Original Post (with comments)
Perhaps the most regularly recurring theme in this blog is the interplay between the quest for status and the human tendency to cooperate (both genetically driven) and our modern environment in leading to the behaviors we engage in and witness every day. That humans learned to cooperate is taken as a bit of an axiom in the study of hominid history, but something has been nagging at me for a while, and I’m just now getting to the point where I can articulate what I’ve come up with.
What if there is a genetically driven motivation that is larger than reciprocal altruism? I think there is. What if reciprocal altruism is just one manifestation (albeit a very critical one) of a heretofore elusive, but grand aspect of human nature? I think it is. This aspect of human nature is what I’ll call the need for concurrence.
Concurrence, in its most grand form, is perfect empathy. It is being able to mentally and emotionally relate to another person in a very deep way. It’s feeling someone else’s pain. It’s a profound connection between two people. Suppose the adaptation that Mother Nature found was an inherent desire to concur with other humans, and a consequence to getting to this deep emotional connection was the emergence of informal rules regarding favors done and favors owed. And lots more…but let’s back up for a moment.
In evolution, it’s always interesting to ponder the intermediates. In this case, we can imagine hominids like Australopithecus, who were not known for being big cooperators, and Homo sapiens, and we can wonder how natural selection bridged the gap. Did this human species of hominid just suddenly start cooperating, or did something happen before that? If I’m right about concurrence, then something did.
If we know that hominids who banded together to share resources and divide up duties fared better than hominids who did not, is it not reasonable to wonder what kind of primary emotion would produce that tendency for groups to come together? (When I talk about primary emotions, I’m talking about the ones you read about in books by Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph LeDoux, the basic emotional programs, like fear and the quest for status, that underlie our more complex emotions, like anger and jealousy.)
From what I’ve read, the answer would be the emotional tendency to cooperate. But I have a hard time imagining how that would work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – there’s a lot I can’t imagine. However, I do not have a hard time imagining the emergence of a genetically-driven emotional drive to connect with another human. The cooperation part would simply be the fortuitous result, the one that natural selection seized upon, resulting in the reign of the human animal on earth.
So let’s suppose, just for fun, that I’m right, that there is an inherent human need for concurrence. Just think of how much it explains. Reciprocal altruism is only the tip of the iceberg. Concurrence could explain all sorts of social phenomena like, for example, that elated feeling at a rock concert when the whole place is glued to the same moment.
If the need for concurrence is a primary emotion, then it, like the others, is executed in different ways in different situations. In one-on-one situations, it can be seen as the pursuit of the direct emotional connection. In crowds, it can be seen as swimming in the same direction as the school, so to speak. Who can deny the visceral good feeling that comes from being in a crowd where everyone is focused on the same wonderful thing? If concurrence is real, then it explains that feeling – we’re pulled toward situations like that and we feel immense gratification when we encounter one. I know many people, and I am one of them, who appreciate big events (concerts, sporting events, etc.) for this reason every bit as much as for the name on the ticket. To be part of a happening, where everyone, for a short period of time, is concurring. To be part of a shared experience where a mass of individuals has been transformed into a collective entity, one that shows no signs of dissension in the ranks. This is human stuff. We are but moths to the flame.
But, as this blog vigilantly asserts, our primary emotions were not designed for this modern world. This means that, like status, concurrence has its downsides. Consider two teenage girls who are best friends. The desire, no, the need, for concurrence overrides the truth in many situations. If both girls are a bit heavy and are insecure about it, they can achieve deep concurrence by propping each other up with compliments to the contrary. Even though they know that the answer to, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” is, “No, your large ass makes you look fat,” they respond with, “No! They’re like totally cute.” The point is that, just as the quest for status often causes us to cut high-status people slack while we criticize low-status people, concurrence can distort truth when it is ill-advised in social situations. And on a larger scale, on the crowd scale, it can cause us to buy into fanatical causes.
For those for whom one-on-one interpersonal concurrence is hard to find, causes can act as a good surrogate. The feeling of swimming in the same direction of the school is like a hundred small-scale concurrences adding up to the effect of a deep one-on-one concurrence. (See Eric Hoffer’s, The True Believer.) The need for this distributed emotional connection, which, in this case, is the need to belong, trumps all else, logic and rationality included.
I’m just getting my arms around this idea and where I can take it, so I’ll stop here and come back with more as it develops. But I can’t help think that this will be the topic of my next book. The applications of this concept are mind boggling. And even if it isn’t true, even if the whole thing is nonsense, it’ll be a great exercise to find that out. Thoughts?