Skip to content

Monkey Motives

September 21, 2009

It will become clear over time that the ‘Other People’ or ‘Us and Them’ theme is a regular element of my thinking about community and action. This isn’t (just) about obvious historical, social, ethnic or tribal (e.g. football club), divisions that have been recognised, documented, and maybe thus reinforced. It’s more about the underlying psychological processes that may be involved in our attitudes to others, in our immediate reactions to a situation and, thus, our relationship with our local community.

So I think I should try to clarify this, for when it crops up elsewhere in this blog. I don’t think I’m saying anything new, anything that hasn’t been dealt with academically by sociology (with its ‘conflict’ and ‘consensus’ models of society) or by evolutionary psychology with it’s intricate analysis of how certain genetic inheritance can be favoured by group behaviours as well as those of an individual. But I need my own personal version – simpler and more vivid – to work with.

I know humans aren’t monkeys – we are probably some kind of great ape – but the lives of monkey ‘troupes’ or even of other clannish species such as Meerkats are the easiest to relate to. Many species of monkey live out their lives in clans, essentially extended families. Within those families there are all sorts of different protocols and hierarchies that determine interaction and status – many of which we can relate to when explaining the psychology of organisations… body language, pecking order, nurture and so on. But one of the greatest sources of pressure on a monkey clan is another monkey clan. They compete for resources (territory, food, shelter, remoteness from predators) and they may also compete for genetic resources – one clan seeking to break up another and appropriate the DNA of the strongest specimens into their own dominant family tree.

Just as relationships within clans, even amongst relatively distant kin, can be tender, altruistic and mutual… conflicts between clans can be brutal, total and fatal – either directly or as a result of pushing the losers into dangerous and impoverished territory. The difference, however it may be sensed and experienced, is clan. The decisions about how to respond to any situation fork at that point – is this individual ‘My-clan’ or ‘Not-my-clan’? Thereafter the answers are very very different. ‘Us’ or ‘Them’.

The second thing I want to make clear is that these are primitive distinctions – they are run by older, simpler, more hard-wired parts of our brains (minds?) which may have been overlaid, but not deleted, by our more complex social, linguistic and intellectual selves. Hence I’m not so interested in more modern, explicit and established national/tribal boundaries.

In recent years I have been increasingly aware of how what seem to be complex, intellectual, introspectible ideas, behaviours and problems can turn out to be intellectualisations, to be too elaborate. Typically they are over-intellectualisations of much more basic habits, conditioned responses, small building blocks of conditioned experience and even quite crude variations in brain chemistry… I’m thinking of phobias, or depression, or self-image. Only when you are able to recognise, access and manipulate these simpler elements – not least in yourself – do you start to accept primitive undercurrents to what you thought were high intellectual or social issues. We can see this in the current psychological  and political vogue for Nudge and the Psychology of Influence. But I’m increasingly seeing, and working with, this in myself… I think it’s what makes up much of that middle layer I talked about between the managed facade and the true self, a kind of muddling of the conscious and the reflexive.

I happen to think that ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ is an example of just such a primitive, and extremely influential, behavioural undercurrent. I think that human beings are highly susceptible to the snap, sub-conscious, ‘My-clan’ or ‘Not-my-clan’ distinctions of our distant ancestors. I believe that these switch us between two totally different attitudes to the plight of others, or to the assessment of their threat to us. The problem is that, by and large, we are no longer wandering the African savannah in groups of a few dozen. We live in high concentrations, we travel rapidly and encounter many other people along the way, we surround ourselves with walls/doors/ cars… and we can contact others remotely, including listening to ‘broadcasts’ from people we have never met face-to-face and are perhaps never likely to.

When we deal with someone in ‘Them’ mode we are, at best, indifferent and, at worst, fearful or hostile. This mode enables conflict (back in those inter-clan fights) and it may be something like this that explains the historically documented ability of ‘ordinary people’ to commit atrocities. When we deal with somebody in ‘Us’ mode we see them as a potential ally and protector and (back in those intra-clan support networks) this enables altruism (care, protection, collaboration) to function within clans and  extended families, in place of first-order selfishness. In modern times it explains acts of spontaneous sacrifice and courage from people who rescue a complete stranger from imminent danger or death.

