“Won’t you be my neighbor?”
— Mr. Rogers vs. Thomas Hobbes on the human inclination toward trust, empathy and friendship.
by Cecil Bothwell
(This is a talk delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Franklin, NC, Dec. 7, 2014)
(sung) It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Mr. Rogers became famous for his TV show that emphasized friendship, cooperation and neighborliness. Thomas Hobbes was famous for his pronouncements on the human condition. Probably Hobbes’ most famous elocution stated that absent civilization the life of man was “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
That’s why I set the two against each other in the subtitle of my talk today.
Its not that Hobbes was principally a negative sort of fellow, and some call him a progenitor of modern liberalism. Yet, his characterization of pre-civilized humans has turned out to be wildly off the mark.
Actually, studies of Cro-Magnons or what modern scientists refer to as European early modern humans, show that they were quite healthy. Furthermore they lived in tribal groups, so they weren’t solitary; they had tools and clothing, so they weren’t necessarily poor; they invented separation of labor with men doing the hunting and women doing the gathering and child rearing, which doesn’t seem inherently nasty; they had enough leisure time to paint the amazing cave art in Altamira and elsewhere around the world, which doesn’t strike me as brutish; and almost certainly lived longer than most people in early cities.
Once we began to civilize ourselves, which really refers to the agricultural revolution that allowed towns and cities to grow, the human diet tended to get a lot worse before it got better. People became shorter due to nutritional deficiencies, they had more tooth problems due to the change in diet, and diseases got passed around much more efficiently due to crowding, lack of sanitation and the poor nutrition, so we were sicker, sicklier, and died earlier.
To digress from my main theme for a moment, the tooth problem was particularly an issue in Egypt, where the available rock for grinding grain was sandstone. In other places grinding tools were made with harder rock. Egyptian flour was consequently full of grit which eroded tooth enamel. A common cause of early death in Ancient Egypt was infection permitted by serious tooth decay caused by sand in the bread. So much for the bread of life.
The rise of agriculture meant that wealth could be accumulated since large harvests could be stored. In fact, harvests had to be stored, because instead of depending on a steady supply of foraged food, major crops were harvested seasonally. Whoever controlled that food storage suddenly controlled the lives of the people dependent on the food, and soon the fellow who might have been the head man in a tribe (which usually meant the best hunter) turned into a king or a priest, and huge disparities in wealth became common. Great wealth and piles of food were a fine target for barbarians who engaged in looting wars. And a collateral effect was that once large populations became dependent on farmed food, crop failure could easily cause local famine. Hunter/gatherers rarely starve to death because they follow their food supply.
So to correct Thomas Hobbes, once we began to become what he would have called civilized, life for most humans became much poorer, much nastier, much more brutish, and a lot shorter.
Civilization is not the cause of human success. It is actually one effect of the thing that made us successful, which I have decided to call the Mr. Rogers Syndrome.
The Mr. Rogers Syndrome precisely contradicts one of Thomas Hobbes’ most famous statements, “The condition of man… is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”
To get a handle on Mr. Rogers’ profound insight it’s helpful to start with ants, bees, wasps and termites. Edward O. Wilson is easily the most famous ant lover on earth and he explains this idea in his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence. Wilson offers a particularly fascinating fact. Ants, bees, wasps and termites comprise about 20,000 species, a very small fraction of the million or more insect species on earth. That is, less than 2 percent. Yet those critters compose more than half the total body weight of insects on earth. They are very, very successful.
What makes these few types of insects different from all of the others is the Mr. Rogers Syndrome – or what scientists call eusociality.
Eusocial is spelled with “E-U” before the word “social” and it refers to animals that engage in cooperative brood care (including brood care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups.
In all the long history of evolution on our planet, all the many multiple millions, perhaps it’s billions, of life forms that have blossomed and disappeared, or emerged and morphed into the creatures we know today, eusocial behavior has only emerged about 20 separate times, and most of it belongs to that group of insects. In addition there are three species of shrimp, two species of mole-rats, and homo sapiens.
The golden rule is pretty powerful, and pretty common in the animal world. A lot of animals share food and defense and treat each other fairly, but the big difference for ants and mole rats and human beings is the division of labor and a baby-sitting co-op.
For instance, one of the explanations offered for why we beat out the Neanderthals about 40,000 years ago is that they never figured out a division of labor. So everyone went hunting. Everyone picked berries. Everyone fought battles. Their culture was consequently less efficient in accumulating resources, and that contributed to their extinction. Also there’s strong evidence that we cross-bred with them, and some evidence that we ate them.
