Miscellaneous content from the original enlightened caveman. Some serious, some not. Take your chances.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

I'm Feeling Your Pain - An Intro to Concurrence

Perhaps the most regularly recurring theme in this blog is the interplay between the quest for status and the human tendency to cooperate (both genetically driven) and our modern environment in leading to the behaviors we engage in and witness every day. That humans learned to cooperate is taken as a bit of an axiom in the study of hominid history, but something has been nagging at me for a while, and I'm just now getting to the point where I can articulate what I've come up with.

What if there is a genetically driven motivation that is larger than reciprocal altruism? I think there is. What if reciprocal altruism is just one manifestation (albeit a very critical one) of a heretofore elusive, but grand aspect of human nature? I think it is. This aspect of human nature is what I'll call the need for concurrence.

Concurrence, in its most grand form, is perfect empathy. It is being able to mentally and emotionally relate to another person in a very deep way. It's feeling someone else's pain. It's a profound connection between two people. Suppose the adaptation that Mother Nature found was an inherent desire to concur with other humans, and a consequence to getting to this deep emotional connection was the emergence of informal rules regarding favors done and favors owed. And lots more...but let's back up for a moment.

In evolution, it's always interesting to ponder the intermediates. In this case, we can imagine hominids like australopithicus, who were not known for being big cooperators, and Homo sapiens, and we can wonder how natural selection bridged the gap. Did this human species of hominid just suddenly start cooperating, or did something happen before that? If I'm right about concurrence, then something did.

If we know that hominids who banded together to share resources and divide up duties fared better than hominids who did not, is it not reasonable to wonder what kind of primary emotion would produce that tendency for groups to come together? (When I talk about primary emotions, I'm talking about the ones you read about in books by Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph LeDoux, the basic emotional programs, like fear and the quest for status, that underlie our more complex emotions, like anger and jealousy.) From what I've read, the answer would be the emotional tendency to cooperate. But I have a hard time imagining how that would work. Not that there's anything wrong with that - there's a lot I can't imagine. However, I do not have a hard time imagining the emergence of a genetically-driven emotional drive to connect with another human. The cooperation part would simply be the fortuitous result, the one that natural selection seized upon, resulting in the reign of the human animal on earth.

So let's suppose, just for fun, that I'm right, that there is an inherent human need for concurrence. Just think of how much it explains. Reciprocal altruism is only the tip of the iceberg. Concurrence could explain all sorts of social phenomena like, for example, that elated feeling at a rock concert when the whole place is glued to the same moment.

If the need for concurrence is a primary emotion, then it, like the others, is executed in different ways in different situations. In one-on-one situations, it can be seen as the pursuit of the direct emotional connection. In crowds, it can be seen as swimming in the same direction as the school, so to speak. Who can deny the visceral good feeling that comes from being in a crowd where everyone is focused on the same wonderful thing? If concurrence is real, then it explains that feeling - we're pulled toward situations like that and we feel immense gratification when we encounter one. I know many people, and I am one of them, who appreciate big events (concerts, sporting events, etc.) for this reason every bit as much as for the name on the ticket. To be part of a happening, where everyone, for a short period of time, is concurring. To be part of a shared experience where a mass of individuals has been transformed into a collective entity, one that shows no signs of dissention in the ranks. This is human stuff. We are but moths to the flame.

But, as this blog vigilantly asserts, our primary emotions were not designed for this modern world. This means that, like status, concurrence has its downsides. Consider two teenage girls who are best friends. The desire, no, the need, for concurrence overrides the truth in many situations. If both girls are a bit heavy and are insecure about it, they can achieve deep concurrence by propping each other up with compliments to the contrary. Even though they know that the answer to, "Do these jeans make me look fat?" is, "No, your large ass makes you look fat," they respond with, "No! They're like totally cute." The point is that, just as the quest for status often causes us to cut high-status people slack while we criticize low-status people, concurrence can distort truth when it is ill-advised in social situations. And on a larger scale, on the crowd scale, it can cause us to buy into fanatical causes.

For those for whom one-on-one interpersonal concurrence is hard to find, causes can act as a good surrogate. The feeling of swimming in the same direction of the school is like a hundred small-scale concurrences adding up to the effect of a deep one-on-one concurrence. (See Eric Hoffer's, The True Believer.) The need for this distributed emotional connection, which, in this case, is the need to belong, trumps all else, logic and rationality included.

I'm just getting my arms around this idea and where I can take it, so I'll stop here and come back with more as it develops. But I can't help think that this will be the topic of my next book. The applications of this concept are mind boggling. And even if it isn't true, even if the whole thing is nonsense, it'll be a great exercise to find that out. Thoughts?


