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October 20, 2005

Social Emotions and the "Big Man" Model of Social Organization

The little-understood topic of social emotions has big implications for our lives and even the economy.

One of the most disturbing traits of human beings is their behavior in crowds and mobs. Seemingly rational and compassionate individuals, when placed into a group and acting as a collective, can assume a monstrous group personality. This dynamic is not confined to the “madness of crowds” situations, but can be found in the “groupthink” of a distinguished board of directors who approve actions that they individually know to be wrong, but seem incapable of checking when acting as a group member.

What transforms independent and thoughtful individuals into unreflective agents of a group will? What are the circumstances by which the group mind seems capable off trumping the reason and will of the individual? What triggers social emotions and neural circuits to be activated in one context that would be wholly unacceptable in another?

Social emotions are triggered by specific social signals – some visual, some auditory, some tactile and many olfactory. In most such cases, people’s responses are not even conscious, even when the actions may entail making an important lifetime choices or commitments such as choosing a spouse, engaging in a life and death struggle or trusting a third party.

When groups of people “swarm,” or interact as a single unit, or seem to exhibit a “group mind,” it is often due to the overwhelming power of social signals that trigger collective responses, often of fear and immediate flight. The “threat calls” of birds and other species are an example. Some social emotions are triggered when a member of a group identifies an outlier, a free rider or someone that simply does not belong. The response can be cruel enforcements of group norms ranging from the “mean girls” of teenage cliques to “ethnic cleansing” and genocide. Such emotions are not “rational” in the sense that they are not reflected upon. They are triggered at a preconscious level, thereby activating an ancient survival mechanism.

Social emotions seem to fall into two groups, those that regulate self interest and aggression, and those that promote group interest and empathy. The first set of social emotions is narrowly concerned with self preservation and extending, asserting and defending new boundaries. In effect, these social emotions challenge the status quo of relationships. Alpha members of a group – both male and female – tend to be most closely identified with emotions that show a willingness to take risks, assert status, offend others, threaten the status quo and exercise dominance over others. Alpha members who are successful in this regard attract followers as they can provide protection and resources, and therefore are often the founders of social networks.

The motivational emotions associated with this group are coercive and aggressive, and are triggered and reinforced by testosterone and adrenaline. Fight/flight responses and fear are the enforcement responses. Here the natural selection criteria are at the individual level – you eat what you kill – you earn what you take. There is little interdependence and hence sharing of payoff rewards. The terms of interaction are essentially a zero-sum game – what I gain, you lose.

This extreme view of self interest and individualism, is expressed by the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” The presumption is that it is the risk-taking, resourceful individual who creates value, and hence, whatever they create is their right to possess and use as they see fit. By this reckoning, the group is parasitic to the individual and is something to be avoided.

These social emotions are more prevalent in highly volatile and competitive societies in which there is low, sustainable group trust. Game theorists liken such circumstances to a series of one-shot games in which players have little incentive to cooperate. As a consequence, such societies have difficulty scaling societal resources and cooperation. Any economic and cultural successes tend to be episodic and caused by the “Big Men.”

The phenomenon of the “Big Man” is prevalent across cultures and time. It is an organizing principle for geographically diverse traditional societies, such the Haida of British Columbia, the Yoruba of Nigeria to the of Papua, New Guinea, as well as for more “modern” societies, such as organized crime families, and the kleptocracies, terrorists networks, and the despots of failed states.

The Big Man is also the organizing principle for laissez faire capitalism, which valorizes the entrepreneur and the investor as the leaders whose risk-taking and property rights should be protected from the “parasitism” of the group. They are also given the lion’s share of not only the initial value created, but any ensuing secondary and tertiary benefits.

The assertion of “fairness” is based on the presumption that without the heroic acts of the “Big Man,” no value would have been created. In effect, all value creation is an individual act. The social networks based on these social emotions are often governed by principles of honor, loyalty and even a kind of feudal fealty. These archaic types of social networks have limited specialization and capacity for scaling up, and are virtually the antithesis of “civil society.” Modern communications and the increased lethality of weapons are amplifying the power of the Big Man of social organization and, in the process, undermining civic forms of authority and power.

From an evolutionary perspective there is no presumption that a more archaic and violent form of organization could not at some point displace a more “civilized” and cooperative one. History is replete with examples of “Big Man” forms of organization – bands, tribes, hordes, guerilla networks – overthrowing highly differentiated and prosperous societies. The stable civil order that we take for granted is in fact vulnerable to disruption, prolonged chaos and disorder.

But there is another set of social emotions – ones that build on empathy and reciprocity – that offer some more hopeful alternatives. I will explore them in my next blog post.