For survival reasons, it’s important to know the truth. Knowing that eating the root of a specific plant makes you sick, is useful information – it means you can avoid it. What if the shaman of your tribe is asking you to eat the root as part of a ritual? In a social context, the incentives are reversed. You know you’ll get sick for a few days if you eat the root, but that’s preferable to risking being shunned or even ejected from the tribe. Throughout most of human history while we lived as hunter-gatherers, being ostracised was equivalent to death: we couldn’t survive except as part of a group. So it’s not surprising that we’re programmed to respond to cultural incentives, even when it conflicts with our incentive to follow the truth.
When our beliefs are merit-based, we care about and monitor accuracy: if you believe your train leaves from platform 5 and the conductor tells you it’s actually platform 10, you thank them. You aren’t upset they corrected you. The opposite is true for ‘crony’ beliefs – things you believe in order to make the right impression on others – because challenging those beliefs is either an attack on your ‘tribe’ or risks you’ll be ostracised for associating with a ‘nonbeliever’. Effective groups actively build a collection of crony beliefs that are increasingly costly to hold: isolating members from other groups they may be part of, and making it harder to leave. Scientologists don’t stay despite the ‘Xenu’ story (belief in a galactic overlord), they stay because of it: once you’ve reached level OT3, it’s too costly to leave the group, so you swallow the belief and get pulled deeper in.
There’s a looping effect – as Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking calls it – where the act of putting someone in a category actually changes them. You can’t pick and choose the memes of the group, you must choose them all. The more outsiders identify you as part of a group, the higher the pressure to conform to the stereotypes of that group. Some of the gender divide in STEM fields is no doubt down to subconscious or overt bias on behalf of predominantly male hiring managers, however there is also cultural pressure applied by other women. Marrying and having kids inescapably and prominently labels women as a member of the ‘wife’ & ‘mother’ categories. In turn this acts as an invitation for women with traditional values to hold judgement over the life decisions of a perfect stranger. This is an effect you can choose to fight by prioritizing your career, but it takes focus and energy that the male tech workers you’re competing against don’t have to expend.
This effect disproportionately affects minorities because pressure is applied by both groups. Black people who take jobs that are perceived as culturally “white” – among both black and white populations – must navigate microaggressions from their mostly white co-workers, but also from their mostly black family members and friends. Both sides act to make them feel like they don’t belong, and it takes additional work to simply maintain their position, that a white worker would not need to exert. Striving for a better position in life can make you feel like an imposter in your new world, but also socially isolate you from your old world. It’s socially simpler, less risky, and not as laborious to do what society expects of you. This structural disadvantage results in the unfair distribution of ethnicities among many sought after institutions. The more uncompromising the morality, the wider the inevitable divisions between groups, as Jonathan Haidt explores in his book – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion – “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say”.
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