This is the first part of a series about promoting cooperation in society. Feel free to check out part II next.
Repeated face-to-face interactions can help people realize that differences are not an excuse for conflict.
The world is divided into sides. Police versus protesters. Citizens versus immigrants. Whites versus non-whites. Rural versus urban. Rich versus poor. Us versus them. I could go on all day, but the point is these differences are genuine; humans vary in preferences, ideologies, genetic makeup, and experiences. Do these differences automatically lead to division and conflict? Not necessarily.
In many cases, conflicts stem from misunderstandings and a lack of interaction between the involved parties. History provides us with several great examples of this fact. Consider the Roman Republic. Before Rome was the mighty empire that is immortalized in history books, the city was sacked by Gauls in 390 BCE. Rome survived the attack after paying a hefty ransom, but the minor conflict grew into a legend that would forever treat the Gallic people as the enemies of Rome. Rome’s interactions with the Gallic people were mostly limited to conflict and trading between elites.
The few interactions between Gaul and Rome prevented Romans from understanding that their legendary enemies were simply humans who could be peaceful neighbors if given the chance. The history books show us the dire consequences of failing to close this rift; Gaius Julius Caesar led a campaign in Gaul that resulted in the deaths of 1 million Gallic people (figure estimated by Plutarch). Some would argue this is genocide. To make matters even more tragic, with the exception of Cato’s criticism, Caesar was not condemned for his actions. His mass murders were met with praise and admiration from a large following in Rome.
Tribalism Divides Societies and Promotes Conflict
The story of Rome and Gaul is an extreme example of what can happen when a failure to interact causes differences in culture, language, and geography to lead to divisiveness and conflict. Surely this doesn’t happen in everyday life, right? Wrong. As Carl Sagan once argued, humans are wired to place their trust in their relatives (and not the strangers with different traits). This biological perspective explains why the default social unit of humans in most of the pre-civilization period is the tribe. Tribalism certainly increased a family’s odds of survival in the hell that was the uncivilized world. However, we now live in a world where all humans must learn to cooperate regardless of differences.
[Note: Tribalism is not compatible with the modern world. Humankind has experienced a massive improvement in well-being through advances in technology, institutions, and trade. Cooperation with diverse groups is necessary to maximize these benefits.]
While it may be comforting to limit your interactions to people who look, act, and think like you, tribalism reduces the long-term security of a society. With little repeated personal interaction between groups, isolated groups can be singled out and dehumanized. When this happens, elites can find scapegoats for the problems of society. The elites continue to concentrate power, scapegoats are ridiculed and punished, and the majority supporters are none the wiser (alternatively, they are supportive or apathetic). Majorities tend not to think about this problem since they benefit from the status quo (their leaders continue to be elected). They also are able to easily ignore the problem because they do not empathize with the ‘others’ who are harmfully affected.
[Note: Another way of looking at the persistence of scapegoating others is through rationality. The minority bears the costs of scapegoating while the majority feels they capture the benefits (majority leaders capture the real political benefits while majority followers feel a sense of pride or enthusiasm for winning the election. Politics is recreation). Majorities have little incentive to avoid scapegoating in the short-run.]
Societal Divisions Are Eventually Costly to Everyone
Let’s assume for a moment that you are in a majority. You may acknowledge that tribalism and scapegoating are problematic for minorities, but on average, you are not going to do anything to enact change. After all, you are in the majority, and you don’t bear the costs of a segmented society. But hope isn’t lost. Think into the future and you may find a good reason to stand up against the tribalism that drives communities away from each other.
Tribal scapegoating is a sword that cuts both ways. While a majority group can blame, ridicule, and punish minority groups, the tables will turn when that same group becomes a minority itself. Keep in mind that, given a long enough time frame, the dominant group eventually loses its majority status. The bias against minorities does not fade away simply because the distribution of groups changes. As long as societies are segmented to the point where repeated personal interaction between members of different groups does not occur, the opportunity for scapegoating and conflict exists. To secure a future that is bright for you, me, and all humans, we must step out of our comfort zones to cooperate with people who may at first seem strange or different. This idea can also be applied at the international level through trade, migration, and tourism.
[Thought: Based on this theory, is it possible that the people of Israel and Palestine could coexist if they repeatedly interacted on a personal level?]
