Friday, February 27, 2015

On the Dangers of Runaway Tribalism

A big-picture look at what ails society

Earlier, I wrote:

"What we are doing isn’t working, we’re all in this together, and we are running out of time."
Here, I explain what I meant.


The world is complex, and human conscious attention is limited. So everybody leans heavily upon the same pair of universal cognitive crutches—instinctive pattern recognition and reflexive analogical thinking—in order to get by.

At some basic level, the simultaneous presence of these three attributes—limited attention, pattern recognition, and analogical thinking—defines a shared core of human intelligence.

(we're all in this together...)

This shared architecture is behind tribalism, that great driver of politics. We routinely sort people into generalized categories of “us” and “them” (analogical thinking) according to their behaviors, beliefs, appearances, nationalities, loyalties, and so on ad infinitum (pattern recognition). We do this because individual people are too numerous, too complex, and mostly too distant to fully get to know on a case by case basis (limited attention).

Everybody thinks in groups. We just don’t think in the same groups. Therein lies the rub.


When tensions arise within a society, tribal divisions sharpen. This is not so much a fact of life as it is a force of nature. If tensions rise far enough, civility starts to break down, societal cohesion starts to destabilize, and (eventually) small patches of violent conflict begin to break out.

Worse, the problem is self-escalating. As the perception of personal security decreases, tribal identities become more and more important. Tribal divisions begin to harden in place, and anyone caught near the borders is forced to declare sides. Armed conflicts, both rhetorical and otherwise, widen and deepen. “Other tribes” are blamed for whatever goes wrong, but if things go sufficiently wrong, internal purges are carried out in hopes of restoring tribal purity. Further suspicions and tribal subdivisions are bred by the purges, and the splintering process repeats itself on a smaller and ever nastier scale.

(By this time, perceptive people have long since started looking for a way out. But there isn’t always a safe place to go, or a good way to get there.)

Still worse, a tribally destabilizing civilization becomes progressively more paranoid as it atomizes, making it far more vulnerable to political manipulation. This too is an escalating process. Tribal political power is traditionally maintained by rewarding your allies, punishing your enemies, and co-opting or discrediting your potential rivals; not by crafting broad-based political solutions to society’s problems. As more and more political power is poured into the battle for tribal consolidation, predictable consequences—partisan mistrust, rampant corruption, apathy, confusion, and civic disengagement—arise in the society at large. The bad drives out the good, as decent people are hounded from political power, or give up seeking it altogether.

(...what we're doing isn't working...)

Worse yet, at some point the entire political apparatus closes off, forming its own incestuous tribe. Coalitions shift as players rise and fall from media grace (and make no mistake, the media are players), but blame-shifting, cronyism, purges, and general nastiness remain endemic as tribalism takes open hold, increasingly transitioning from “under the table” to “over the counter.” The political system exists for its own sake now, and its original purposes have been cast by the wayside.

As the positional battle within the closed political system continues to intensify, the priorities of the active players transition from problem-solving to vote-buying as they scramble to secure their places at the high-stakes table. By now at least four mutually reinforcing societal dynamics are in play: (1) as a long-term strategy, influence-peddling requires first capturing and then maintaining a portfolio of dependent constituencies, which means systematically not solving their problems; (2) the ever-increasing sums of cash needed to stay in the game must be variously raised, taxed, regulated, solicited, extorted, diverted from infrastructure projects, or otherwise borrowed wholesale against society’s accumulated wealth; (3) some people begin to say “why should I work at all, if they are just going to give me some of that free money?” and (4) others ask “why continue to work hard, if they are just going to take from me everything I earn?”

(... and we are running out of time.)

The ratchet continues to tighten. Work ethic, self-reliance, honesty, and personal accountability decline all across the population, while disillusionment and dependency continue to rise, fueling further tribal destabilization. Bit players are squeezed out or co-opted by the big fish (who are themselves already co-opted), leaving fewer and fewer honest brokers. More and more money flows into the political system for less and less societal gain, and the infrastructure begins to fail.

Those who can afford it make good their planned escapes, taking their expertise and as much of their wealth as they can. And as the money runs out and production grinds to a halt, the political players finally, belatedly, begin realizing that they can no longer safely dismount from the ravenous societal tiger that they themselves have created. The only alternative is to tighten their grip and ride on, hoping that something—anything!—might happen along to save them.

Unfortunately, whatever shows up isn’t likely to be all that interested in saving anybody. A society that auto-cannibalizes its own accumulated human capital tends to leave itself wide open to foreign interference on a variety of scales, and few of them are benign. If powerful and hungry neighbors are present, then raids, invasions, or even outright annexations can be expected. If not, then the splintering process may simply continue indefinitely, as things continue to fall further apart. If that long slow drop has a bottom, a hard look at headlines and at human history suggests it has not yet been plumbed.