Blogger Michael Gersh said...

This concurrence is a part of tribalism. 74,000 years ago, after the Toba volcano erupted, total human population shrank to a mere few thousand, and stayed low for the next 20,000 years. Much of who we are today reflects how these relatively few individuals mnaged to rise up to dominate the planet, wiping out the other proto-human species along the way. Whatever concurrence is, it sure seems to work really well. We may be walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but we surely are the baddest mofos in this valley. And if telling my wife that it is her pants, and not her bottom that look fat is part of what makes us so strong, even though I never looked at it that way, I want to know more about it.

1/27/2005 03:28:00 AM

Blogger Bill Tierney said...

Having read your post several times, I'm still not convinced the concept of concurrence is an adaptation which came about as the result of evolution (or natural selection). In order for your idea to be taken more seriously, I think you need to explain the mechanism whereby concurrence conferred a selective reproductive advantage among those who have it over those who don't. In other words, does concurrence really enhance an organisms's "inclusive fitness" or is it instead a biological luxury? I'm not so sure.

1/27/2005 04:40:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


1/27/2005 08:24:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, this is good. Time to flesh this out a bit. Let's use the military to get a feel for this. One of the primary goals of military training is the creation of a cohesive unit. When it is achieved, military operations become less about the big picture and more about the group succeeding. If you ask any soldier in combat why he mans his post or takes the hill, it's for the guy to his left and to his right. They have shared such powerful experiences, they have concurred so deeply, that they are simply incapable of letting each other down. It all comes down to trust.

The shared misery of military training produces countless scenarios where trust must be earned and given. Those who are trustworthy are part of the inner circle. Those who cannot live up to this requirement are removed. As this happens, the units develop strong emotional bonds that become the basis for their actions in combat. This is the survival benefit of concurrence.

Think about it. On a personal level, what does it take to get to a really deep emotional connection with someone? The same thing - trust. We do not normally allow ourselves to become emotionally vulnerable to people we can't trust. The more someone demonstrates their trustworthiness, the easier it is to open up to them. Now imagine that you're a caveman living in an inhospitable world.

If you have this visceral longing to concur with other individuals, you'll have to become trustworthy to assuage it. You'll remain on the outside if you say one thing but do another. But you won't find this out by contemplating the matter. You'll follow your emotional desire for concurrence. Like a Geiger counter clicking more often as it approaches radioactive material, your emotions will provide constant feedback on your actions. Demonstrate fidelity and click click click, you get closer and closer to others. Demonstrate duplicity and the clicks fade off to nothing. You're shunned, and bad things happen.

If nature could produce this emotional drive, can you not see how it would indirectly bring about reciprocal altruism, which is what makes us the baddest mofos in the valley? Can you not see how it would bring about the mutual acceptance of the pair bond, which is somewhat contrary to the optimum male sex strategy (see "Bombs and Bullets - Feminism for Dummies")?

The interesting thing is that nowadays, this need for concurrence is feeding back so much that it's producing distortion. Concurrence is doing its job of connecting us to others, for reproductive reasons and cooperative reasons, but it is also pushing us to deny reality when it doesn't bode well in social situations. It is the root of the little white lie.

I'm not saying that we should endeavor to eliminate this tendency (as if we could). I just think it's worthwhile to know what makes us tick. Then, we can manage it for our own ends. That's what the Enlightened Caveman concept is all about.

1/28/2005 01:01:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Somehow that last comment came up as posted by the ever-present 'anonymous'. As Hannity so irritatingly says, "Let not your heart be troubled." It was me.

1/28/2005 02:26:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

A little more. The legitimacy of concurrence in evolutionary terms, I believe, rests on the notion that natural selection makes use of what it has. As the reproductive impulse is the most primal of animal emotions, it isn't hard to imagine how emotions like love, which draws us to others for reproductive reasons, could be modified to generate deep platonic attractions. If Mother Nature had stumbled on this variation and the result was a population of humans that cooperated and thrived, she'd certainly have kept it. And here we are.

I'm telling you. There's something very unifying to this concept. It explains a lot. Now, if only it were true. I'm not ready to say it is, but I'm having a good time contemplating it.

1/29/2005 01:57:00 AM

Blogger Troubleshooter said...

Another thing to possibly be a good tie-in to concurrence is religion. Where else can you get a greater mob mentality with so little actual expenditure of factual or material resources?

2/02/2005 09:51:00 AM

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