To See Group Selection, Look at Groupishness during Intergroup Competition, Not Altruism during Interpersonal Competition

By Jonanthan Haidt June 30, 2012 6 Comments
[The post below was Haidt’s first draft of a response to Pinker. To see his final draft, click here:]

If you want to see fish, look in the water, where fish are most likely to be found. If you want to see evidence of group selection, look at small groups in competition, which is where group-selected traits are most likely to be found.

Here’s a bad way to search for group-selected traits: First, focus your inquiry on altruism and define altruism as behavior in which one individual bears a net cost that creates a net benefit for other individuals within the group. Then bring individuals into the lab to interact with strangers in temporary groups that are not put into competition with other groups. Rather, make your experimental subjects play games in which their monetary interests are directly pitted against the interests of others, even though they could all maximize their outcomes if they were to work “as a group.” You can study the vast field of behavioral economics, including prisoners’ dilemmas, commons dilemmas, and dictator games, and you’ll find no psychological mechanisms that cry out for group selection to explain them.

Unless you flip the intergroup competition switch. One of the few social psychological studies that actually put real, ongoing groups into real conflict was the famous “summer camp” study carried out by Muzafar Sherif (1), who brought two groups of twelve year old boys out to a summer camp in a state park in Oklahoma in 1954. At first, the two groups didn’t even know of the others’ existence, yet even still, each group started marking territory and creating a tribal identify for itself. Both groups engaged in some mild tribal behaviors that would be useful if the group were to encounter a rival group that claimed the same territory. That’s what happened on day 6 when the “Rattlers” discovered that the “Eagles” were playing baseball on what the Rattlers took to be “their” ballfield. The Rattlers then challenged the Eagles to a game, which was the start of a weeklong series of competitions that Sherif had planned from the start.

Once the competition began, it was as though a switch was flipped in each boy’s head. As Sherif described it: “performance in all activities which might now become competitive (tent pitching, baseball, etc.) was entered into with more zest and also with more efficiency.” Tribal behaviors increased dramatically. Both sides created flags and hung them in contested territories. They raided each others’ bunks, called each other names, and even made weapons (socks filled with rocks.)

Were these acts altruistic? I think the opposite of selfishness in evolutionary terms should not always be altruism. For the purposes of the present debate, it should be groupishness. The hand of group-level selection is most clearly seen, I believe, when we look at behaviors that may be costly for the individual, but that don’t transfer that cost as a benefit to a specific other group member (which would help the selfish individualists prosper in a multi-level analysis). Rather, mental mechanisms that encourage individuals to do things that help their team succeed, despite some cost to the self, are the most likely candidates for having come down to us by a path in which group-selection played a part. I mean the sorts of things we do more of when our group or team is attacked – show the flag or the team colors, rally around the leader, join with others (at some cost to the self) to punish free riders and kill or expel traitors, and just generally becoming more of a “team player,” as Sherif’s adolescents did. I’m not saying these things are good in a normative sense. I’m just trying to understand some corners of our moral minds that can’t readily be explained by kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Groups in which genes for groupish psychology co-evolved with cultural innovations for effective groupishness (such as initiation rites and body painting) probably outcompeted groups that lacked either the genes or the cultural innovations to maximize the effectiveness of those genes.

Pinker says that “none of this wasteful ritualizing and mythologizing would be necessary if ‘the group’ were an elementary cognitive intuition which triggered instinctive loyalty.” But many social psychologists believe that the group is an elementary cognitive intuition.  The “minimal group” studies of Henri Tajfel (2) showed this long ago – people will make more positive attributions about strangers assigned to their own group even on arbitrary criteria, no more meaningful than a coin flip. And more recently work with infants shows that they note markers of group identity (such as accent) and prefer people who are members of their group (3), and this preference for in-group members is at least as strong (3) as the much-publicized preference of infants for helpful characters (rather than harmful or “mean” characters (4)).

In sum, I fully agree with Pinker, Coyne, and other critics of group selection that humans are not pervasively altruistic. The experimental literature on altruism does not require group selection to explain it. Most of our social psychology, and I’d say even most of our moral psychology, was shaped by the relentless competition of individuals within groups, competing for status, mates, and the trust of potential partners for cooperation. But if you look beyond altruism among strangers and you examine instead the psychological traits that motivate and enable cohesion, trust, and effective coordination during times of intergroup competition, then at least you’re looking in the right pond, and I see fish.

1. Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W., & Sherif, C. (1961/1954). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Institute of Group Relations.

2. Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology Vol 1(2) 1971, 149-178.

3. Kinzler, K. D., Dupoux, E., & Spelke, E. S. (2007). The native language of social cognition. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(30), 12577-12580.

4. Hamlin, J. K. (2012). A Developmental Perspective on the Moral Dyad. Psychological Inquiry, 23, 166-171.

Published On: June 30, 2012

Jonanthan Haidt

Jonanthan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”) is a social psychologist and professor in the Business and Society Program at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He studies moral psychology, with a particular interest in the moral emotions, such as moral disgust and moral elevation. He is the author of two books – The Happiness Hypothesis, and The Righteous Mind. In his current work he is examining businesses as complex multi-level organisms that have cultural and institutional features that can be more or less hospitable to ethical and unethical behavior.


  • tmtyler says:

    So: we all seem to agree that Steven Pinker doesn’t know what he is talking about here. The real scientific controversy about group selection is whether it adds to the existing, orthodox kin selection framework – and if it does whether that compensates for all the muddle and confusion that it has been associated with it historically. To discuss that we have to get past the “is group selection real” issue. That issue now seems to have been settled by scientists: modern formulations of group selection and kin selection mostly make the same predictions and agree with each other. So: to find a human group selected trait, one need look no further than the human mammary gland. If your theory of group selection doesn’t rapidly direct you to an adaptation like that, you are probably using an inferior version of group selection – or you aren’t using it correctly.

  • Juan Alfonso del Busto says:

    I love it: groupishness. So altruism could be kind of a side-effect of groupishness and not the other way around, what absolutely makes sense.
    The following could be a good example: tonight my country´s soccer selection, Spain, is playing against the Italian for the prestigious Eurocup championship. As you probably know, during the rest of the year Real Madrid players and Barcelona players usually hate each other and compete ferociously. The rivalry is not only about the sport but also about politics (centripete nationalism versus catalonian centrifuge nationalism). However, when it comes to compete against other national soccer selections all the rivalry seems to fade. All spanish players merge into a common desire to defeat all the other european nations. All players seem to exude genuine camaraderie. All of them seem to understand that it is important to (temporally) set aside all differences in order to achieve a greater good.
    It seems like these groupishness tendencies can be “switched” on and off in a very flexible way just when it is required. These tendencies are not only capable of fostering between group competition (with inner cooperation or so called altruism) but also capable of fostering abitrarily higher levels of competition like between groups-of groups competition, and so forth.
    This “switch” reminds me of a short story by Stanislav Lem in his book “Ciberiada”.

  • Peter Turchin says:

    A very nice commentary. I completely agree with your de-emphais of ‘altruism’. In my 2003 book (Historical Dynamics) I distinguished between ‘altruistic’ and ‘solidaristic’ behaviors, the latter being the same as your groupishness. ‘Altro’ refers to another, but we need a term for group-directed behaviors.

    On the other hand, while I am completely behind the concept, I am not quite happy about the term ‘groupishness.’ But what are the alternatives? Collectivism is probably the best, but it has been tarnished by the association with Bolshevik ideology (collective farms etc). Also, social psychologists use it in a different sense – they usually apply it to cooperation within families, rather than at larger social scales. Perhaps ‘solidarism’? Coming up with a punchy term is very important for the success of the concept, but I don’t have a suggestion I really like.

  • Juan Alfonso del Busto says:

    I am amazed by the fierceness of the attacks against group selection. The detractors seem to think that every posible evidence or explanation has been either ruled out or found mistaken as kin selection.

    If this is true I would like to ask them if there is any formal mathematical model which analyzes the possibility that group selection has evolved not only through a process of multilevel NATURAL selection but also through a process of individual SEXUAL selection which could have fostered a set of gene-based “groupish” instincts such as altruism or a tendency towards male heroic acts under certain circumstances (specially when we are watched), punishment tendencies and so forth.

