March 23, 2019 | 42° F

PANISH: To be empathetic, we need in-group bias


Opinions Column: Leaving the Left


The opinion piece that appeared in The Daily Targum on Dec. 7 titled “Awareness of Cognitive Biases Can Empower Us” tapped into a fascinating conversation about human psychology. As writer Dilara Guvercin rightly notes, the study of cognitive biases (the “systematic ways in which the context and framing of information influence individuals’ judgment and decision-making”) is very hot in the field of social psychology right now. 

Unfortunately, by portraying cognitive biases as a series of defects in the human mind that can and should be offset by persistent debunking, the author misrepresents the phenomenon that they set out to describe while passing up the opportunity to engage with the most fascinating aspects of our human condition.

The narrative that the author lays out fits comfortably within an academic consensus that has emanated from social psychology for several decades: that human beings are fundamentally rational animals, who nonetheless retain a vestigial tendency toward irrational beliefs — beliefs that will proliferate unless they are checked against the results of rational inquiry. The outcome of these assumptions, not always stated but ever implicit, is that a society of purely rational humans would be preferable and even ideal. 

To be clear, the basic upshot of the article — that we should all encourage one another to be more reflective and to take a measured approach to evaluating our gut instincts — is both timely and true. But, in following the narrative laid out above, the author dodges a crucial question upon which their appraisal of cognitive biases rests: namely, what are our criteria for deciding which aspects of the human being are irrational and what aspects are rational?

There is a lot more to this question than meets the eye. Our modern understanding of rationality is heavily indebted to names like Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke and Smith. These and countless other Enlightenment thinkers contributed to a portrait of human consciousness in which the individual is the best and only appraiser of their own interest. In rejecting the guidance of religions, communal authorities and traditions, they declared that humanity had come of age and was ready to take control of its destiny based on the principles of empirical investigation of the natural world. 

As children of the Western intellectual tradition, we have inherited not only these thinkers’ confidence in the ability of the individual to discover and live by their own truths, but also their conviction that all social ills arise from the individual’s failure to recognize these truths. It is no coincidence that liberals (both classical and Left-wing) have long championed an education in the sciences as the ultimate panacea.

What we now know about human psychology should lead us to question the Enlightenment-Liberal monopoly on rationality. As opposed to the famous evolutionary theory "survival of the fittest" that emerged in the 19th century, we now understand that it is the genes of the person who has the most children that survive until adulthood and have their own children who will proliferate. 

This means that child-rearing is just as important as physical prowess for evolutionary success. Thus, it paid massive dividends for early humans to coalesce into tribes where duties could be delegated and complex tasks undertaken in common, such as the rearing of children. This was the impetus of civilization as we know it.

Yet, the innovations that allowed these communities to exist were precisely the cognitive biases that the article’s author dismisses: a fondness for individuals with shared beliefs (in-group bias) established a previously unthinkable degree of trust among large groups, allowing them to live and work together. 

The tendency to believe and obey authority figures (authority bias) allowed these large groups to structure themselves and avoid chaos, making it possible to plan and execute complicated projects by clarifying leadership roles and ensuring that people followed instructions. 

The habit of adopting the beliefs of one’s peers (the bandwagon effect) ensured the longevity of these communities by encouraging growing children and new arrivals to assimilate to group value systems. 

As a result of our species’ trial-and-error upbringing, many of the “irrational” traits that we might like to discard are intimately bound up with other traits that we could not imagine life without. Empathy and exclusion, for instance, are two sides of the same coin. 

We have the capacity to experience deep compassion for people if we think we can trust them. And as a result of dealing with each other for millennia, we do not trust easily. That is why it is a mistake to demand universal empathy and slander expressions of nationalism and in-group favoritism as tyrannical and fascist. These efforts can only make the tenor of nationalist sentiment more bitter. 

By casting in-group favoritism as irrational and evil and elevating empathy to sacred status, well-meaning but misguided people have attempted to shame humans into giving for free what our tribal circuitry demands others earn from us: in-group status. We should therefore not be surprised when Right-wing cultural resentment continues to balloon. 

The in-group, and the empathy that comes with it, cannot be expanded arbitrarily. It can only grow with genuine attempts to respect and understand the culture of the person whose empathy you want. Unfortunately, those who claim to value empathy the most seem totally unable to practice it with their own enemies.

Adam Panish is a School of Arts and Sciences senior double majoring in political science and history. His column, "Leaving the Left," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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Adam Panish

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