Tag: Groups

Why You Feel At Home In A Crisis

When disaster strikes, people come together. During the worst times of our lives, we can end up experiencing the best mental health and relationships with others. Here’s why that happens and how we can bring the lessons we learn with us once things get better.

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“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”

— Sebastian Junger

The Social Benefits of Adversity

When World War II began to unfold in 1939, the British government feared the worst. With major cities like London and Manchester facing aerial bombardment from the German air force, leaders were sure societal breakdown was imminent. Civilians were, after all, in no way prepared for war. How would they cope with a complete change to life as they knew it? How would they respond to the nightly threat of injury or death? Would they riot, loot, experience mass-scale psychotic breaks, go on murderous rampages, or lapse into total inertia as a result of exposure to German bombing campaigns?

Robert M. Titmuss writes in Problems of Social Policy that “social distress, disorganization, and loss of morale” were expected. Experts predicted 600,000 deaths and 1.2 million injuries from the bombings. Some in the government feared three times as many psychiatric casualties as physical ones. Official reports pondered how the population would respond to “financial distress, difficulties of food distribution, breakdowns in transport, communications, gas, lighting, and water supplies.”

After all, no one had lived through anything like this. Civilians couldn’t receive training as soldiers could, so it stood to reason they would be at high risk of psychological collapse. Titmus writes, “It seems sometimes to have been expected almost as a matter of course that widespread neurosis and panic would ensue.” The government contemplated sending a portion of soldiers into cities, rather than to the front lines, to maintain order.

Known as the Blitz, the effects of the bombing campaign were brutal. Over 60,000 civilians died, about half of them in London. The total cost of property damage was about £56 billion in today’s money, with almost a third of the houses in London becoming uninhabitable.

Yet despite all this, the anticipated social and psychological breakdown never happened. The death toll was also much lower than predicted, in part due to stringent adherence to safety instructions. In fact, the Blitz achieved the opposite of what the attackers intended: the British people proved more resilient than anyone predicted. Morale remained high, and there didn’t appear to be an increase in mental health problems. The suicide rate may have decreased. Some people with longstanding mental health issues found themselves feeling better.

People in British cities came together like never before to organize themselves at the community level. The sense of collective purpose this created led many to experience better mental health than they’d ever had. One indicator of this is that children who remained with their parents fared better than those evacuated to the safety of the countryside. The stress of the aerial bombardment didn’t override the benefits of staying in their city communities.

The social unity the British people reported during World War II lasted in the decades after. We can see it in the political choices the wartime generation made—the politicians they voted into power and the policies they voted for. By some accounts, the social unity fostered by the Blitz was the direct cause of the strong welfare state that emerged after the war and the creation of Britain’s free national healthcare system. Only when the wartime generation started to pass away did that sentiment fade.

We know how to Adapt to Adversity

We may be ashamed to admit it, but human nature is more at home in a crisis.

Disasters force us to band together and often strip away our differences. The effects of World War II on the British people were far from unique. The Allied bombing of Germany also strengthened community spirit. In fact, cities that suffered the least damage saw the worst psychological consequences. Similar improvements in morale occurred during other wars, riots, and after September 11, 2001.

When normality breaks down, we experience the sort of conditions we evolved to handle. Our early ancestors lived with a great deal of pain and suffering. The harsh environments they faced necessitated collaboration and sharing. Groups of people who could work together were most likely to survive. Because of this, evolution selected for altruism.

Among modern foraging tribal groups, the punishments for freeloading are severe. Execution is not uncommon. As severe as this may seem, allowing selfishness to flourish endangers the whole group. It stands to reason that the same was true for our ancestors living in much the same conditions. Being challenged as a group by difficult changes in our environment leads to incredible community cohesion.

Many of the conditions we need to flourish both as individuals and as a species emerge during disasters. Modern life otherwise fails to provide them. Times of crisis are closer to the environments our ancestors evolved in. Of course, this does not mean that disasters are good. By their nature, they produce immense suffering. But understanding their positive flip side can help us to both weather them better and bring important lessons into the aftermath.

Embracing Struggle

Good times don’t actually produce good societies.

In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger argues that modern society robs us of the solidarity we need to thrive. Unfortunately, he writes, “The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate commitment to the collective good.” As life becomes safer, it is easier for us to live detached lives. We can meet all of our needs in relative isolation, which prevents us from building a strong connection to a common purpose. In our normal day to day, we rarely need to show courage, turn to our communities for help, or make sacrifices for the sake of others.

Furthermore, our affluence doesn’t seem to make us happier. Junger writes that “as affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up, not down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in society seems to foster it.” We often think of wealth as a buffer from pain, but beyond a certain point, wealth can actually make us more fragile.