So that’s one of my underlying theories – that at a deep subconscious level, easily intellectually obscured or post-hoc justified, we are subject to snap ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ responses which go on to condition our behaviours and opinions. Density of population, and the complexity of the ways in which we support ourselves and our dependants, mean that we are now in much more intense and frequent contact than these mechanisms were ever evolved to cope with. In communities I think that there are two negative ways in which this can be manifest, and one positive way. The first negative is where, for a given individual, the ‘Us’ shrinks down to a tiny number (or even to one) as a result of which life is dominated by competitive conflict, separation and alienation. The second negative is where, perhaps as a result of the first, social conflicts are played out between two third parties, two sets of ‘Them’, with whom the individual feels no connection… for example ‘The Police’ and ‘Violent Teenage Gangs’ or between ‘Social Workers’ and ‘Bad Parents’ and so on… these people aren’t part of a communal ‘Us’, so we sub-contract the resolution of right and wrong to ‘Other People’… and we evaluate the outcome by how, and when, that outcome directly affects ‘Us’, e.g. by cost, or damage, or fear. The positive way is where that primitive sense of ‘Us’, originally intended to work amongst a few dozen, is able to expand to take in many more… whereby we become benevolent to strangers (or near strangers) but also derive the benefit of feeling supported and included. I’m not at all formally religious myself but in Christianity, if one sets aside the Judaeo-Christian cosmology and all those mechanisms of sin and redemption, the underlying social project seems to be one of regarding just about everyone as ‘My Neighbour’… a Samaritan, or one in need of a Samaritan, rather than a robber or a potential slave. Similarly the Buddhist doctrine and practice of ‘Loving Kindness’ has these undertones.

How do I relate this to local, civic, community? [Thereby preventing this post from turning into a small book!] I think it should be the project of every community to foster the sense of ‘Us’ – and not by creating some politically synthesised ‘Them’ as a cheap way of making it happen. The aim of the project should be to make it more likely that the ‘My-clan’ instinct is triggered in any given situation. I think this can be done in little steps, and through both words and actions… but appealing to the instincts and not to complicated rationalisation. I think that the new technology of the internet and social media has a potentially massive role to play in doing this, by making each of us aware of the human face of our otherwise ‘Them’ neighbours and giving us opportunities to support each other and enjoy communal action… and the accompanying sense of security and belonging. I also think that this is a race, a race against those who have already adopted the ‘Them’ stance and who would use the same channels to stoke conflict and feed the more impoverished solidarity that comes from a sense of being besieged. I think that, because this is above all about place and not about communities of interest – the natural leaders of such a project, of turning us into clannish neighbours, are local authorities, local politicians, local government officers and local volunteers.

I think the project begins simply by gaining an understanding of what conversations are already happening online, in a given place, and how these can be brought together, how the positive ones can be supported and how they can be brought to bear on older, more hierarchical, processes and services.

Two last thoughts:

  1. I bet that local public services founded on, and supported by, the behaviours and altruism of an ‘Us’ community are cheaper and more efficient to run than those which are dominated by a withdrawn social ‘outsourcing’ of civic action to that other ‘Them’ – “the authorities”, to whom we have no obligation other than a financial one, and with whom we have no relationship other than demand and complaint. By ‘outsourcing’ I’m not talking about the economic and contractual means by which services are delivered. I mean the ‘outsourcing’ of responsibility, of caring, of connection and, ultimately, of action and intervention. By ‘outsourcing’ I mean a view of the world which is dominated by the interaction of ‘Other People’ and from which we, ourselves, are absent.
  2. I bet that the ‘Us’ community is easier to bring about if local politicians  (in particular) but also public servants and, ultimately, ‘Us’ are prepared to discard some of the bull and be honest about the challenges, the rewards and the commitment (not necessarily money) that is required to bring it about.

End of sermon. But remember to look here if you are puzzled when I go on about ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, ‘My-clan’ and ‘Not-my-clan’, ‘Other People’, and the power of our underlying Monkey Motives.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: