The Israel/Palestine Crisis in Evolutionary Perspective

8 min read
nick dot com / Wikimedia Commons

Source: nick dot com / Wikimedia Commons

What is happening currently in the Middle East is nothing short of a nightmare. Clearly, it is a nightmare for the people who have lost family members and friends. It is a nightmare for those who are fearful for their lives each and every second, both civilians and military personnel. It is a nightmare for government officials across the globe who surely have a very close eye on this situation.

If you know me well, you know that I generally try to avoid controversial situations. Life is, typically, too short to spend arguing or defending one’s position, etc. Generally speaking, in spite of sometimes studying topics that may be uncomfortable for people to think about at times (e.g., how does biological evolution shape human behavior?), I try to focus on the positives in all spheres of life.

But I’m, unabashedly, ethnically Jewish. And even separate from that fact (which I will never hide), I’m someone who cares deeply about the future of the broader human experience. I’ve written multiple books, book chapters, and articles focusing on how we can, as a collective human community, take steps to make things better for all of us.

Against this backdrop, I have to say that the current crisis in the Middle East is nothing short of depressing. As a seasoned behavioral scientist and evolutionary scholar, I think that I may have some ideas on this situation, which is causing the loss of lives by the thousands as I type, that may provide novel angles on what is going on and, perhaps, how we can best address this situation as a global community.

The Israel/Palestine Crisis and Ingroup/Outgroup Psychology

One of the most powerful (and most disturbing) features of our evolved psychology is found in what we call the ingroup/outgroup bias (see Billig & Tajfel, 1973). This bias is, quite simply, a tendency (in fact, an incredibly strong tendency) to see others who are (psychologically) seen as in one’s own group as more deserving of benefits relative to those who are seen as one some “other” group.

Further, the flip side seems to be true. People tend to think that those who are in some group other than their own (variously defined) are more deserving of adverse outcomes relative to those who are seen as being in their own group.

The early research on this topic found that eliciting ingroup/outgroup bias is as easy as the flip of a coin. Literally, if you’re in a room where everyone flips a coin and you got a head, you’re (on average) more likely to hold positive attitudes about others who also got a head—and are less benevolent toward those who, by chance alone, flipped a tail. Think about that.

Ingroup/outgroup reasoning seems to be so entrenched in our psychology that it pertains to groups of pretty much any and all kinds. Yankee fans think that Red Sox fans are somehow nefarious—and vice versa. People from one academic field tend to be overly skeptical of people in other fields. People who live in the U.S. often see people from their own region (e.g., the Northeast) in more benevolent terms than people who live in other regions (e.g., the South). And so forth.

From an evolutionary perspective (see Wilson, 2019), we can understand why the ingroup/outgroup bias is so deeply entrenched in our psychology. Under the ancestral conditions that surrounded human evolution, people did not live in large cities or nations. Prior to the advent of agriculture, about a mere 10,000 years ago (which is a sliver of time when thinking from an evolutionary perspective), all humans lived in small clans comprised primarily of kin as well as individuals whom people knew well.

People in other clans were often seen as competitors for various resources (space, food, etc.). Under such conditions, when small groups were competing with one another, showing a bias toward benefiting members of one’s own group at a cost to members of other groups would have led to a kind of team mentality that would have helped individuals cooperate within groups at a cost to other groups—thus leading to benefits for both their own groups and, as a result, benefits to themselves and to their family and friends.

The ingroup/outgroup bias is a deeply entrenched feature of our evolved psychology. And this bias has the capacity to lead to all kinds of ugly and adverse outcomes.

In a recent SSRS poll sponsored by CNN, we can see clear evidence of ingroup/outgroup reasoning as it relates to the current crisis in the Middle East. According to the results of this poll (based on data from over 1,000 randomly selected American adults), 71 percent of Americans report feeling “a lot of sympathy” for the Israelis who have been affected by the crisis whereas only 41 percent of Americans report feeling “a lot of sympathy” for the affected Palestinian individuals. As the United States has been a long-standing and explicit ally of Israel for decades, we can easily see this disparity as an extension of the ingroup/outgroup bias. And it has important implications. It’s as if the lives of people from one ethnic group matter more so than do lives of members of a separate ethnic group.

Importantly, this piece is decidedly not taking a stance on which side is “right” in the current scenario. Clearly, there is a deeply long history on this issue and political complications have surrounded this conflict for thousands of years.

Rather, this post is designed largely to shed light on the psychology surrounding how people are trying to make sense of this catastrophic situation which now sits at the forefront of the minds of so many of us.

Whatever you think of who is right in this case—and whether you identify as a Zionist (i.e., a supporter of the state of Israel) or not—it is useful to think about ways in which we tend to naturally feel more sympathy for people from one side versus the other based on a straightforward ingroup/outgroup analysis.

A Humanistic Perspective on the Israel/Palestinian Crisis

A major factor that shapes how people think about global politics has been found in the distinction between thinking “nation-first” versus “humans-first.” In his now-classic treatise on human morality and politics (“The Righteous Mind”), renowned social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2013) argues that political orientation plays a major role in shaping whether someone takes a nation-first versus a humans-first approach. In short, those who identify as relatively conservative tend to take a nation-first approach, while those who identify as relatively progressive tend to take a humans-first approach.

In fact, this idea is strongly supported by the recent SSRS survey, which shows that registered Republicans are much less sympathetic toward the Palestinian people relative to registered Democrats. In short, a relatively conservative political mindset seems to perhaps enhance ingroup/outgroup reasoning whereas a relatively progressive political mindset seems to downplay ingroup/outgroup reasoning.

A Humanistic approach to people tends to underscore the shared humanity that underlies all 8 billion of us. On the other hand, a nation-first approach tends to downplay our shared humanity and up-play us-versus-them mentality.

Again, the situation is deeply complex and I’ll leave it to political scientists to speak to the politics of the situation. Rather, herein, I am using the concepts from the field of. evolutionary social psychology (my specialty area) to try to make sense of the current crisis that sits as the world’s elephant in the room.

Bottom Line

Whether one takes a hard-core Zionist stance vs. an anti-Israel stance when it comes to the current world crisis, it should be fair to say that most of us cannot help but be hurt by the massive loss of life and devastation that is wreaking havoc in the Middle East as you read these words.

In a deep psychological sense, both the conflict itself, as well as responses to the conflict, seem to result, importantly, from our deeply entrenched ingroup/outgroup psychology. This tendency to essentially see others as “us vs. them” is a profound and age-old feature of our often imperfect evolved psychology. And ingroup/outgroup reasoning seems to play an important role in whether people take a nation-first versus a humans-first approach to processing this situation.

When it comes to the current crisis in the Middle East, the entire world is watching. I hope that the concepts described here help people (if only a smidge) process this catastrophic situation—a situation that seems to, unfortunately, leave very little room for optimism—at least at this moment.

Here is to each and every one of us doing our part to help those who need help, end unnecessary bloodshed, and work toward solutions that will benefit the future of the human experience in as positive a way as possible—all things considered.

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