The unexpected worsening of mental health in modern society has much to do with our lack of community—which might explain why times of disaster, when everyone faces the breakdown of normal life, can counterintuitively improve mental health, despite the other negative consequences. When situations requiring sacrifice do reappear and we must work together to survive, it alleviates our disconnection from each other. Disaster increases our reliance on our communities.

In a state of chaos, our way of relating to each other changes. Junger explains that “self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside of group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.” Helping each other survive builds ties stronger than anything we form during normal conditions. After a natural disaster, residents of a city may feel like one big community for the first time. United by the need to get their lives back together, individual differences melt away for a while.

Junger writes particularly of one such instance:

The one thing that might be said for societal collapse is that—for a while at least—everyone is equal. In 1915 an earthquake killed 30,000 people in Avezzano, Italy, in less than a minute. The worst-hit areas had a mortality rate of 96 percent. The rich were killed along with the poor, and virtually everyone who survived was immediately thrust into the most basic struggle for survival: they needed food, they needed water, they needed shelter, and they needed to rescue the living and bury the dead. In that sense, plate tectonics under the town of Avezzano managed to recreate the communal conditions of our evolutionary past quite well.

Disasters bring out the best in us. Junger goes on to say that “communities that have been devastated by natural or manmade disasters almost never lapse into chaos and disorder; if anything they become more just, more egalitarian, and more deliberately fair to individuals.” When catastrophes end, despite their immense negatives, people report missing how it felt to unite for a common cause. Junger explains that “what people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender.” The loss of that unification can be, in its own way, traumatic.

Don’t be Afraid of Disaster

So what can we learn from Tribe?

The first lesson is that, in the face of disaster, we should not expect the worst from other people. Yes, instances of selfishness will happen no matter what. Many people will look out for themselves at the expense of others, not least the ultra-wealthy who are unlikely to be affected in a meaningful way and so will not share in the same experience. But on the whole, history has shown that the breakdown of order people expect is rare. Instead, we find new ways to continue and to cope.

During World War II, there were fears that British people would resent the appearance of over two million American servicemen in their country. After all, it meant more competition for scarce resources. Instead, the “friendly invasion” met with a near-unanimous warm welcome. British people shared what they had without bitterness. They understood that the Americans were far from home and missing their loved ones, so they did all they could to help. In a crisis, we can default to expecting the best from each other.

Second, we can achieve a great deal by organizing on the community level when disaster strikes. Junger writes, “There are many costs to modern society, starting with its toll on the global ecosystem and working one’s way down to its toll on the human psyche, but the most dangerous may be to community. If the human race is under threat in some way that we don’t yet understand, it will probably be at a community level that we either solve the problem or fail to.” When normal life is impossible, being able to volunteer help is an important means of retaining a sense of control, even if it imposes additional demands. One explanation for the high morale during the Blitz is that everyone could be involved in the war effort, whether they were fostering a child, growing cabbages in their garden, or collecting scrap metal to make planes.

For our third and final lesson, we should not forget what we learn about the importance of banding together. What’s more, we must do all we can to let that knowledge inform future decisions. It is possible for disasters to spark meaningful changes in the way we live. We should continue to emphasize community and prioritize stronger relationships. We can do this by building strong reminders of what happened and how it impacted people. We can strive to educate future generations, teaching them why unity matters.

(In addition to Tribe, many of the details of this post come from Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn from Disaster Studies by Charles E. Fritz.)

Coordination Problems: What It Takes to Change the World

The key to major changes on a societal level is getting enough people to alter their behavior at the same time. It’s not enough for isolated individuals to act. Here’s what we can learn from coordination games in game theory about what it takes to solve some of the biggest problems we face.

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What is a Coordination Failure?

Sometimes we see systems where everyone involved seems to be doing things in a completely ineffective and inefficient way. A single small tweak could make everything substantially better—save lives, be more productive, save resources. To an outsider, it might seem obvious what needs to be done, and it might be hard to think of an explanation for the ineffectiveness that is more nuanced than assuming everyone in that system is stupid.

Why is publicly funded research published in journals that charge heavily for it, limiting the flow of important scientific knowledge, without contributing anything? Why are countries spending billions of dollars and risking disaster developing nuclear weapons intended only as deterrents? Why is doping widespread in some sports, even though it carries heavy health consequences and is banned? You can probably think of many similar problems.

Coordination games in game theory gives us a lens for understanding both the seemingly inscrutable origins of such problems and why they persist.

The Theoretical Background to Coordination Failure

In game theory, a game is a set of circumstances where two or more players pick among competing strategies in order to get a payoff. A coordination game is one where players get the best possible payoff by all doing the same thing. If one player chooses a different strategy, they get a diminished payoff and the other player usually gets an increased payoff.

