well; it’s the path of least internal resistance. This is where thrive/survive theory comes in. Alexander summarizes it like this:

My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.

This is conveniently similar to behaviour observed in the wild among, for example, slime molds:

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. 

This combined slime mold expends a great deal of energy, and ends up sacrificing itself in order to spore and give the mold a chance to start a new life somewhere else. It’s the slime mold equivalent of Gandalf facing the Balrog, spending his own life to ensure the survival of his friends.

And, it also conveniently aligns with Haidt’s moral foundations: of the six foundations, there are three that are fundamentally important for the survival of the group in an unsafe environment: loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The other three (care, fairness, and liberty) are important, but are much more likely to be sacrificed for “the greater good” in extreme situations.

This all ties together really nicely. I grew up in a stable, prosperous family in a stable, prosperous country that is still, despite some recent wobbles, doing really really well on most measures. The fact is that my environment is extremely safe, and I’m a sucker for facts combined with rational argument. But twin studies have generally shown that while political specifics are mostly social and not genetic (nurture, not nature), there is a pretty strong genetic component to ideology and related personality traits which, I would hypothesize, boil down in one aspect to Haidt’s moral foundations.

In summary then, the explanation is that I inherited a fairly “conservative” set of intuitions optimized for surviving in an unsafe environment. But, since my actual environment is eminently safe, my rational mind has dragged my actual specific views towards the more practically correct solutions. I wonder if this makes me a genetic dead end?

In other words: I want to optimize for the apocalypse, but fortunately the apocalypse seems very far away.