Bryan Caplan  

The Flexibility of Identity

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Inspiration from Will Smith... Lionel McKenzie, RIP...
I just returned from a Liberty Fund conference on nationalism.  The point I kept returning to: Even non-human primates have group identities.  Chimps clearly identify with their small bands, showing in-group amity and out-group enmity.  What's amazing about humans, however, is that we've managed to redefine our group to include hundreds of millions of total strangers.

McGill's Jacob Levy expressed a thought-provoking reservation about my point.  How, he asked, is the move from band identity to national identity any more amazing than the other ways that our primitive natures map into modernity?  Look at all the weird stuff we now call "food," or the ability of mere prose to excite our passions.

It's a tough challenge, but I do see one main way that our group identity is especially plastic.  Suppose you ran an Skinnerian experiment on a batch of babies.  With total control of their environment, you could change them in many ways.  But there are limits.  You could powerfully sway their taste in food, but you wouldn't convince them that dirt was a main course.  You might nudge their sexual tastes, but I doubt you could make them find celibacy arousing.  But when it came to group identity, I bet you could make your subjects identify with almost anyone human.  Indeed, you might even convince them to identify with people pretending to be droids or Wookies.  Tell them, "These are our people!" often enough, and they'll buy it.

Or at least that's my guess.  Am I right?  And is there any other sense in which group identity is especially plastic?


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Eric H writes:

It seems to me that we're able to consider ourselves to be members of multiple groups, some of which overlap but some of which might seem to be mutually exclusive. There are environmentalist conservatives and there may even be a few AGW-skeptical progressives.

agnostic writes:

"Tell them, "These are our people!" often enough, and they'll buy it."

It's different than that. It has to be "These guys are part of us because we're both threatened by those guys over there." Nothing catalyzes group feeling (or "asabiya" in Ibn Khaldun's phrase) like having to team up against a common threat, especially one that's so different from the various groups on Our side. (See Peter Turchin's books for an accessible intro to ethnogenesis.)

If all it took was repeating "These are our people," then all those Pan-____ movements would have thrived. Pan-Arabism, Pan-Slavism, etc. Yet they went nowhere because they were not facing a Mongol invasion, getting squeezed between the expanding Roman and Persian empires, etc.

But throw a hostile race of aliens or robots or zombies at them, and suddenly humans are capable of overlooking differences among themselves -- Aliens, Predator, Terminator, Night of the Living Dead, and so on.

That's really the only hope for people including all of humanity within the We boundary -- not just intelligent extraterrestrial life, but that's also on their way here to wipe us out.

jc writes:

South Park on artifical ingroups, outgroups, and fighting against enemy hordes:

"Men fight, because they are violent and it is part of male human nature to fight. If you take away religion, men will find another excuse to fight...In the episode “Go God Go,” Cartman finds himself in a future world where, thanks to Richard Dawkins, everyone is an atheist and there is no religion. Yet there is interminable violence and wars, because different groups of atheist men (and otters) fight each other over what to call themselves."

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/200906/everything-i-ever-needed-know-in-life-i-learned-south-park

Regarding belonging to multiple ingroups (that clip where a reporter accidentally swallows a flying insect):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWulZOKANB4

mike shupp writes:

Stockholm syndrome.

Ed Brenegar writes:

I agree. Our group identities are not like this year's style in T-shirts, rock bands last year, eco-themes this year. They are the ground upon which we relate to other people, groups and ideas. They are the context for making judgments and engaging in ever more meaningful interactions with people.

In my work, what I've discovered is that people want three things. They want their lives to be Personally Meaningful, or connected to values that give them purpose and direction; to be Socially Fulfilling, or that their relationships are healthy, respectful, trusting, and mutually beneficial; and, that their lives make a difference that matters, which connects both the purpose and impact of their lives, with the values and relationships that define them.

The challenge goes beyond the question of identity and group association. We need to create institutions, whether they are cultural traditions or organizations, that provide people are ground who knowing who they are and how to live their lives with openness, purpose and personal strength.

Jacob T. Levy writes:

"You might nudge their sexual tastes, but I doubt you could make them find celibacy arousing. "

I think our sex urges are wildly more plastic than our group identity urges. That's not necessarily to say that the Skinnerian programmer would be able to choose a particular outcome and make it happen; I suspect there are sworls of irreducible unpredictability and chaos down there in the primordial hormonal soup.

On Rule 34 grounds, I just googled "celibacy porn" and "chastity porn," and the second generated lots of hits that I'm not about to click on and open but that certainly seem to be about eroticizing not having any access to sexual release. And plenty of people have thought that sublimated sexual urges, an eroticization of celibacy, had a lot to do with some kinds of religious ecstasy.

We have no experience with Esperanto language-nationalists or with ethnic identities that include robots. But sex dolls exist, sexbots are on their way, and inorganic sex toys of many sorts exist. If we can reach the brazenly counter-evolutionary point of men finding blow-up dolls sexually desirable, why should any of our imagined kin-group variants be a surprise?

Evan writes:
That's really the only hope for people including all of humanity within the We boundary -- not just intelligent extraterrestrial life, but that's also on their way here to wipe us out.
agnostic, while you generally make good points, I don't think it would be necessary for the threat to be another group of intelligent creatures in order to unite everyone. Some planet-scale natural disaster, like an asteroid or supernova, might have a similar effect.

I can also think of numerous instances where people have been inducted into a "We" even when they haven't been immediately needed to combat an external threat. Most white Americans consider ethnic minorities to be "us," when only decades ago they wouldn't have. There wasn't any external threat that made that happen. The formation of the E.U. is another good example,that seemed to occur because Europeans believed that unity gave a number of economic and political advantages, rather than protected from danger (whether that belief was right is up for debate).

I think that another way to unite large groups is for them to spend a large amount of time with peace and prosperity. When humans don't feel they need to expend resources to survive they are willing to expend more on signaling. And one of the most effective ways to signal altruism and trustworthiness is to reach out to previously despised others, who you now feel secure enough to include.

Maybe the Pan-Arabs and Pan-Slavs would have succeeded if they'd had better economies and less war.

Steve Z writes:

Evan: Alternatively, maybe long periods of peace and prosperity make it meaningless to talk about group identity, since it is only put to the test during times of strife.

As to your first point, well, we've all read "Watchmen," right?

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