Why Constructive Engagement is Rare

Randolph M. Nesse

Revised April 9, 2018

Constructive engagement is rare, not just in political seasons, not just in our society, but always and everywhere, for good evolutionary reasons. Understanding those reasons gives us a fighting chance to avoid useless fighting and begin constructive engagement.

By constructive engagement, I mean people trying as hard as they can to express their own ideas clearly, to understand other people’s beliefs and their reasons for those beliefs, to understand the exact differences between the beliefs, and to specify and search out information that would resolve any differences. Far more common are two patterns of unconstructive engagement, which can be caricatured as the mutual admiration society and the war of the clans.

In the mutual admiration society, members flatter and congratulate each other, falling all over their own ideas in order to show that there are not any real, or at least any serious disagreements, and that the other people’s ideas, and the people themselves, are wonderful and superior to others. Good ideas and areas of agreement are emphasized, while errors, contradictions, and disagreements are ignored, excused, or actively suppressed. This is the norm in most public settings, including academia.

In the war of the clans, participants perceive and describe the beliefs of others as negatively as possible, and they attack whatever is most vulnerable, including the people, their abilities, motives, and moral standing. Good ideas and areas of agreement are ignored or actively suppressed, while errors, contradictions, and disagreements are emphasized. The participants in clan wars usually seek allies who will join them to support a shared ideology that uncritically accepts and glorifies the beliefs of the in-group, and that rejects and ridicules the beliefs and members of the out-group.

These modes of engagement are intimately related. It is dangerous to attempt to try to tell a friend or colleague that you think he or she is wrong about something because the expectation for mutual support in the in-group is so strong that any deviation, even the most careful and respectful attempt to explore areas of disagreement, is experienced as a defection, as a social attack that indicates opposition. Most people want friends and they don’t want enemies, so they mostly say what others want to hear. Muddled ideas and vagueness triumph.

This is why politics is so difficult despite being ubiquitous, and perhaps why its difficulty may have led to the rapid evolution of the human brain. The politician must simultaneously convince people that he or she will advance the interests of the in-group, usually by opposing an out-group, while ensuring that the out-group is small and powerless enough to not be a threat. Coalitions are built on common interests, but if the interests are too broad, people will not identify with the group, while if too narrow, the group will be small. The solution is to say little of substance, appearing always to support the agendas of those who are listening, while attacking ill-defined outsiders. To speak clearly about specific beliefs and plans is suicidal for a politician. To speak clearly with our friends and colleagues about areas of disagreement is dangerous for any of us.

What is evolutionary about all of this? Our ancestors have lived in complex social settings for well over a million years. People who have a tendency to engage in mutual admiration behavior with in-group members, who conform to, believe in, and advocate and work for the ideology of the in-group against the interests of other groups, have almost certainly have had a selective advantage over people who tend to be more objective. Subjectivity and the emotions that fuel it are not flaws, but adaptations.

In academia, we highly value constructive engagement, but we don’t do it very often. Far more often, we politely engage in mutual admiration, letting crucial disagreements persist for the sake of social alliances. Less often, but even more unconstructively, we engage in clan wars, where opposing sides define group boundaries and then distort and derogate the out-group’s members and their ideas and beliefs. Examples of such wars are endless: post-modernists vs. scientists, behaviorists vs. Freudians, Marxists vs. free-marketers, social scientists vs. biological scientists, evolutionists vs. creationists, geneticists vs. whole organism biologists, adaptationists vs. Gouldians, conservatives vs. liberals, pro-lifers vs. abortion rights advocates, theoreticians vs. experimentalists, and all the proponents of various theories of literary criticism against each other. These examples are not anomalies, they are what humans do, and how human societies are organized. Worse yet, people have an intrinsic tendency to attend to a person who is passionately dedicated to a simple, vivid, unusual position. So leaders tend to polarize. Mass media bring instant attention to the most extreme positions, amplifying the phenomenon.

Constructive engagement always involves risk and often requires sacrifice. Even to advocate it may be seen as an indication that one can not be counted on for unswerving loyalty to the in-group. Constructive engagement is rare for good reasons, but it is nonetheless wonderful.