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Tribal Freak-Out Another interesting insight

June 19th, 2002 · No Comments

Tribal Freak-Out

Another interesting insight from the Cosmides lecture, which I forgot to mention. We evolved in social groups of about two-hundred at the absolute maximum. If you live in an urban area, or even a fair sized town, you probably see more human beings in a day than our tribal ancestors did in their entire lives. As an average guy or gal in 10,000 B.C.E., if you heard that four or five people had died of a certain illness, or had some other unpleasant fate befall them, the appropriate thing to infer was that there was about a three to five percent chance of being harmed in the same way. We have evolved to report bad news quickly (journalists have a saying they use when deciding what goes on the front page of the paper: “If it bleeds, it leads”) and, no less importantly, to make pretty automatic probability inferences from that news.

That was all well and good for hunter-gatherer societies. In a densely populated and highly interconnected society like our own, however — in the sort of “extended order” that Hayek talked about — that instinct is utterly misleading. Now, John Stossel and lots of others have pointed out that we have a lot of deeply paranoid laws out there: we run to government to protect us from relatively minor risks. Are people just becoming increasingly cowardly? I doubt it. Instead, I think it’s that as news travels faster, and as people become more plugged in to media, our now maladaptive instincts tell us that the world must be becoming a riskier and riskier place. We live in the global village, but our brains are still made for the tribe.

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