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Ch. 10: The Hive Switch 
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 Ch. 10: The Hive Switch
Ch. 10: The Hive Switch



Fri Jun 22, 2012 12:20 am
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Post Re: Ch. 10: The Hive Switch
I'm finding that Jonathan Haidt is particularly strong on the applications of the theoretical findings he presents. If it isn't obvious, I think he's written a stellar book, the best one touching on my favorite subject, human nature, that I've read.
(A sidenote: Haidt will be one of the speakers at the TED X Midatlantic in Washington DC, Oct 26-27, that I'm lucky to be able to attend.)

In "The Hive Switch" he gives us the payoff for our long development as a species subject to competition with other groups. Although we are pretty thoroughly chimp via the "relentless competition of individuals with their neighbors," making us "descended from a long line of winners in the game of social life," we are also, via our "groupish nature," similar to bees "in being ultrasocial creatures whose minds were shaped by the relentless competition of groups with other groups." I haven't made my mind up about the group selection controversy, but I think that to some extent what Haidt wants us to accept about our hivish nature doesn't depend on the validity of group selection.

Haidt calls us "conditional hive creatures" in order to convey that we do have a hive switch that sometimes--varying in frequency of use between individuals in a society and between whole societies--is activated. Haidt makes it clear that he believes the healthiest societies, with the happiest individuals, are those composed of countless hives, so that pure individualism (the ideal of most rationalists) is tempered by the greater selflessness of group belonging. Our social capital consists largely of these active groups, whether they be recreational, social, professional, church, cultural, etc. He is not merely putting a label on a human trait, but describing a genetic adaptation "for making groups more cohesive, and therefore more successful in competition with other groups."

The feeling we have when our individuality diminishes and our group sense takes over comes in different intensities at different times. Some of us are naturally more prone to having these experiences than others are. At its most intense, the feeling rises to a level that Haidt calls religious, when a sense of awe overcomes us and we are no longer aware of our separate existences. I can't say that I've ever had, or let myself have, this kind of ecstatic experience, since my instinct is to hold myself back from something I see as a kind of surrender--but I don't doubt that others do have it. The surprising thing about this hive switch is that it developed as a feeling of complete union with our social group, but now it can be triggered even when we are alone in nature.

The key elements are "vastness (something overwhelms us and makes us feel small) and a need for accommodation (that is, our experience is not easily assimilated into our existing mental structures; we must 'accommodate' the experience by changing those mental structures)." Awe is the emotion perhaps most closely associated with the hive switch. It explains why people such as Emerson and Darwin have described nature in such spiritual terms. The very word 'spiritual' signifies that when the hive switch is on, we have moved to the level of the sacred, from the level of the profane. These words--sacred and profane--are terms that first referred to religion, but Haidt applies them to very secular situations as well. I suppose that some people watching in person or participating in the Olympics had this moving sense of experiencing the sacred.

It isn't surprising to learn that less technologically advanced cultures make much greater use of the hive switch than do technologized, mainly Western cultures, the ones Haidt has designated with the label WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic). He tells us how the Europeans who first visited the cultures of the new world were aghast to see the native peoples abandoning themselves to ecstatic dancing and drug-induced visionary experiences.

In case you're wondering about the dark side of the hive switch, particularly whether it can be harnessed by fascist-leaning leaders to control populations, Haidt has thought of that. The key is that hivishness be dispersed throughout a society rather than centrally commanded by an authority. Part of Haidt's own journey has been from a purely rationalistic, individualistic perspective, to a more emotional, communal perspective than covers more of the other moral foundations than just harm/care and fairness/cheating.

Haidt wrote his first book on the subject of happiness (The Happiness Hypothesis). He concludes in this chapter:
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When I began writing The Happiness Hypothesis I believed that happiness came from within, as Buddha and the Stoic philosophers said thousands of years ago. You'll never make the world conform to your wishes, so focus on changing yourself and your desires. But by the time I finished writing, I had changed my mind: Happiness comes from between. It comes from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself.


Long post, but it's a rich subject.



Last edited by DWill on Wed Aug 15, 2012 10:42 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Wed Aug 15, 2012 10:39 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 10: The Hive Switch
Related to this topic, I find it amusing when I watch people get angry or ecstatic while watching their favorite sports teams. Of course, that makes me some kind of WEIRD elitist.

I have to admit, although I'm not much of a sports fan, I did find myself emotionally invested in watching some of the Olympics. Not sure how much that applies though, I think it's more the admiration of the hard work of the athletes and sympathizing with the agony of defeat, rather than a tribal thing -- I didn't care so much that they were American.

By the way, great job as discussion leader DWill.



Thu Aug 16, 2012 9:15 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 10: The Hive Switch
Haidt uses sports as a stand-in or virtual equivalent for religion in the next chapter. Loyalty or fanaticism about sports teams does show how much people need to find something in which to invest loyalty and make that team better, in their minds, than some other team, on a completely arbitrary basis. But we're not supposed to think about it, I guess. I can see the point of becoming emotionally involved in a local high school team, where you might actually know some of the players, or they might even be your kids, but beyond that, what does it matter that a bunch of players from all over the country or even from other countries, play for a university or professional team? It's usually not even the case that the players themselves care much about who they play for; they just go for the best money if they're pros. Not to be too judgmental about this, though. People just have fun being fans (fanatics).

The thing about WEIRD morality I keep coming back to is that WEIRD people are at least the most apt to realize that there are different ways of putting morality together, and therefore they can be more liberal and less judgmental about other moral matrices than non-WEIRD people are likely to be. I recall that article you found, where the author says that people who think we're crazy even to have to ask whether the harmless incest scenario is right or wrong, are actually judging us as they react this way. It seems to be more of a one-way street for them, in which their morality is the right one. Because they're not well educated, they never learn that there's a whole big world out there, and more than one way to be moral. This raises the dreaded R-word--relativism. I think relativism needs somebody to speak up for it, though. Haidt says that he is not a relativist, but don't you have to be something of a relativist to have an enlightened view of morality?



Thu Aug 16, 2012 10:14 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 10: The Hive Switch
The word mindfulness comes to mind as I read these last two posts. It's amazing what we can learn about human nature by simply noting without judgment the thoughts, feelings and emotions that are generated in our own minds as we experience our world.
Like Dexter, I'm not much of a sports fan. But I do recall very vividly going through the varying stages to being one when I lived in Toronto in the late 80's when the Blue Jays were flying high and winning pennants. Because I was dabbling in meditation and Buddhism at the time, I was more aware of the changes going on in my head than I would normally have been. I do remember smiling a lot to myself about those changes.

I went through a similar experience, on a much smaller scale, during the Olympics. While watching an event, I would objectivity note my feelings toward the athlete and the country he/she represented and how I felt about them winning or losing. There are many dimensions to this but, as you might expect, I did support the athletes from my country for all events .... But not always to the same extent. If I had invested more time in an athlete, i.e. Learning history and personal information, talking about the athlete with friends etc., my support would be that much stronger. This might all sound obvious as a description, but it does provide some insight when you can maintain a level of this kind of awareness in real time.



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Fri Aug 17, 2012 9:43 am
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Post Re: Ch. 10: The Hive Switch
I'm recovering, but I've been a fanatic of teams as well. It's very strange to feel your emotions and even your outlook on the world going up and down according to whether your team has scored enough points or runs. I suppose we've made these players we don't even know a part of our families, so just as we would with our family, we feel the pain and joy of our team. Plus, we feel we are powerful when our team wins, and we feel less so when it loses.



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