Monkeys, Ideas, And Social Status

Reblogged from

I’ve been recently analyzing my reaction to disagreements in my blog and I don’t like what I’ve seen. Now, my answers are usually quite measured and level-headed, even when I strongly disagree with the person. Does this mean I am a measured, level-headed man? Quite the opposite, in fact.

The Monkey Inside All of Us

Some (though not all) criticisms cause in me something that can only be described as aggression. It is not a conscious reaction, but an instinctive, animalistic one. Whenever my ideas are challenged, especially when I hold them dear (and especially when the commenter uses a confrontational style), my body reacts with adrenaline and a metaphorical thirst for blood. I can almost feel the monkey inside, seething, wanting to beat up the stranger who has come to challenge my right to the territory.

It is not a pleasant feeling; it is also not a feeling I’m proud of.

But I don’t want to get into a morality play in which I digress about how evil we are all inside. I want to analyze what it is about disagreements that makes me (anyone else?) react as if there was a physical challenge happening from a rival male.

Here’s my theory, which I just made up five minutes ago, so it’s likely to be wrong. It’s also likely to be wrong because it only applies to males, but I’ve seen similar urges in women, so it can’t be the whole story. Anyway, even if it’s only for your amusement, here it goes.

Back in the day, primates fought for territory. More territory meant more females, which in turn meant more offspring. Thus, males who were obsessed about protecting their territory and could use aggression to do so were more likely to have offspring, which would in turn be similarly inclined to protect and expand their land.

This drive for territory soon became more complex and turned into what we would now call “the drive for social status.”  Higher social status usually means attracting more females and the rest follows as before. That having social status attracts more females has been researched for a while (see here and here). And yes, I am perfectly aware that this is just a statistical result that does not imply that all women are attracted to social status. In fact, I’d never date one that was.

social status

Social status is a hard thing to measure. Nowadays we can probably do it with money: the more money, the more status. However, that is not completely accurate. There are a lot of intangibles: influence, reputation. Bono may not have as much money as Bill Gates, but he’s probably more successful with the opposite sex. One could say that social status is related to image and that this image is tied to a number of intangibles, thus making status quite hard to define.

This influence is of course measured, partly, by how much sway our opinions have over the rest of the world. As such, then, opinions are part of our “virtual territory”: just like our net worth (by the way, am I the only person who’s appalled by calling how much money a person has their “worth”?). And, just like it, we feel a need to protect it from intruders: opinions are our domains and, when a stranger comes and tries to take them down, we react just as if someone was trying to enter our house and burn it.

That is why changing your mind is so hard: in a way, it’s like letting the other person violate you. It’s admitting they have won; like giving them part of your territory. It’s not a question of ideas but a battle with winners or losers. Just like a war fought over a piece of land, each argument is a confrontation over a piece of mental landscape, over a piece of influence.

It takes a lot of self-control to override this instinct. In fact, most people are not capable of such feats and thus seem unable to change their minds, no matter how much evidence piles up against their views. It is remarkable, then, that a whole branch of human knowledge – science – has been built precisely on the willingness to be proven wrong. This speaks volumes of scientists, who must overcome these urges every day in the service of a greater goal, which is knowledge. It is also not surprising that some of them will succumb to their instincts and try to cover up results, disregard evidence or purposely misunderstand their colleagues’ research in order to keep their ideas intact.

Summarizing, behind the civilized appearance of my replies, there is a beast that just want to tear the commenters apart and let out a cry of victory. Thankfully for all of us, I (and most, if not all of the people who interact with me) am able to look at my instincts from above and see them for what they are: a vestige from a more animalistic past.

That said, I do think it would be fun if the next philosophical debate was settled with the philosophers just fighting for it.


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