Part Of Something Big

A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. Joseph Campbell

Most Twitter talk reminds me of the movie Ridicule, wherein courtiers compete to show cruel wit and cynicism. This makes me crave a simple direct conversation on something that matters.

So I pick this: being part of something larger than yourself. This is a commonly expressed wish. But what does it mean?

Here are some clues: Judging from Google-found quotes, common satisfactory “things” include religions, militaries, political parties, and charities. For most people “the universe” seems too big and “my immediate family” seems too small. And neither seem idealistic enough. “All utilitarians” is idealistic enough, but seems insufficiently coherent as a group. The words “part” and “thing” here are suspiciously vague, suggesting that there are several elements here, some of which people are more willing to admit than others.

Here’s my interpretation: We want to be part of a strong group that has our back, and we want to support and promote ideals. But these preferences aren’t independent, to be satisfied separately. We especially want to combine them, and be a valued part of a group that supports good ideals.

So we simultaneously want all these things:

  1. We are associated with an actual group of people.
  2. These people concretely relate to each other.
  3. This group is credibly seen as really supporting some ideals.
  4. We embrace those ideals, and find them worth our sacrifice.
  5. Our help to this group’s ideals would be noticed, appreciated.
  6. If outsiders resist our help, the group will have our back.
  7. The group is strong enough to have substantial help to give.
  8. The group does’t do wrongs that outweigh their ideals support.
  9. Both the group and its ideals are big in the scheme of things.

Since this is a lot of constraints, the actual groups that exist are unlikely to satisfy them all. So we compromise. Some people see most all big coherent groups as easily corrupted, and so only accept small groups. For some, group bonding is so important they’ll compromise on the ideals, or accept weak evidence that the group actually supports its ideals. If group strength is important enough to them, they may not require any ideals. For others, the ideal is everything, and they’ll accept a weak group defined abstractly as “everyone who truly supports this ideal.” Finally, for some being appreciated is so important that they’ll take the thing the world seems to most appreciate about them and accept a group and ideal defined around that.

If this is right then just talking about what are the best ideals and how to achieve them somewhat misses the point. Also somewhat missing the point is talk about how to make strong well-bonded groups. If people typically want the two of these things together, then the actual design problem is how to achieve good ideals via a strong well-bonded group.

Which isn’t a design problem I hear people talk about much. Some presume that if they can design a good enough ideal, a good group will naturally collect around it. Others presume that if they can design a good enough way for groups to coordinate, groups will naturally coordinate to achieve good ideals. But how reasonable are these assumptions?

If we focus on explaining this preference instead of satisfying it, a homo hypocritus framework fits reasonably well. Coalition politics is central to what we really want, but if cheap we’d rather appear to focus on supporting ideals, and only incidentally pick groups to help us in that quest.

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    “If we focus on explaining this preference instead of satisfying it, a homo hypocritus framework fits reasonably well. Coalition politics is central to what we really want, but if cheap we’d rather appear to focus on supporting ideals, and only incidentally pick groups to help us in that quest.”

    Actually you presented no evidence that the supporting ideals part is only a secondary consideration. It might very well be that supporting ideals is hardwired in our brains, either because it in some way gives, or gave, an evolutionary advantage or because it’s a side effect of other hardwired stuff. Combined with the usual homo hypocriticus stuff (wanting to belong to a coalition) this would make for an exceptionally attractive idea, which is exactly what “being part of something bigger” feels like.

    • RobinHanson

      I didn’t say supporting ideals is secondary. “Appear to” modifies “pick”.

      • IMASBA

        You said we first go looking for coalitions and only when there’s a cheap signalling opportunity we might sell some coalition strength to buy the appearance of caring about ideals. To me that sounds like saying ideals are only a secondary consideration. My objection to this is threefold: 1) how do you know ideals are not a very important consideration themselves, successfully competing with the desire to form coalitions, 2) beyond signalling ideals can have actual uses: it really is more pleasant and safe to live among people who share your ideals, also ideals are linked to basic instincts of “fairness” which benefit all members of the coalition except the very strongest (if you successfully spread the ideal that random murder is bad that decreases the chances of you or your children being randomly murdered, only the very strong do not benefit from such ideals because through brute force/strength they can defend themselves against “unfair” acts) and 3) if nobody actually cares about ideals then who are you impressing by pretending to care about ideals, Martians?

      • Stephen Diamond

        RH has explained idealism, independent of coalition formation, as a form of romantic signaling: altruism is sexually attractive, particularly in males (for obvious evolutionary reasons). [Idealism decreases after early adulthood, so idealistic youth have said, "Don't trust anyone over 30!]

      • oldoddjobs

        I thought women fancied selfish pricks rather than altruistic chumps? Now altruism is sexually attractive?

      • Stephen Diamond

        To play the selfish-prick card, the male must have some other exceptionally attractive traits: looks, athletic accomplishment, fame, etc. Then being a selfish prick countersignals ( ) that he’s so desirable he doesn’t need to be altruistic.

      • oldoddjobs


      • IMASBA

        Women are attracted to confidence mostly, being a selfish-prick is one way to show confidence but only emotionally scarred or very young/naive women will like a man who is being a selfish prick towards her and other people that haven’t openly challenged the man on at least a level playing field (standing up to your boss is sexy, being a bully isn’t). Also, having ideals (and owning up to them) is something that many men find attractive in women as well.