    I am talking about a kind of Fisher´s runaway process like the one that Geoffrey Miller uses to explain the uniqueness of human mind. Peacock tails can´t be explained only in terms of natural selection. Perhaps neither can group selection. What if the cost to survival that the individual takes when he behaves altruistically is out-balanced by a benefit for reproduction, as a consequence of becoming more atractive to females (and also more prestigious to males)?…

    For example, just think of certain human female tendencies: Why women get excited by men in certain uniforms? Why women fell in love with men that do heroic feats (apparently altruistic)? Why women prefer to get involved in a monogamous relationship with men who are empathetic and generous? and so forth…

    A little introspection make things even more clear. Would be we human males be equally motivated to do a heroic feat if we knew nobody is watching and nobody would ever know about it?…

    In my opinion sexual selection might be the key to explain instincts and “groupish” ( in Haidt´s terms) gene-based tendencies that seem to go againts the individual fitness. If these instincts and tendencies make individuals more atractive and prestigious, group benefits could easily align with individual benefits.

    • Tim Tyler says:

      Re: The detractors seem to think that every posible evidence or explanation has been either ruled out or found mistaken as kin selection.

      So: group selection is kin selection – in the sense that modern versions of these theories make the same predictions. If you look at the early “new group selection” literature, the practitioners mostly thought that they had a new, more general theory that kin selection was a subset of. However, attempts to distinguish group selection from kin selection have mostly failed. These days most of the group selection enthusiasts have toned down their claims about having a neglected new theory and adopted the “well, it’s an interesting way of looking at it” stance. That’s true – but group selection has also caused massive confusion and has inspired all kinds of dodgy models – while kin selection has a much more respectable history. One has to ask if it is really worth it.

  • Juan Alfonso del Busto says:

    All right, Tim. The truth is I have trouble seeing the difference between kin and group. But as Haidt points out, we humans seem to have a tendency towards a very general and flexible “groupishness” (vs. “kinishness”); Like a “mind switch” that can conveniently be turned on and off depending on the enviromental circumstances (namely the other individuals of the group one belongs to at the time, regardless they are kin or not). These tendencies don´t seem to be specified exlusively for a very restrictive group of individuals (the kin) but for any arbitrary group, or group of groups, that could be formed temporarily or by chance, in an extremely flexible way.

    And I am not talking about “Big Mistake Theory” here. I am saying that the tendencies towards “groupishness” (versus “kinishness”) are clearly favored by epigamic sexual selection through mate choice. The very same sexual selection that favor men with genes for above-average memetic abilities.

    Do the models of kin and group selection you mention take into account the influence of sexual selection pressures? It is the same as with memes: you have to take them into account if you want to explain human inter-group competition and inner cooperation. If you want to model correctly a process as complex as group selection in humans, you have to consider all replicators (genes and memes) and all kinds of selection (natural and sexual). Otherwise the models are just roughly aproximate.

    Think of a male springbox that jumps in front of the lioness, teasing her. Is he advertising his fitness to the lioness? Is he telling her “I´m in shape. Eat someone else”?… or rather is he advertising his fitness to the female springboxes who are safely watching a few yards away? May be this male springbox feels like he is behaving bravely. Heroicly. May be the female springboxes feel the same, develop a kind of romantic emotions toward this male, and as a consequence the probabilities of joining his harem increase. More over! May be the other male springboxes admire this fellow “hero” and are less prone to fight with him for mating or territory. This argumentation can explain that apparently survival-costly or risky behaviors are in reality reproductively-benefitial. And if the behaviors that are sexually selected happen to favor “groupishness” (not only towards kin but towards any member of the group one happens to be part of at the time) we could have a nice theoretical frame for real group selection. At heart a very opportunistic groupishness. A very selfish groupishness.

    Think of humans. Women develop romantic feelings for men who do (apparently) altruistic or heroic feats, like risking their lives for saving children who aren´t their kin (note that this could also favor the frequency of monogamous relationships where the current husband is not the father of the current wife´s children). This is consistant with Geoffrey Miller´s theories since this heroic acts can be considered as solid fitness indicators.

    With the push of sexual selection, individual benefits (perhaps not in terms of survival benefits but in terms of reproductive benefits) can align with group benefits. It´s win-win. Does that mean that we are speking about kin selection and not about group selection?

    Besides, in a species with cultural transmision, prestige bias and so forth, these tendencies can spread very fast, in terms of generations, through imitation, like the mate copying behaviors observed by Lee Alan Dugatkin.

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