Real-World Problems of Division
Before I move on to some applications of this theory of interaction vs. cooperation, let’s recap. Differences exist. Differences do not lead to division and conflict unless people segregate based on those traits. More segregation leads to fewer personal interactions, and eventually the in-group views out-groups as ‘others’ who cannot be trusted. Exploiting this division, leaders of groups will promote their interests by diverting blame to out-groups. This political play has led to several tragedies throughout history, including the Jewish Holocaust and Caesar’s murder of the Gallic people. While it would be unwise to say that there is a single cause of these events, it is possible that a greater degree of repeated personal interaction between opposing sides could promote cooperation and peace.
This theory can be applied to situations where we see much conflict but little personal interaction. For the sake of time, let’s look at just a couple examples.
In Senate hearings regarding the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, Mark Zuckerberg stated that he was surprised that the hyperconnected communities on Facebook have helped divide the world. After all, his goal was to increase global cooperation and connectivity through social media. We now know that this is not the case. Anonymous users ridicule and insult anyone who disagrees, and echo chambers are common. In short, many Internet forums are not centers of cooperation for people from all walks of life.
Now you may be thinking, “They’re interacting, but they’re not getting along. Your theory is false”. Take another look at what I am arguing. I argue that people who repeatedly interact on a personal level will generally be more cooperative than those who do not interact at all. In the case of Internet forums, interaction occurs frequently, but it is neither repetitive nor personal.
Consider the example of Reddit. Users are anonymous and repeated interactions rarely occur. Disagreements seem to be far more frequent on Reddit than they are in the real world. Perhaps this can be attributed to low (zero?) costs of being both rash and disagreeable on the Internet. Greater levels of repeated personal interaction may be able to solve this problem.
In general, people are cooperative and civil during face-to-face discussions. The reasons for this trend can be discussed in detail in a later post, but it seems to me that reputation and empathy regulate behavior to a certain degree. In many Internet communities, reputation isn’t an important factor because of anonymity. It is also possible that empathy for other humans causes people to behave in a respectable manner in personal interactions. This relates to the theories of sympathy and empathy proposed by David Hume and Adam Smith, respectively. Perhaps the lack of face-to-face communication on the Internet prevents empathy from regulating behavior. The problem of cooperation on the Internet is also worsened by the fact that people can self-segregate to form echo chambers (however, this situation is not unique to the Internet — it is tribalism 2.0).
The natural solution to divisions and hostile behavior on the Internet is one that encourages a form of interaction that allows for personal communication and considers reputation. In a later post, I will discuss how future technologies can facilitate closing the divisions between individuals and opposing online communities.
[Note: It could be interesting to study the effects of anononymity on trolling behavior. Should we expect greater instances of trolling from fake Facebook profiles than from genuine Facebook profiles?]
If you follow the news or editorials, it seems that people’s distrust of police is increasing. This is particularly true among poor minority communities. It is possible that this distrust goes both ways; minorities fear the police, and the police fear the minorities. I argue that this situation stems from a lack of repeated personal communication between police officers and minority communities.
As a symptom of poverty, many minority communities have high crime rates that increase the police presence. In general, these interactions do not improve cooperation because they are neither personal nor repeated. Personal interaction does not occur on a regular basis because many officers patrol communities in a vehicle. Similar to the barriers posed by a computer screen, the vehicle prevents humans from understanding and relating to the officer. People see a car, not a human. It is also important to consider the situations when face-to-face interactions do occur. If the interactions are negative (i.e., the officer is questioning a person about a crime), then the personal interaction is unlikely to build trust.
Repeated interaction does not occur due to the fact that police only respond to crimes or emergencies, and it is unlikely that the same people are involved in most of these situations. A practical solution (that some departments have adopted) involves community outreach with officers that are assigned to work with neighborhoods.
It may also be useful for officers to patrol on foot to help people learn the names and faces of the people that provide law enforcement services to their communities. Over time, this increased personal interaction could build trust and empathy between the police and minority communities. It’s a long shot, but these new interactions may even reduce police-related fatalities.
Our society faces many problems related to the uncertainty and discomfort of dealing with people of different traits, beliefs, and roles. By overcoming these differences through repeated personal interactions, we take a bit of power away from opportunistic elites while increasing overall prosperity and cooperation.
Repeated personal interaction is the way of the future.