Anti-tribalism and positive mental health as high-value cause areas

I think that tribalism is one of the biggest problems with humanity today, and that even small reductions of it could cause a massive boost to well-being.

By tribalism, I basically mean the phenomenon where arguments and actions are primarily evaluated based on who makes them and which group they seem to support, not anything else. E.g. if a group thinks that X is bad, then it’s often seen as outright immoral to make an argument which would imply that X isn’t quite as bad, or that some things which are classified as X would be more correctly classified as non-X instead. I don’t want to give any specific examples so as to not derail the discussion, but hopefully everyone can think of some; the article “Can Democracy Survive Tribalism” lists lot of them, picked from various sides of the political spectrum.

Joshua Greene (among others) makes the argument, in his book Moral Tribes, that tribalism exists for the purpose of coordinating aggression and alliances against other groups (so that you can kill them and take their stuff, basically). It specifically exists for the purpose of making you hurt others, as well as defend yourself against people who would hurt you. And while defending yourself against people who would hurt you is clearly good, attacking others is clearly not. And everything being viewed in tribal terms means that we can’t make much progress on things that actually matter: as someone commented, “people are fine with randomized controlled trials in policy, as long as the trials are on things that nobody cares about”.

Given how deep tribalism sits in the human psyche, it seems unlikely that we’ll be getting rid of it anytime soon. That said, there do seem to be a number of things that affect the amount of tribalism we have:

* As Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence in general has declined over historical time, replaced by more cooperation and an assumption of human rights; Democrats and Republicans may still hate each other, but they generally agree that they still shouldn’t be killing each other.
* As a purely anecdotal observation, I seem to get the feeling that people on the autism spectrum tend to be less tribal, up to the point of not being able to perceive tribes at all. (this suggests, somewhat oddly, that the world would actually be a better place if everyone was slightly autistic)
* Feelings of safety or threat seem to play a lot into feelings of tribalism: if you perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that a group Y is out to get you and that they are a real threat to you, then you will react much more aggressively to any claims that might be read as supporting Y. Conversely, if you feel safe and secure, then you are much less likely to feel the need to attack others.

The last point is especially troublesome, since it can give rise to self-fulfilling predictions. Say that Alice says something to Bob, and Bob misperceives this as an insult; Bob feels threatened so snaps at Alice, and now Alice feels threatened as well, so shouts back. The same kind of phenomenon seems to be going on a much larger scale: whenever someone perceives a threat, they are no longer willing to give someone the benefit of doubt, and would rather treat the other person as an enemy. (which isn’t too surprising, since it makes evolutionary sense: if someone is out to get you, then the cost of misclassifying them as a friend is much bigger than the cost of misclassifying a would-be friend as an enemy. you can always find new friends, but it only takes one person to get near you and hurt you really bad)

One implication might be that general mental health work, not only in the conventional sense of “healing disorders”, but also the positive psychology-style mental health work that actively seeks to make people happy rather than just fine, could be even more valuable for society than we’ve previously thought. Curing depression etc. would be enormously valuable even by itself, but if we could figure out how to make people generally happier and resilient to negative events, then fewer things would threaten their well-being and they would perceive fewer things as being threats, reducing tribalism.

You can never be universally inclusive

A discussion about the article “We Don’t Do That Here” (h/t siderea) raised the question about the tension between having inclusive social norms on the one hand, and restricting some behaviors on the other hand.

At least, that was the way the discussion was initially framed. The thing is, inclusivity is a bit of a bad term, since you can never really be universally inclusive. Accepting some behaviors is going to attract people who like engaging in those behaviors while repelling people who don’t like those behaviors; and vice versa for disallowing them.

Of course, you can still create spaces that are more inclusive than others, in being comfortable to a broader spectrum of people. But the way you do that, is by disallowing behaviors that would, if allowed, repel more people that the act of disallowing them does.

If you use your social power to shut up people who would otherwise be loudly racist and homophobic and who then leave because they don’t want to be in a place where those kinds of behaviors aren’t allowed, then that would fit the common definition of “inclusive space” pretty well.

That said, the “excluding racists and homophobes” thing may make it sound like you’re only excluding “bad” people, which isn’t the case either. Every set of rules (including having no rules in the first place) is going to repel some completely decent people.

Like, maybe you decide to try to make a space more inclusive by having a rule like “no discussing religion or politics”. This may make the space more inclusive towards people of all kinds of religions and political backgrounds, since there is less of a risk of anyone feeling unwelcome when everyone else turns out to disagree with their beliefs.

But at the same time, you are making the space less inclusive towards people who are perfectly reasonable and respectful people, but who would like to discuss religion or politics. As well as to people who aren’t so good at self-regulation and will feel uncomfortable about having to keep a constant eye on themselves to avoid saying the wrong things.