      • IMASBA

        I understand that it can be seen as romantic signalling (and sometimes it really is nothing more than that, as in the professional “nice guy” for example) but for that to work there has to be some real degree of idealism to select for, unless signalling ideals is the human version of the peacock’s feathers…

      • Stephen Diamond

        A signaling game where folks are completely hypocritical would be self-undermining. I don’t know whether RH acknowledges this.

  • Hedonic Treader

    We know humans respond strongly to in-group out-group dynamics. I wonder if this creates a bias for ideals which can be directly opposed by other groups, over ideals that are more abstract.

    For instance, I value the creation of pleasure (and prevention of suffering) in the abstract. But there are no evil anti-utilitarian outgroups to rally against.

    In contrast, say, communism vs. capitalism provides much better crystallization points not only to commit to the group, but also hate the enemy.

    • RobinHanson

      Yes, I expect we do prefer ideals opposed by others.

    • oldoddjobs

      Of course, because all ideas are equally true and people only plump for a particular one to rally against out-groups.

      I’m doing signalling theory!

      • Stephen Diamond

        The question of whether we really care if our ideas are true is distinct from whether some are, in fact, truer than others.

        Signaling theory might explain our apparent desire for truth as actually being for ideas impregnable against opposition. Despite individual actors disregard for actual truth, this might create a social dialectic which advances actual truth historically because of the correlation between truth and impregnability.

  • oldoddjobs

    Must check this film out. Thanks Robin!

  • Handle

    I think the focus on group dynamics and coalitions misses something else people also crave. People also really want to be able to associate themselves with projects, events of notoriety, and other famous personalities they find impressive and worthy of story-telling, pride, bragging rights, or envy generation.

    So you hear people telling stories about being involved – even in an indirect or marginal way – with the building of the Hoover dam, or perhaps having been at Woodstock, or having once met Tom Cruise. These things aren’t really about ideals at all.

    They are partly about signalling of course. You want to be associated with something famous enough that you can brag to your interlocutor about your association and expect them to instantly recognize the thing you are talking about even if they are a stranger or don’t share other commonalities.

    Only the largest-scale projects or events or A-list celebrities can be that famous if your potential social group in the size of a nation or linguistic group and there are many niches and subcultures from which individuals may choose to acquire their knowledge-base.

    Also, only the most famous and well-known things about which the average person can only have a surface level of knowledge can generate the kind of curious inquiry for further detail that is truly excellent for conversation and storytelling and thus friendly socialization. “I met Tom Cruise once.” “Oh really?! I only know him the way everyone else does: from the movies. But what’s he really like?!”

    But it’s not just about signalling. People really do enjoy overcoming the actual challenges of working on something of a newly-large scale that exceeds previous achievements. People aren’t just interested in telling stories to impress people, they actually like to be a part of stories and imagine their roles in part of a grand, dramatic narrative.

    When I watch interviews with some of the physicists who worked on the Manhattan project, I get the impression that they derived psychological benefits on all these levels – status, signalling, intellectual satisfaction of overcoming difficult challenges, doing something unprecedented, being part of the WWII effort, etc. I imagine some LHC researchers, or other giant teams credited with discovering new particles after long searches, feel the same way.

    Some of these elements can compensate for the lack of others. So, for example, I have occasionally heard researchers boast to laypeople of their participation in large scale efforts that, while perhaps prominent in their narrow field of expertise, are nevertheless unknown or incredibly obscure outside of it. I have heard construction engineers boast of massive projects abroad that are also equally obscure.

    Nevertheless, they clearly derived deep satisfactions from being a part of those efforts and couldn’t wait to brag about the thing that had brought them joy. So I think it is plausible that when people tell stories, or imagine their own life as a collection of stories, they rank and prioritize their experiences and pick the top few vocational or group experiences about which they felt the most intensely and proud. All else being equal, larger-scale events would outrank smaller-scale ones.

    Ordinary people can almost never do something like that on their own, and if they do they are almost by definition not ordinary. So normal folks rely on large-scale efforts or major famous events. It makes sense to seek out movements or institutions that give one the maximum likelihood of being a ‘part of something big’ for all these reasons.

    The civilian federal government and military and certain non-profits all fit the bill well, and probably achieve a large part of their recruiting from people seeking out these collateral benefits and who will accept lower salaries as a result of their associations to large-scale, well-known, and impactful events.

  • Nathan Taylor (praxtime)

    You say “If people typically want the two of these things together, then the actual design problem is how to achieve good ideals via a strong well-bonded group. Which isn’t a design problem I hear people talk about much.” Actually that is a constant discussion point in management team building. Especially I see this focus in hot areas like software development where staff retention of top talent is so difficult. The most attractive job for people with the resume who can be picky is a mission based team with a common goal, where everyone has your back and no one is a parasite on the group, and the team decides collectively on action. Agile software methodology of course aligns to this team structure. Of course that stated goal may be somewhat hypocritical, but I think this is a real thing happening in the real world. I just listened to an episode of the Vector podcast, where Don Melton (Apple Safari team lead) talks about team building. Worth a listen. Perhaps this only impacts top talent, but as the world gets richer and people can be more picky about jobs, it’s possible it would trickle down to more of the workfroce.

    Vector Podcast:

    • RobinHanson

      I agree this discussion happens re key for-profit teams.