Evolution of parochialism

Previously I was reading about identity in Singapore, and I found that the government project of creating a national identity is focused upon creating a cosmopolitan mindset (i.e. one of openness and tolerance of difference), and that this interacts in different ways with the two main groups of foreigners, the ‘foreign talent’ and the ‘foreign worker’. The literature review that I did there was focused upon the sociological literature and Singapore specifically. In this post I provide a summary of some reading that I have done on experiments investigating group identity using economic games. I’ve focused specifically upon parochialism in group cooperation, as parochialism is antithesis of cosmopolitanism and might be thought of as the ‘dark side’ of group behaviour and identity.

A game-theoretic / evolutionary approach?

What causes parochialism, and in particularly what leads to parochialism’s most negative effects?

Theories used in social sciences to investigate ingroup favouritism and intergroup conflict, such as realistic conflict theory (Sherif, 2010) and social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner, 1979), emphasise social psychological drivers, such as fear and resentment, or deriving self-identity from group-identity and the desire to have a positive self-image (respectively). In contrast, I am interested in a complementary perspective that acknowledges the role that groups have played in humans’ evolutionary history, and how humans have relied upon groups for survival and success. It proposes that human group behaviour can be understood in relation to those origins. It is also allied with identity in economic analysis (Akerlof and Kranton, 2000), where behaviour is ultimately understood in terms of its costs and benefits to the individual. The evolutionary approach begins with the question of social dilemmas (Dawes, 1980), and how the cooperative behaviours evidenced by humans (and some other nonhuman animals) that resolve these dilemmas may have evolved (e.g. Axelrod, 1984). For example, the tendency of humans to behave cooperatively with strangers (indirect reciprocity) may have evolved due to the benefit of having a reputation as a cooperator within one’s social group (Nowak and Sigmund, 1998). One observation that relates to some of my previous reading is that the formation of group identity enhances cooperation (Dawes et al., 1988). The theory of bounded generalised reciprocity (Yamagishi et al., 1999) explains this behaviour in terms of its evolutionary origins, and in doing so predicts that cooperation and trust will vary between scenarios in particular ways that not predicted by social identity theory. These predictions have been confirmed experimentally (reviewed in Balliet et al., 2014), which lends support to our argument that the evolutionary/game-theoretic approach is valid and can provide useful insights that will be complementary to social psychological theory.

While group identity and ingroup favouritism may solve the problem of cooperation within the group, it is not necessarily a good thing when it comes to intergroup interactions. If one wishes to instil a cosmopolitan mindset of openness and tolerance as part of their national identity, might a strong group identity may hinder cooperation between groups, either indirectly through relative deprivation of the outgroup leading to resentments, or more directly through hostility towards the outgroup? This brings us to the question of parochialism.

Parochial cooperation is predicted by a number of theoretical models (To read: Choi & Bowles, 2007; Efferson, Lalive, & Fehr, 2008; Fu et al., 2012; Garcia & van den Bergh, 2011; Hammond & Axelrod, 2006; Jansson, 2013; Konrad & Morath, 2012; Masuda, 2012), and there is evidence from other fields that we evolved to cooperate in a parochial fashion (citations in De Dreu et al. (2014)). The goal therefore could be to understand which mechanisms lead to the different manifestations of parochialism: beneficial and benign versus hostile to outgroups. Another goal could be to understand how the ingroup can be expanded to be more inclusive e.g. to be inclusive of transient foreign talent or foreign workers. A methodology for investigating within-group and intergroup cooperation is well established, and basically involves the investigation of behaviour in standardised games (Charness and Rabin, 2002), both theoretically and experimentally using human subjects. One can investigate either a natural group identity or an identity that is created for the purposes of the experiment. As an example of the former, Bouckaert and Dhaene (2004) compared the behaviour of businessmen in trust games when paired with a partner of the same or of a different ethnicity. To create an artificial group identity, the minimal group paradigm of Tajfel and Turner (1979) is usually referred to. For example, Chen and Li (2009) separated experimental subjects into groups based upon their preference for different paintings, and then used a group activity (where groups competed to correctly identify other paintings by the same artist) to enhance the group identity. After this the effect of ingroup favouritism could be measured by fitting the weightings of self and others’ payoff in a utility function to the results of various games.

