Fear Made Farmers

Farming required huge behavior changes, mostly unnatural to foragers. A key enabler seems to have been increased self-control to follow social norms. But what allowed this increased self-control?

One source was moving from vague spirituality to religions with powerful and morally-outraged gods who punish norm violators. In addition (as I’ll explain tomorrow), high densities and larger social networks made stronger credible threats to ostracize folks for specific deviant acts.  Yes both these mechanisms require the fear that norm violations could lead to great harm, even death. But for poor farmers living on edge, such threats were easy to come by.

Interestingly, this death-threat pressure could work even without farmers being conscious of the relevant threats or fears. In fact, farming society probably worked better with homo hypocritus farmers, consciously denying that strong social pressures pushed them to do what would otherwise feel unnatural.

A large robust literature makes it clear that inducing people to unconsciously think about death pushes them to more strongly obey and defend cultural norms, especially norms framed as disgust at animal-like behavior.  Today, fear of death encourages folks to obey authorities, and be more loyal to their communities and spouses, all strong farmer norms:

Empirical support for [Terror management theory] has originated from more than 175 published experiments which have been conducted cross-culturally both nationally and internationally. … People, when reminded of their own inevitable death, will cling more strongly to their cultural worldviews. …. Nations or persons who have experienced traumas are more attracted to strong leaders who express traditional, pro-establishment, authoritarian viewpoints. … Many terror management studies have examined elicited affect as a covariate to mortality salience, and only one reviewed study has found elicited affect (fear) in the terror management process. Why? Terror management is a non-conscious process. …

Research corroborates the link between love and the fear of death. Studies reveal an association between close relationship seeking and mortality salience. Moreover, further studies demonstrate that the desire for close relationships under conditions of mortality salience trumps other needs including self-esteem and maintenance (pride) or avoidance (shame/guilt) … [Researchers] find the rejection of animality or creatureliness to function as the central tendency driving disgust … Studies demonstrate that mortality salience is associated with the rejection of animal traits. (more)

Subtle reminders of death on a subconscious level motivates a statistically significant number of subjects to exhibit biased and xenophobic type behaviors, such as gravitating toward those who they perceive as culturally similar to themselves and holding higher negative feelings and judgments toward those they perceive as culturally dissimilar to themselves. (more)

Note that fear-of-death based norm-enforcement mechanisms should work better on poor folk for whom death is a more immediate threat. Farming culture took advantage of a prior natural fear of death to push farming ways, but as farmers got richer, such pressures weakened, inclining folks to revert to more natural-feeling forager ways.

I suspect that social scientists, even those favoring “behavioral” explanations, consistently neglect fear of (thinking about) death as an explanation of social phenomena. Social scientists also don’t like to think about death, and thinking about explanations involving fear of death makes social scientists think too much about death.

Added: tijmz points out an ’08 Science study showing more fear-sensitive folks are more conservative:

Individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism,and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War. Thus, the degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.

Bryan reminded he that he pointed out this essay arguing that “authoritarian personalities” looks more like “old-fashioned personalities”, a fact which emphasizes just how much opinion has moved in a less conservative direction over time.

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  • http://www.angryblog.org Brian Moore

    Would then fans of horror movies, which often show shocking/startling imagery, be then liberal or conservative?

    Also, I find this link counter intutitive:

    “Individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support [...] gun control”

    Why would people with lower sensitivities to sudden noises (like gunshots?) and threatening visual images (like guns?) be more likely to support gun control? Wouldn’t those fearful of death and loud noises be more likely to support bans on guns, since they’re almost always associated with those things? There was a time when gun control was associated with very different political factions.

  • tom

    Here is a good, strange story on the same idea, asking whether the Biblical Eden was just the pre-agricultural world. So maybe we’re heading back toward Paradise.

  • tom
  • Jason

    Farming required huge behavior changes, mostly unnatural to foragers.

    Maybe this puts the cart before the horse — if farming required huge, unnatural behavioral changes to get started, it seems to me that farming would be very unlikely to start, yet it seems to happen immediately after the ice age climate became suitable.

    Maybe the other way — wealth produced by farming allowed the luxury of unnatural behavior changes.

    You said in your previous post

    Why exactly would folks have evolved to, when rich, more prefer abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and leisure, and less kids religion, patriotism, and authority?

    This seems strangely backward to me — rich societies allow these things, but the wealthy members of the richest society on earth seem to believe the opposite (maybe just because the wealthy tend to be older). Young foragers, vs older farmers?

    Maybe foraging vs farming shifted the balance of power in society from young hunters chasing down meat and young gatherers with good eyes to older farmers who’d had more experience growing crops?

    • Jason

      That is to say, the behaviors were always there, just not represented until the power structure shifted.

      Times of fear may also cause society to rely on the wisdom of the elders, and therefore their world view.