It’s the Mr. Rogers Syndrome that made the civilization that Hobbes loved possible. Despite the fact that early civilization was worse for many individuals, on the whole and over thousands of years it was better for most. Once wide scale trade emerged, local famine was less frequent. As we realized cleanliness mattered, disease abated, and so forth.
It is sometimes observed that a greedy, strong individual, or a greedy, powerful nation, can take advantage of their strength to steal things from their generous, sharing neighbors, but that tends to lead to short term gain because the neighbors react.
From an evolutionary standpoint, one major strength of a community is its ability to deal with adversity and to ward off attacks. If a group of animals or humans operates only on self-interest, what emerges is the condition Hobbes referred to as “a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man … wherein men live without other security.” Over time the cooperative community wins and reinforces the tendency of its members to cooperate.
The Mr. Rogers Syndrome is the reason we find we can and do trust other people most of the time. Except for the most paranoid among us, our default attitude is trust.
To take a particularly clear example, most modern American adults drive cars or trucks on two lane roads, often at fairly high speeds. We place enormous trust in the oncoming drivers to not be suicidal, drunk, asleep, texting, or reaching behind the seat for a thermos of coffee. Without that implicit trust, none of us would drive anywhere.
And the thing is, most people are trustworthy, though we know that some are not, and some can be trusted in certain circumstances but not in others.
Trusting has huge advantages, as does being trustworthy.
For example, if you are the person tending a home fire and cooking up a pot of stew, the returning hunter needs to trust that you didn’t decide to experiment with some new mushroom you found that might kill everyone who comes to dinner.
And if you are the hunter roaming long distances to bring home the bacon, the person at home needs to trust that you are good at hunting and will come home with the protein, or there won’t be any stew left when you get back to the cave. If the folks at home don’t trust you, they might not even be home when you get there.
This plays out in fascinating ways in our modern world.
Some researchers did an experiment in restaurants. If some items on a restaurant menu are marked with an asterisk, with a note at the bottom of the page that indicates that those are the most popular items, sales of those dishes always increases by 12-19 percent. We not only trust the opinion of other diners, but we trust the restaurateur to tell us the truth about the other diners’ opinions.
If the restaurateur cheats and simply puts asterisks beside items she wants to sell, either to get rid of an overstock, or because the items are more profitable, it doesn’t take long for diners to realize that the advice on the menu is flawed. Business slumps.
We depend on each others’ opinions all the time, and that saves time and money as well. The reason the cheating restaurant loses business is because we talk to each other and news of untrustiness travels fast. Before you spend $10 to see a movie or buy a book, you probably either hear a positive comment from a friend, or read a review from a trusted reviewer. We trust our bankers and lawyers and mechanics and carpenters and grocers and nurses and doctors and day care workers and teachers and utility companies and insurance companies, all in more or less degree – but we mostly trust them, or we simply couldn’t function.
Psychologists like to invent games to investigate how people interact and one variety of game is called a Trust Game. Here’s how one trust game works. It’s called the Lost Wallet. Players are anonymous, seated at computers in separate cubicles. Player One is told that he has found a wallet which contains $150 and a note. There is no I.D., no credit card, nothing but $150 and a note. The note says he is free to keep the money, and no one else will ever know, or he can send the wallet to Player Two who will receive $300. Player Two may or may not send some of the money back to Player One as a reward.
The logical, selfish response would be to keep the $150. No one will know. Player Two is a stranger, so benefiting her isn’t necessarily a good idea. And Player Two may not send any money back.
In repeated testing 90 percent of people in the Player One position send the money to Player Two, and 95 percent of the second players send some money back to Player One.
Different versions of this test have been done over and over and over again. We trust complete strangers and our trust is well-founded.
More broadly, this is the source of the social power of Facebook. We are more trusting of those we know well, say those in our families, or our immediate circle of friends. But we also trust Facebook “friends” – people we may never meet face-to-face – but with whom we share some level of commonality. It allows the formation of a meaningful sense of community in the social media world. We share news, stories, humor, tragedy, and lots of videos of kittens and puppies.
On the flip side, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and other internet companies mine our data, looking for things we like and advertising them to our friends, knowing that we have shared tastes. And the very best advertising of all is if a company can tell you that your trusted friend liked something.
You may be familiar with the online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. A Wiki is a project to which many people or everyone can contribute, and Wikipedia has become the go-to source for many of us who use the internet. At first many people scoffed at the idea that everyone could get together and create a meaningful encyclopedia, because it would be so prey to misinformation from the uninformed or the intentionally duplicitous. In fact it is so effectively self-correcting that within a few years of its startup, Microsoft quit trying to compete with its Encarta software. We can trust all of us most of the time.
