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:
Long post, but it's a rich subject.