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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