  • Matt

    I understand that more conservative individuals tend to self report greater happiness though. Where is our evidence that they are more stressed or sad or suicidal on a day to day basis, rather than merely having a transient heightened threat response to transient threats? Stress disorders might be a good thing to look at? My understanding is that on Big 5 factor analysis, there isn’t a difference in the Neuroticism or Agreeableness trait between the two groups.

    Perhaps you don’t need to be unhappy, stressed or neurotic to be living in fear though (and can be happier living in fear than if you weren’t). Though I find this counter intuitive.

  • http://spontaneousemission.blogspot.com/ Michael

    In regards to the Science paper, I wonder what might be found if such a test were performed with different stimuli. For example, how would people of different political persuasions react to a short video of someone losing their health insurance? You’ve pointed out in the past that fear of death can go a long way in explaining our current health care system, and the emphasis placed upon health insurance does look at least quasi-religious. We seem to be moving through different sets of enforced cultural norms and religions based upon fear of death on our way back to forager values.

  • http://cephalicfurrow.wordpress.com PeterW

    How is this theory influenced by overconfidence bias and the signaling rewards of appearing confident and fearless?

    • Anonymous

      Seems like a good point.

  • Andy McKenzie

    Good post and important point.

    you say: “Social scientists also don’t like to think about death, and thinking about explanations involving fear of death makes social scientists think too much about death.”

    I suspect it is also in large part that social scientists know that people do not like to think / read about death and expect that others won’t like their work if they do research on it. Death is low status, always has been.

  • Charlie O

    I can see how fear keeps farmers from violating social norms – fear of death is a strong incentive. But how did we get from foragers to farmers? Was fear part of the forager lifestyle as well? If not, did it develop in relation to farming? If fear was part of the forager lifestyle to keep social norms, how did those social norms change so that farmers could come around?

    I think more detail is needed on the transition from forager to farmer.

  • http://hertzlinger.blogspot.com Joseph Hertzlinger

    For some reason, I’ve noticed the studies purporting to show correlations between psychological traits and political belief almost always have pathetically-small sample sizes. For example, the study that showed that gun-control proponents etc. were more fearful had a sample size of 46.

    Maybe we should wait for real evidence.

  • jb

    Foraging is a fairly safe occupation, genetically and tactically – you are constantly on the move, you’re getting more exercise, you are randomly running into other foraging groups to exchange DNA and ideas with, and, if you’re threatened by a superior invading force, you have more ability to survive in smaller groups, split up, live off the land and move on.

    In other words, you are in an environment where meeting others is generally not super-dangerous, and in fact can lead to great boons. Yes, you can catch diseases, but your tribe is also probably exposed to diseases on a regular basis, building up your immune system

    Farmers, on the other hand, are stuck – they are forced to live in a single location. This means:
    * Less safe in the face of invaders – you can’t easily flee and live off the land. So every interaction with strangers can be very, very dangerous. Thus, the fear of the other.

    This means: Less genetic variation, less disease resistance (reinforcing the danger of foreign interactions), fewer opportunities for trade.

    When a foreign tribe shows up on the border, some small number of people need to go and deal with them. Those people end up with signficant prestige and significant power in the farm community. They represent some combination of martial leadership and political leadership.

    Does this conservative? It does to me.

    Now, the question – why would anyone choose this???

    The answer: Because they hunted and foraged the environment to depletion – literally, they ate all the random potatoes and deer, and they had no choice – either start planting, or die. Assuming they were on some sort of large geographic cycle/circle – Probably, they noticed that the places they had visited before had large concentrations of the plants that they had gathered and foraged at camp before (all the seeds and cuttings). It wasn’t a high conceptual leap to realize that they could deliberately plant these vegetables, and potentially raise livestock for slaughter, and cycle between these “specific locations”. And then it’s not a big leap to say “why are we walking from location A to B to C, when B is clearly outgrowing the other two

    My theory, anyways

    • Matt

      Hmmm. Population size is far more important than mobility as a factor generating genetic diversity and you need very small populations to reduce genetic diversity on disease related diversity (relative to hunter gatherers). Disease increases with population size, but not for exposure or genetic diversity reasons but because the host population increases and population size and genetic variation of pathogens increases with population size of the host population.

      Two explanations for why the change to farming would be:

      – During the initial phase, farming would not be initially incompatible with hunting and gathering but could increase food surpluses while barely increasing the amount of work required. Gradual intensification and expansion takes place until farming societies are ubiquitous.
      -Greater food production for ritual purposes, which gradually move to subsistence purposes (afaik the temple preceeded the city in the archaeological record).

      As to the general theory I’d be interested in seeing an anthropologist fact check and confirmation any assertions about differences between HGs and agriculturalists.

    • Anonymous

      There seem to be flaws in this theory.

      1- Hunter-gatherer lifestyles lasted for millions of years, and in some areas still do. This suggests that to some extent humans learned to restrain themselves from over-hunting.
      2- Agriculture didn’t start up at similar times over the world, but started up in specific places and spread.
      3- Tribes tended to have specific (if vaguely marked) territories- similarly, farmers tended to have specific (if vaguely marked) territories- there was more freedom to move around, but it was still limited.

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