The orange belt is about understanding
Facebook has revealed that even though computers allow us to accumulate thousands and thousands of “friends” our brains can’t care about all of them. In fact, thanks to the work of a scientist named Robin Dunbar, we know there’s a limit to how many meaningful relationships the human brain can maintain.
The Dunbar Number(s) is a cognitive limit on relationships that varies with the strength of the connection. The limit for a stable group is a mainstay of tribalism.
Once upon a time hunter gatherers lived in small tribes of 150. In fact the bulk of human history has been spent in these tightly knit groups until recently. Not coincidentally 150 people is where group stability maxes out. Periodically, tribes would come together to form larger bands to deal with a shared threat (often another bunch of people), but mostly human groups stayed small.
And then, about 10,000 years ago, agriculture happened.
Agriculture changed a lot of things in culture from how we looked at land, shifting from something that hadn’t belonged to anyone to something to be possessed, to the relationships between men and women. Suddenly, humans found themselves living in groups waaaaaaay larger than what the human brain can handle. The Babylonian Empire, the Roman Empire, Imperial China, the Inca, Aztec, Songhai, and all other empires put humanity well beyond the stability of The Dunbar Number.
The majority of humanity became strangers to each other. In order to manage living in a larger population we grouped the strangers for easy reference. We called some Babylonians, some Romans, some Han Chinese, and some Inca. We stereotyped the groups to quickly understand them. Some groups we thought of as good people who were cultured, were great warriors, or were great lovers. Some groups we thought of as bad people who were ignorant, wicked, and cruel. We even decided that certain groups weren’t really human. We became disgusted by this group and thought of them as vermin to be exterminated.
Because we still have brains that can only handle 150 relationships but now live in a global society with billions of other humans, we still stereotype today.
Think about what you assume about these groups. How is their food? Are they friendly? Do you think they have a good grasp on reality?
Gays and Lesbians.
You may not know enough about some groups to feel strongly about them but other people do. For example, there are only two things Austin Powers’ dad — played by Michael Caine — can’t stand.
Such animosity towards the Dutch now seems ridiculous but it was once serious stuff. The Dutch and English fought major wars three hundred years ago. In the same way, Borat’s dislike of Kazakhstan’s neighbors in Uzbekistan seems absurd because most people don’t know enough about the Uzbeks to hate them.
Although stereotyping has gotten a bad rap it is an unavoidable feature of having a brain that can only handle 150 relationships but is trying to make sense of 7.5 billion people. The point isn’t to fight our natural tendency to stereotype but rather to question what those stereotypes are based on. Some are well-founded and useful. For example, it’s useful to assume that Japanese people will be offended if you stick your chopsticks vertically upright in your rice because that’s what they do at funerals. Stereotypes are the basis of prejudice but also of cultural sensitivity.
What stereotypes have you picked up? Are they useful or problematic? Are they based on reality or are they merely a story your tribe tells about the other group?
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” is an African proverb that encapsulates the benefits of unity. There are times when it’s helpful to break down the existing tribes and form larger, more inclusive groups that can solve great issues. Understanding the Dunbar Number and human tribalism is vital for success.
Some attempts at cohesion have been made by Empires like that of Alexander the Great who didn’t care about your culture of origin as long as you were willing to fight for him. Other attempts were made by universalizing religions like Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam that aimed to unite tribes under a cohesive belief system.
One of the most persistent efforts is The Golden Rule; it occurs across cultures, throughout human history.
“Love thy neighbor as yourself” really means “Treat total strangers AS IF they were in your Dunbar Number.”
Put another way, “Act as if we’re all part of one big human family.” Don’t expect to always get along, but talk out and work through your differences like you would with your actual family.
However, humans are amazing at making excuses for their behavior. Even though lots of cultures preach The Golden Rule, our record on practicing it is spotty at best.
Take this example from Christianity.
A man tries to challenge Jesus on his knowledge of the law. So, Jesus asks the man what his understanding of the law is. The man says “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him to do that. The legal eagle decides to do some fancy lawyering:
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)
Tricky. Tricky. Rather than accept that you should treat everyone like your neighbor, he gets super technical about the definition of neighbor.
In response, Jesus tells a simple story we call The Parable of the Good Samaritan.
In the story, a man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road. Two of his tribe members (a priest and a Levite) walk past, leaving him to die. Then along comes a Samaritan who helps him. This is a different story than what the man had believed because Jesus’ people felt about the Samaritans the way Borat feels about Uzbeks or Austin Powers’ dad feels about The Dutch.
Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)
Using a simple story Jesus changed the man’s perceptions and forced him to admit that behavior is more important than tribal affiliation. That parable is as relevant today as it ever was. You can imagine your own version of the Good Samaritan based on the group of people you think are the worst. The second stripe is knowing what matters is not which tribe people belong to but how they act.
This is the orange belt of Mixed Mental Arts:
- Human’s have a long history of forming tribes of about 150 people, which is also the Dunbar Number for maximum stability in a group.
- The rise of agriculture increased the size of human groups well beyond the stability of 150. Stereotyping is a way of managing our understanding of groups beyond our Dunbar Number. Stereotypes can be good or bad.
- Variations of The Golden Rule have been used by every culture to counteract negative stereotypes and build larger, stronger, diverse cultures.
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