And maybe these people would feel more comfortable at a different event with different rules, which was more inclusive towards them. Which is fine. Competing access needs:

Competing access needs is the idea that some people, in order to be able to participate in a community, need one thing, and other people need a conflicting thing, and instead of figuring out which need is ‘real’ we have to acknowledge that we can’t accommodate all valid needs. I originally encountered it in disability community conversations: for example, one person might need a space where they can verbally stim, and another person might need a space where there’s never multiple people talking at once. Both of these are valid, but you can’t accommodate them both in the same space.

I wrote a while ago that I think this concept extends to a lot of activist/social justice community challenges and a lot of the difficulty of designing good messages. For example, body positivity: some people need to hear “love your body! no matter who you are you are soooo sexy” and some people really hate being told that they’re ‘sexy’. Or some gay people might need a space where it’s against the rules to ask “well, what if it actually is morally wrong to be gay?” but other gay people (like me of a few years ago) might need a space where they can ask that so there can be a serious discussion and they can become convinced that they’re okay.

Every set of rules is going to be bad for someone, so a better question than “how to make this space inclusive” is “who do we want to make this space inclusive towards”. You’re always going to exclude some people who aren’t jerks or bad people, but would just prefer a different set of rules. And you just have to accept that.

See also: The Unit of Caring on Safe Spaces and Competing Access Needs.

What are your plans for the evening of the apocalypse?

If everyone found out for sure that the world would end in five years, what would happen?

My guess is that it would take time before anything big happened. Finding out about the end of the world, that’s the kind of a thing that you need to digest for a while. For the first couple of days, people might go “huh”, and then carry on with their old routines while thinking about it.

A few months later, maybe there still wouldn’t be all that much change. Sure, people would adjust their life plans, start thinking more near-term, some would decide not to go to college after all. But a lot of people already don’t plan much beyond a couple of years; five years is a long time, and you’ll still need to pay your bills until the Apocalypse hits. So many people might just carry on with their jobs as normal; if they were already doing college, well, you need to pass the time until the end of the world somehow. Might as well keep studying.

Of course, some people would have bigger reactions, right from day one. Quit their unsatisfying job, that kind of thing. People with a lot of savings might choose this moment to start living off them. And as the end of the world got closer and closer, people might get an increasingly relaxed attitude to work; though there might also be a feeling of, we’re all in this together, let’s make our existing institutions work until the end. I could imagine doctors and nurses in a hospital, who had decided that they want to make sure the hospital runs for as long as it can, and to make sure that nobody has to die before they really have to.

But I could also imagine, say, the waiter at some restaurant carrying on, serving customers even on the night of the apocalypse. (Be sure to make a reservation, we expect to have no free tables that evening.) Maybe out of principles, maybe out of professional pride, but maybe just out of habit.

I’m guessing there would be gradual changes to society, with occasional tipping points when a lot of people decided to stop whatever they had been doing and that created a chain reaction of others doing so as well. But it seems really hard to guess for how long things would remain mostly normal.

Meaningfulness and the scope of experience

I find that the extent to which I find life meaningful, seems strongly influenced by my scope of experience [1, 2].

Say that I have a day off, and there’s nothing in particular that I need to get done or think about. This makes it easy for the spatial scope of my experience to become close. My attention is most strongly drawn to the sensations of my body, nearby sounds, tempting nearby things like the warmth of the shower that I could take, the taste of a cup tea that I could prepare, or the pleasant muscle fatigue that I’d get if I went jogging in the nearby forest. The temporal scope of my experience is close as well; these are all things that are nearby in time, in that I could do them within a few minutes of having decided to do them.

Say that I don’t have a day off, and I’m trying to focus on work. My employer’s website says that our research focuses on reducing risks of dystopian futures in the context of emerging technologies; this is a pretty accurate description of what I try to do. Our focus is on really large-scale stuff, including the consequences of eventual space colonization; this requires thinking in the scale of galaxies, a vast spatial scope. And we are also trying to figure out whether there is anything we can do to meaningfully influence the far future, including hundreds if not thousands of years from now; that means taking a vast temporal scope.

It is perhaps no surprise that it is much easier to feel that things are meaningful when the scope of my experience is close, than when it is far.


My favorite theory of meaning actually comes from a slightly surprising direction: the literature on game design and analysis. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define meaningful play in a game as emerging when the relationships between actions and outcomes are both discernable and integrated into the larger context of the game. In other words:

The consequences of your actions in a game have to be discernable: you need to have some idea of what happened as a result of your actions. If you shoot at an opponent and the opponent dies, that’s pretty clear and discernable. If you press a button and a number changes but you have no idea of what that number means or why it’s relevant, that’s not very clear nor discernable. If you don’t know what happens as a result of your actions, you might as well be randomly pressing buttons or throwing down cards.