I reiterate: what we are doing isn’t working, we’re all in this together, and we are running out of time.

But it is not yet too late.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Beginnings II: Establishing Common Ground

A closer look at the attributes, and at why their universality matters

In "Beginnings: Toward an Open Source Map of Human Nature," I stated:

"Four basic human attributes—habitual pattern recognition, analogical thinking, a limited attention span, and a body governed by instincts—are all that are needed to assemble a coherent, accessible explanation for all possible human behavior."

and then proceeded to lay down an outline of sorts.

Let's take a closer look at those attributes.

Part I

(~720 words)

Human conscious attention is shockingly limited, so much so that we often fail to notice just how much of the world around us we are missing.


You cannot simultaneously think of everything you know (limited conscious capacity). You cannot list everything you have ever learned (limited retrieval). You cannot consciously micromanage running up a flight of stairs (limited processing speed). And you certainly cannot pay close attention to everything that is going on around you at once (limited targeting).

Even allowing for individual variation, the universality of these four attentional limits is so obvious as to be self-evident.

They apply equally to each of us, all of the time.

Somewhat surprisingly, our attentional limits turn out to be far, far stricter than most of us have ever imagined.

Try to count the number of "n's" remaining in this post while simultaneously reading for comprehension and actively monitoring the noises in your surroundings, and you'll begin to get an idea of the scope of the problem.

Our ability to overlook the severity of our own attentional limits is almost entirely due to the presence of a pair of hardwired cognitive workarounds:

First, we instinctively recognize patterns. The most stable and persistent of these are automatically saved as unconscious habits of thought and action. These habits accumulate continuously over the course of a lifetime, sinking below the waterline of consciousness in vast and ever-increasingly tangled layers.


It matters because, as Jeff Hawkins pointed out in 2004, pattern recognition enables pattern prediction.

As with autocorrect,* built-in pattern recognition allows the outcomes of sufficiently familiar events to be quickly and automatically anticipated.

*Although with the following caveat: as with autocorrect, the predictions can be wrong.*

In other words, pattern recognition enables us to react both consciously and unconsciously(!) to events even before they have finished unfolding. Pattern recognition brings a big functional upgrade to our attentional capacity, retrieval, speed, and targeting, improving real-world performance many times over.

MORE: As local patterns accumulate in tangled layers, they gradually knit into predictive habits of enormous sophistication. Letters are grouped into familiar syllables, syllables form familiar words, words become familiar phrases, and so on.

The attentional headroom needed to extract meaning from the words you are currently reading is only available because the heavy work of letter recognition is being done below attentional decks.

Accumulated habit, not conscious micromanagement, is how we run up flights of stairs, follow conversations, and generally manage the unique details of our own everyday lives.

Second, we reflexively engage in analogical thinking.

Analogies in the form of generalizations and creative metaphors greatly extend the range of existing habits, further easing the demand on limited attention. They too accumulate continuously over the course of a lifetime, sinking below the waterline of consciousness in vast and ever-increasingly tangled layers.


Generalizations, or “patterns in the output of patterns,” are what allow you to run up any flight of stairs, while wearing different shoes, while carrying something unusual. Creative metaphors let you repurpose the chair as a table, or the table as a chair, or declare the pen mightier than the sword.

Generalizations pull together entire ranges of patterns under a single idea. Metaphors bring wide ranges of existing ideas to bear on otherwise unrelated problems. Both forms of analogy offer dramatic reductions in attentional load.

The prevalence of analogical thinking, according to cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, is also why most human conceptual categories have clear centers, but fuzzy boundaries.* Not only do single patterns tend to fall into multiple overlapping categories, but the categories themselves may also be vertically layered, stacked several analogies deep. The human mind is an interesting place.

*Exceptions to boundary fuzziness in categories can occasionally be found in formally rigorous systems, such as philosophy, science, mathematics, and engineering.*

To these three attributes we add a catch-all fourth, the broadly defined "instinct", under which we collect all of the complex behavioral, motivational, and neurological hardwiring that keeps the human body alive and running.

For strategic reasons, this definition has deliberately been left as vague and inclusive as possible. We’ll return to defining instinct in more detail at the proper time, after a few more cards have been laid on the table.

So ends Part I, our first up-close look at the four attributes. Since this post is already long enough, I'll save any discussion of why their universality matters for a new post, Part II.

Hold onto your hats.