To take another internet example, look at eBay. The principal reason the site became so successful is the system that permits buyers and sellers to rate each other. Trust is reinforced when strangers you will never meet have reported that other transactions with a seller you will never meet have been positive. Trust begets trust. This idea has spread and many retail companies provide a forum for consumer opinion on their product pages.
Religions offer an interesting take on trust.
To start with, some religions teach that human beings are born in sin and are basically bad unless they are saved by faith or by one or another god or sacrifices to those other gods. It’s interesting that such beliefs gain any following at all, since they so directly conflict with our everyday experience. Very few people see a newborn infant and think of it as evil incarnate. And most of us are able to trust our intimate circle of friends and family and are unlikely to think of them first as sinful or inherently bad. Yet many people trust what they are told by others or in books said to be divinely inspired.
Most wars involve people on both sides praying for success. The same is true of high school basketball games. But there are always winners and losers. Still, many people trust that prayers are answered.
It seems miracles usually happen to someone else, somewhere else, far removed in space or time, but still people believe, apparently because they trust the reporter or the shaman or the priest. Trust is often more powerful than our personal experience.
Why is that? Did we evolve with some basic propensity to trust? Is it hard-wired into our brains?
The answer seems to be “yes.”
Our bodies produce a couple of hormones that incline us to trust each other. One is oxytocin (ox-ee-toh-sin) which is sometimes called the “bonding hormone.” Production is particularly ramped up after childbirth and seems to play a part in cementing the mother/child bond. This is true of all mammals. According to researcher Larry Young at Emory University the hormone “is there to make the mother think that this baby is the most important thing in the world, and I’ll do whatever I need to take care of that child.”
But it isn’t just present in new mothers. All of us produce extra oxytocin when we are happy and it makes us feel calm and pleasant. Interestingly, oxytocin production has been shown to increase when we help other people. A feeling of empathy is particularly likely to trigger oxytocin release. Everything from a sappy movie to petting your dog can trigger it.
To circle back to Facebook, if you’ve used it or other social media you know how often people post pictures and videos of both happy puppies and kittens and stories of abused ones. You read of other people’s personal losses, illnesses, work-place problems and more. All of these tend to arouse empathy and therefore oxytocin release. It’s no wonder many Facebook users feel a strong sense of community there.
Oxytocin works in combination with other pleasure hormones such as dopamine. Dopamine is closely associated with pleasure and reward, and is released when we have rewarding experiences including food and sex. Both of these hormones operate on some of the oldest parts of our brains, that is to say, the parts we share with many so-called “lower animals.”
We also seem to have a built-in drive for reciprocity. The common saying is “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” If you’ve ever watched non-human primates grooming each other you know that this inclination long predates our descent from the trees.
Another psychology experiment reveals how innate that drive can be.
A waitress was recruited to perform the test. The experiment went this way: For some diners Nicole delivered just the check at the end of the meal. For other diners Nicole delivered the check and two pieces of chocolate for each diner at the table. For still other diners Nicole delivered the check and one piece of chocolate for each diner, stepped away from the table and then turned back and offered the diners a chance to take another piece of chocolate from the basket she was carrying.
The diners who were given two pieces of chocolate with their checks showed a slight increase in their tips over those who got no candy. But the diners who were given one piece and then offered another increased their tips by an average of 21 percent over the two chocolate diners. It seems that their sense that they were being treated a little differently, that the waitress was going out of her way for them, increased their sense of obligation to reciprocate.
The important thing about reciprocity is that we all know that we all tend to feel that way. So we aren’t simply guessing when we do something generous for someone else, we know that what goes around comes around.
What our trust, our sense of reciprocity, our oxytocin and dopamine levels do, working together, is to help create social norms. Those norms are very powerful.
Social norms keep us trustworthy. We don’t dig into the cash register even though the clerk has gone to the back room. We don’t park in front of fire hydrants even though we figure we could get away with it while we run a quick errand. We pay our tab in a crowded bar even though we could pretty easily slip away. We are trustworthy even when no one’s watching, because we have deeply shared standards for our conduct. And those standards are shared in large part because we want to feel good about ourselves. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and like what we see.
And recent psycho-social research has demonstrated that we feel best when we are part of a group. We actually feel more ourselves when we are part of something larger – whether it’s a congregation, a cult or a book club.
Hobbes imagined what life would be like without government, a condition which he called the state of nature. In that state, each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This, Hobbes argues, would lead to a “war of all against all.”
But in fact, we were already good before we came up with civilization, with religion, with government. We are good because we evolved to be good. We evolved to cooperate. We evolved to trust.
(sung) It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Won’t you please,
Won’t you please,
Please won’t you be my neighbor?