The consequences of your actions have to be integrated into the larger context of the game: they need to affect the game experience at some later point in the game. If you move a piece in a game of chess, then that move will directly shape the whole rest of the game, making the moves deeply integrated. But if every game of chess included three opening moves after which the board was reset to the initial position, throwing away everything that happened during those three moves, then those moves would not be integrated to the gameplay. People would just make some moves at random as fast as possible, to get on with the actual opening moves of the game.

As Salen & Zimmerman write: “Whereas discernability of game events tells players what happened (I hit the monster), integration lets players know how it will affect the rest of the game (If I keep on hitting the monster I will kill it. If I kill enough monsters, I’ll gain a level.).”

My own model is that regardless of whether we’re playing a game or living our ordinary lives, our minds will automatically keep looking for actions whose outcomes are discernable and integrated, relative to the current scope of experience.

When the scope is close, it is easy to find such actions. Taking a shower, making a cup of tea, going out for a jog; the consequences of these actions will manifest as concrete and enjoyable bodily sensations, clearly discernable both within the temporal and spatial scope. And because the scope is so close, almost everything I do will affect the whole scope, so it will feel tightly integrated.  I imagine getting a taste of tea, and think no farther out in time; thus, getting up from bed, going to the kitchen, preparing the tea, and sitting down to drink it, feels like a tight chain of actions where each step gives rise to the next, culminating in the warmth of the tea cup pressing against my lips, the sensation of taste on my tongue.

When the scope is far, it is much different. What action could one even think of, whose consequences were discernable on a scale spanning entire galaxies? Or whose consequences could be traced out for tens, maybe hundreds of years? It’s hard to imagine anything. An intellectual analysis may suggest things that could plausibly result as a consequence of our actions, but unless one can really visualize those and translate them into emotional terms, it’s still going to feel hard to connect them to the small-scale things happening in our daily lives.

I find that my mind will automatically look for objectives that makes sense within a given scope. When my scope is relatively close, things like finding a romantic partner and maybe having children feel strongly appealing; they would have a strong impact within the entire scope. When my scope gets more remote, such things seem to lose their appeal: what is one more family going to matter? It is highly unlikely to change the course of history. Better to ignore those things, as my chances to make a lasting impact are remote already; better to concentrate on finding something that would inch those chances ever-so-slightly upwards.


The naive implication of this would be, “keep your scopes close, and you’ll be happy”. But of course, it’s not that simple.

For one, most of us can’t just focus on small pleasures and not worry at all about things like earning an income, what we’ll be doing next year, or whatever it is that we need to think about at work. The necessities of everyday life force us to think long term and in a larger context, which forces us to attend to a broader scope of experience.

Even if we did have the opportunity to keep our scope small, the effect would be to make ourselves happy by ignoring everything else that’s going on in the world. It’s easy to be happy, if you can just the ignore the suffering of your neighbor; a small scope easily gets very self-centered. (Of course, a large scope can be centered on the self as well; it’s just that it’s big enough to also contain other beings, regardless of who happens to be in the center.)

Even if you widen your scope to contain family and friends, that scope will only contain a small fraction of everybody who exists. You don’t necessarily want to only think about what happens to those you personally have reason to care about, if it means neglecting the well-being of everyone else.

Of course, it also makes no sense to burden yourself with things that you realistically can’t affect. Better to exclude those from your scope.

Except… how certain are you of not being able to affect them? The only thing that guarantees that you can’t knowingly affect somebody, is if you make the decision to never think about them. If you do keep them in your scope, even only occasionally, then you might come up with something that lets you help them after all.

So the right thing is not to stick with a certain scope, but to learn to adjust the scope if needed. Draw it closer when you are feeling overwhelmed, or when you are at risk of neglecting yourself or your loved ones; broaden it out when you have the resources to deal with the larger scope, and its demands. When you are operating in a larger scope, see if you can find ways to visualize your impact in a way that makes your current actions feel more integrated to the whole context, so as to experience their meaningfulness.

It’s easier said than done.

Exercise: see if you can consciously manipulate the scope of your experience. Try pulling it close, both spatially and temporally: focus only on your immediate surroundings and let your attention be drawn to things that you could be doing right away. Then try gradually expanding the scope, maybe all the way up to the level of galaxies and multiverses and millions of years, but also stopping at more intermediate points: e.g. your own life in a few years, or your country or your planet in the same time. How do those changes make a difference to what you feel, and what you feel like doing?