When all players are carrying out a strategy from which they have no incentive to deviate, this is called the Nash equilibrium: given the strategy chosen by the other player(s), no player could improve their payoff by changing their strategy. However, a game can have multiple Nash equilibria with different payoffs. In real-world terms, this means there are multiple different choices everyone could make, some better than others, but all only working if they are unanimous.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a coordination game. In a one-round Prisoner’s Dilemma, the optimal strategy for each player is to defect. Even though this is the strategy that makes most sense, it isn’t the one with the highest possible payoff—that would involve both players cooperating. If one cooperates when the other doesn’t, they receive a diminished payoff. Seeing as they cannot know what the other player will do, cooperating is unwise. If they cooperate when the other defects, they get the worst possible payoff. If they defect and the other player also defects, they still get a better payoff than they would have done by cooperating.

So the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a coordination failure. The players would get a better payoff if they both cooperated, but they cannot trust each other. In a form of the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, players compete for an unknown number of rounds. In this case, cooperation becomes possible if both players use the strategy of “tit for tat.” This means that they cooperate in the first round, then do whatever the other player previously did for each subsequent round. However, there is still an incentive to defect because any given round could be the last, so cooperating can never be the Nash equilibrium in the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Many of the major problems we see around us are coordination failures. They are only solvable if everyone can agree to do the same thing at the same time. Faced with multiple Nash equilibria, we do not necessarily choose the best one overall. We choose what makes sense given the existing incentives, which often discourage us from challenging the status quo. It often makes most sense to do what everyone else is doing, whether that’s driving on the left side of the road, wearing a suit to a job interview, or keeping your country’s nuclear arsenal stocked up.

Take the case of academic publishing, given as a classic coordination failure by Eliezer Yudkowsky in Inadequate Equilibria: Where and How Civilizations Get Stuck. Academic journals publish research within a given field and charge for access to it, often at exorbitant rates. In order to get the best jobs and earn prestige within a field, researchers need to publish in the most respected journals. If they don’t, no one will take their work seriously.

Academic publishing is broken in many ways. By charging high prices, journals limit the flow of knowledge and slow scientific progress. They do little to help researchers, instead profiting from the work of volunteers and taxpayer funding. Yet researchers continue to submit their work to them. Why? Because this is the Nash equilibrium. Although it would be better for science as a whole if everyone stopped publishing in journals that charge for access, it isn’t in the interests of any individual scientist to do so. If they did, their career would suffer and most likely end. The only solution would be a coordinated effort for everyone to move away from journals. But seeing as this is so difficult to organize, the farce of academic publishing continues, harming everyone except the journals.

How We Can Solve and Avoid Coordination Failures

It’s possible to change things on a large scale if we are able to communicate on a much greater scale. When everyone knows that everyone knows, changing what we do is much easier.

We all act out of self-interest, so expecting individuals to risk the costs of going against convention is usually unreasonable. Yet it only takes a small proportion of people to change their opinions to reach a tipping point where there is strong incentive for everyone to change their behavior, and this is magnified even more if those people have a high degree of influence. The more power those who enact change have, the faster everyone else can do the same.

To overcome coordination failures, we need to be able to communicate despite our differences. And we need to be able to trust that when we act, others will act too. The initial kick can be enough people making their actions visible. Groups can have exponentially greater impacts than individuals. We thus need to think beyond the impact of our own actions and consider what will happen when we act as part of a group.

In an example given by the effective altruism-centered website 80,000 Hours, there are countless charitable causes one could donate money to at any given time. Most people who donate do so out of emotional responses or habit. However, some charitable causes are orders of magnitude more effective than others at saving lives and having a positive global impact. If many people can coordinate and donate to the most effective charities until they reach their funding goal, the impact of the group giving is far greater than if isolated individuals calculate the best use of their money. Making research and evidence of donations public helps solve the communication issue around determining the impact of charitable giving.

As Michael Suk-Young Chwe writes in Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge, “Successful communication sometimes is not simply a matter of whether a given message is received. It also depends on whether people are aware that other people also receive it.” According to Suk-Young Chwe, for people to coordinate on the basis of certain information it must be “common knowledge,” a phrase used here to mean “everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows it, and so on.” The more public and visible the change is, the better.

We can prevent coordination failures in the first place by visible guarantees that those who take a different course of action will not suffer negative consequences. Bank runs are a coordination failure that were particularly problematic during the Great Depression. It’s better for everyone if everyone leaves their deposits in the bank so it doesn’t run out of reserves and fail. But when other people start panicking and withdrawing their deposits, it makes sense for any given individual to do likewise in case the bank fails and they lose their money. The solution to this is deposit protection insurance, which ensures no one comes away empty-handed even if a bank does fail.

Game theory can help us to understand not only why it can be difficult for people to work together in the best possible way but also how we can reach more optimal outcomes through better communication. With a sufficient push towards a new equilibrium, we can drastically improve our collective circumstances in a short time.