Learn­ing to live anony­mously

It’s rel­a­tively re­cent that we would vol­un­tar­ily dis­solve our so­cial groups.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Robert M. Sapol­sky umans have Robert M. Sapol­sky isa pro­fes­sor of bi­ol­ogy at Stan­ford Univer­sity and of neu­rol­ogy and neu­ro­surgery at Stan­ford’s med­i­cal school. He is a contributing writer to Opin­ion.

H UMANS HAVE been around for a cou­ple hun­dred thou­sand years, by most cal­cu­la­tions. When you con­sider mod­ern, West­ern­ized hu­mans in that con­text, we come off as pretty strange in our so­cial in­ter­ac­tions. The ways we re­late to one another re­flect a very dif­fer­ent so­cial mind-set from our an­ces­tors. We jet­ti­son con­nec­tions that were es­sen­tial in the past.

For nearly all of hu­man his­tory, peo­ple lived in small hunter-gath­erer bands, with some flow of in­di­vid­u­als be­tween neigh­bor­ing bands that reg­u­larly en­coun­tered one another. In other words, your life was spent among peo­ple you knew.

But as has been ex­plored by so­ci­ol­o­gists and psy­chol­o­gists, once hu­mans de­vel­oped pro­toc­i­ties with thou­sands of in­hab­i­tants, start­ing around 9,000 years ago, some­thing un­prece­dented oc­curred: We be­gan to spend a lot of time around peo­ple we didn’t know very well at all.

And soon this pro­gressed to reg­u­larly en­coun­ter­ing com­plete strangers, and on to our cur­rent ex­is­tence where we can hop a plane to, say, Outer Mon­go­lia, and be among not only strangers but peo­ple we are un­likely to ever see again. Stand in line in a down­town Star­bucks, and you’ll be amid more strangers than a hunter­gath­erer would meet in a life­time.

How odd is this? Our brains are evolved to nav­i­gate so­cial groups. There’s a part of the brain near the vis­ual cor­tex called the fusiform, which spe­cial­izes in fa­cial recog­ni­tion; across all the pri­mate species, the larger the typ­i­cal so­cial group, the larger the rel­a­tive size of the frontal cor­tex, a brain re­gion cen­tral to so­cial in­tel­li­gence — and hu­mans have the largest by miles. Our brains are stu­pen­dously at­tuned to rapidly and au­to­mat­i­cally dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween “us” and “them” (and with tremen­dous mal­leabil­ity as to what cat­e­gory some­one falls in). And we are strongly pre­dis­posed to have “It’s a them!” alarms go off when en­coun­ter­ing a stranger.

In a sim­i­lar vein, eco­nomic game the­ory tells us that gen­eros­ity and co­op­er­a­tion — good things in hu­man terms — plum­met when in­ter­ac­tions are one time only and anony­mous. Game the­o­rists show that the surest way to boost co­op­er­a­tion is “re­peated-round, open-book” play — you in­ter­act with an ar­ray of in­di­vid­u­als mul­ti­ple times (a known so­cial group) that can ac­cess your play his­tory. In other words, the more we’re known, the less we act like jerks.

Given the ad­van­tages of so­cia­bil­ity, we’ve come up with cul­tural mech­a­nisms to pro­mote it amid our anonymity. As doc­u­mented by the psy­chol­o­gist Ara Noren­za­yan of the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, it is only when so­ci­eties get large enough that peo­ple in them reg­u­larly en­counter strangers that “Big Gods” emerge — deities who are con­cerned with hu­man moral­ity and who pun­ish our trans­gres­sions. The gods of hunter-gather­ers gen­er­ally couldn’t care less whether we’ve been naughty or nice.

We sec­u­lar­ized Western moderns have in­vented our own Big Gods, om­nipo­tent eyes in the sky that in a more lit­eral way counter anonymity — this is our world of drones, of ubiq­ui­tous se­cu­rity cam­eras, of record­ing de­vices in ev­ery­one’s pock­ets that can doc­u­ment the deeds and mis­deeds of po­lice and passersby alike.

There are plenty of more or less un­avoid­able cir­cum­stances in which peo­ple pick up and leave ev­ery­one they know to go live among strangers. For ex­am­ple, you marry (or are forcibly mar­ried off to) an out­sider and go and live in a dis­tant vil­lage. Or for po­lit­i­cal or eco­nomic rea­sons you bid your loved ones farewell, and cross an ocean to a new world and never see your home­land again. And there are cer­tainly dis­as­trous times where en­tire com­mu­ni­ties are de­stroyed. This is our legacy of con­quest and en­slave­ment, of scat­ter­ing refugees across the world, our in­ven­tion of di­as­po­ras.

But given our an­ces­tors’ habits, our brains’ alarm at “thems” and our bet­ter be­hav­ior among known groups, it is truly strange and rel­a­tively re­cent that we would vol­un­tar­ily dis­solve in­tact so­cial groups. We ar­du­ously es­tab­lish sta­ble com­mu­ni­ties where peo­ple know one another and func­tion ef­fec­tively, where there are com­plex so­cial net­works, where there are high de­grees of co­op­er­a­tion, con­nec­tion, maybe even love. We dwell in them for years and then one day in ef­fect say: “It’s over. Next Monday, let’s all pick up and wan­der off in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. Most of us will never see each other again, and we’ll def­i­nitely never ex­ist as a com­mu­nity again. Who’s up for this?”

This is crazy by pri­mate stan­dards, or by the stan­dards of the mil­len­ni­ums of peo­ple liv­ing in small agri­cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties. The odd­ity of vol­un­tary dis­so­lu­tion, and the storm of strange emo­tions that it can evoke even many decades later, are on my mind now be­cause I just watched my son grad­u­ate from high school. His was a school of high achiev­ers — few of them will merely set­tle down in their home­town me­trop­o­lis; in­stead, he and the oth­ers will scat­ter to dis­tant univer­si­ties and help form new self-dis­solv­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Four years of so­cial com­plex­ity, then a spate of de­nial about what’s re­ally hap­pen­ing: “We’ll be in touch.”

From the adorable faux pomp and cir­cum­stance of a preschool grad­u­a­tion, through the last day of sum­mer camp, and on to the grad­u­a­tions of late ado­les­cence and early adult­hood, we are trained to live in com­mu­ni­ties in which even­tu­ally, ev­ery­one will walk away and barely look back.

It cer­tainly has its ad­van­tages — that same process trains us to seek out op­por­tu­ni­ties, to sam­ple dif­fer­ent ways of liv­ing, to ex­plore and ven­ture, to rein­vent our­selves. Maybe it even helps pre­pare us for each of our ul­ti­mate de­par­tures. But it also leaves us with a pe­cu­liar sense of loss that few of our an­ces­tors ever felt.

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