Crisis 4: solidarity unnoticed

A million years of evolution have decreed that our instinctive response to a crisis is to pull together. We tend more towards selflessness than selfishness.

When a rule has been tested for so long in such a harsh crucible, you better believe its validity.

But the same forces also demand two caveats.

As we increase in solidarity we also notice and punish infractions more severely. This means that we think selfishness is the most common response to crisis. We also get really brutal on perceived offenders.

And our solidarity is directed towards our in-group. It is matched by a suspicion and hostility towards outsiders.

We are led by our instincts but we are not their slaves. Just as some people resist the impulse towards selflessness and take the most appalling advantages, others expand their ‘circle of empathy’ to the widest extent.

This ability to default from instinct explains the rise in suspicion during difficult times. Game theory helps here. Although the most effective long run outcome may be for everyone to cooperate; for a single individual it could be better if everyone else cooperated and they cheated (undetectably). If everyone else knows this, it would be foolish to act selflessly while your neighbours are busy stabbing you in the back. Everyone cheats. Your tribe collapses into anarchy and is taken over by the more disciplined band in the next valley. The route out of this conundrum is to make cheating hard to get away with and to inflict severe punishments when discovered.

In its various forms this is part of the wider ‘free rider’ problem and the logic of collective action (Mancur Olson) and also explains many trade union tactics such as the closed shop and the extreme hostility towards strikebreakers.

It seems like crises bring out the best while making us notice the worst.


The full crisis collection.

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