Another aspect that’s interesting is using emotion as an indicator of which aspect of the game or scenario is most salient to the behaviours. Cottrell and Neuberg (2005) found that different outgroups provoke different emotions, and importantly, that these different emotions can be interpreted as responses to different kinds of threats. (Perhaps there is a way to link this to machine-learning methods of identifying emotion in text?) The type of threat perceived may then provide a hint as to the scenario for which the behaviour evolved.

Inter- and intragroup cooperation results

Studies using the methodology above have found that individuals behave in consistently different ways when the experimental games involve a group or intergroup interactions. In general (quoting from Hugh-Jones and Leroch, 2013):

People cooperate more with in-group members (de Cremer and van Vugt 1999; Goette et al. 2006, Guala et al. 2012). Group members give more to each other, punish each other less for misbehavior and reward each other more for good behavior (Bernhard et al. 2006; Chen and Li 2009; Currarini and Mengel 2012). Moreover, people place a value on their group membership, and prefer to interact with others from their own group (Hargreaves-Heap and Zizzo 2009; Currarini and Mengel 2012). Shared group identity may also provide a simple mechanism for individuals to coordinate on beneficial outcomes if several equilibria exist (Chen and Chen 2011).

Individuals also modify their behaviour when acting as representatives of groups, for example cooperation with an outgroup member decreases when the individual plays in front of their ingroup (Charness et al., 2007). Groups and group representatives tend in general to behave more in line with the predictions of game-theoretic rational agents (Charness and Sutter, 2012), which can be beneficial or deleterious, depending upon the context. Finally, when groups make decisions as a collective, again the result may be different; for example, groups are less trusting than individuals but behave at least as trustworthy as individuals (Kugler et al., 2007).

Regarding parochialism specifically, the overall picture is that parochialism emerges especially when it (1) benefits individuals’ within-group reputation, (2) affects within-group status, (3) in individuals with chronic prosocial rather than proself orientation, and (4) is sustained and motivated by oxytocin (reviewed in De Dreu et al., 2014). Individuals are more likely to behave parochially when cognitively taxed (De Dreu et al., 2015), when it would influence their ingroup reputation (De Dreu et al., 2014), when there was outcome interdependence (i.e. cooperation instead of dictator games) (Balliet et al., 2014), and less likely when there was a possibility for direct reciprocity (Balliet et al., 2014).

There are two sides to parochialism: ingroup love and outgroup hate. The latter is particularly concerning because it threatens the resilience of a society, for example the situation where an injustice committed by an individual is punished by retaliation against that individual’s entire group. In an experimental game, Hugh-Jones and Leroch (2013) found that group punishment tends to occur when the group being punished is perceived to be unfairly advantaged. However, while individuals would punish outgroup members for injustice committed directly against themselves, they were not found to do so on behalf of other ingroup members. This latter result perhaps leaves open the question of what precipitates the kind of retributive outgroup aggression that can be most violent/destablising.

One possible reason for the lack of indirect outgroup retribution in the Hugh-Jones and Leroch (2013) experiment is ingroup love is the more basal motivator than outgroup hate (De Dreu et al., 2014; Balliet et al., 2014). Nevertheless, the question of outgroup hate is particularly pressing given the catastrophic consequences it can have. One possible line of investigation is that outgroup aggression is a rare strategy particular to certain personality types – e.g. the ‘authoritarian personality’ hypothesis (Altemeyer, 1996) – or only activated under certain circumstances – e.g. the hypothesis that authoritarian personality tendencies are intrinsic to all individuals but only activated by external threat (Hetherington and Suhay, 2011) (Sherif, 2010, compare also). I have not been able to find any theoretical models for the evolution of authoritarian personality types, however there are some papers discussing it in an evolutionary context (one example: Kessler and Cohrs, 2008).

As economic forces inevitably drive globalisation, one pressing question is whether this globalisation will naturally increase the cosmopolitan outlook of people or instead provoke a reactionary parochialism. Promisingly, I found one study suggesting that globalisation increases cosmopolitan attitudes (Buchan et al., 2009). There are also studies where natural identity did not negatively influence intergroup cooperation, such as cooperation between businessmen of different ethnicity (Bouckaert and Dhaene, 2004), which suggests that sharing other factors of identity, such as socio-economic status and place of residence, can override nationality difference. However simply identifying people with a group is insufficient to overcome self-interest, but rather (as predicted by evolutionary models) activities that invoke interdependence, such as group problem solving, are needed to create group identification and higher levels of group cooperation (Eckel and Grossman, 2005).


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