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Shibboleth Threat

Evo-psych has quite a bad reputation, as it has produced a lot of just-so stories with little in the way of falsifiability. Well that might be true, but so what? Evolutionary psychology might not be amenable to the bureaucratic scientific procedures set by modern academia, but that doesn’t mean it has no value. It has produced a lot of very reasonable theories on phenomena that modern science has no clue about and mostly refuses to study. I don’t know how many times I’ve explained to people around me the theory that women like shopping because they were in charge of fruit gathering in the ancestral environment, and a shopping mall unconsciously reminds them of a lush forest full of fruit, which back then must have been an orgasmic experience. Same with men being good at directions (gotta find your way around when hunting), and women being good at remembering where stuff is around the house. Compared to the common narrative these days, that every talent that follows a population pattern is the work of (evil) social conditioning, evo-psych makes for way better stories.

And I’d like to share a just-so evo-pysho story I just came up with. Watching Game of Thrones the other day, there is this tension filled clip:

The downtrodden defenseless man, asking for help, but not knowing if the strangers would be willing to. If they had been enemies, he would have died a painful death. That must’ve been scary.

It sort of reminded me of the very common occurence of going out and asking for directions. It is a common known fact that while men are better at finding their way than women, men often refuse to ask for directions, which women just can’t understand. That’s another real phenomenon of human psychology that modern science knows nothing about. There are of course many explanations, most of it being women accusing men of being something bad (pride issues, etc.), or men rationalizing their choice of not asking the way when you’re obviously lost.

Let’s be honest though, refusing to ask for directions is an unproductive and very irrational course of action. In 90% of cases, if there’s a woman in the car, she’ll nag the man until he finally comes up with courage to ask for directions, which leads to a safe solution to the problem. So why not ask for directions in the first place? Which the reluctance? I do so myself, as does my father, and it always bugged me, but I just can’t do it.

Then it struck me that in the ancestral environment, asking a stranger for directions was probably not a very intelligent thing to do. Mostly because ‘strangers’ were almost by definition enemies, and the mere act of asking directions is a public declaration of outgroupness. 9 times out of 10 in the old days, that would get you apprehended and killed. So it’s no wonder men have evolved an instinct towards refusing to admit to strangers that you are a stranger in the place.

This is of course the same as the old biblical story of the Shibboleth, where people were made to speak so the tribe would know if they shared the same accent. Those who didn’t were killed on the spot.  So allow me to introduce the concept of “Shibboleth threat”. If Stereotype threat has made the carreer for many thousands of liberal scholars, I can do that too.

Shibboleth threat can also explain the fact that women are less shy about speaking in foreign languages while they are still learning, while men are less outspoken and reluctant to practice until they’ve reached a higher level. The Gileadites probably didn’t care about the Ephraimite women not being able to pronounce Shibboleth. But for men failure meant death by the sword.

In humanity’s ancestral environment, and until quite recently really, the difference between ingroup and outgroup was absolute, and the mere sight of the outgroup often resulted in conflict, warfare and death, overwhelmingly of men. So a deep fear of the outrgroup is a sound evolutionary strategy. Being careful about displaying one’s outgroup status is a good instinct to have.

So thank God for navigation systems.

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22 responses to “Shibboleth Threat

  1. JoanOfArgghh November 4, 2013 at 12:08

    What do you think of the idea that a military oath can omit a certain phrase, at the oath-taker’s discretion? It’s a cultural shibboleth now. The man that says, “so help me, God” is immediately identified apart from the man who doesn’t. Who’s to say what their superiors do with such information and how it is used against or for a man? When all men take the same oath, their discretions and allegiances are his own to interpret; even if a man didn’t believe in God, he could internalize his chafing at the phrase, but remain “uniform” with the code, and thus safe.

    Any social miscue carries that same threat. At any moment we can reveal ourselves to be “out” and it can cost us career, advancement, or outright physical rejection.

    • spandrell November 4, 2013 at 12:14

      It follows that given the greater chance of ostracism that men face, greater numbers of them will succumb to fear and remove themselves from society. We are seeing this lately.

    • Handle November 14, 2013 at 03:19

      Good news – no one cares anymore whether you say ‘swear’ or ‘affirm’ in your oath. There was a period when everybody said swear and meant it. The some conscientious objector complained and some court intervened and allowed him to say affirm.

      For a while, it was probably just a weird thing when, occasionally, someone said ‘affirm’. Then then was a phase where lots of teenage obnoxious atheists who just have to let everybody know they’re obnoxious atheists (you know the type) insisted on saying affirm as obnoxiously as possible. Then that fad blew over, and now no one cares either way, so everyone just defaults to ‘swear’ but often without really meaning it in the original sense.

      The same holds true for ‘swearing an oath’ for in-court testimony. Common law has recognized for centuries that you can still require people to swear an oath, but that ‘the heathen’ should only be compelled to swear in the manner most likely to demonstrate indicia of reliability and trustworthiness particular to his heathen ways.

      • JoanOfArgghh November 14, 2013 at 11:50

        There is no doubt that nobody cares in a way that might have mattered 40 years ago. My concern is the shift in the use of the oath. If no one cares, why not make it like any other job and forswear the swearing-in? But we do use an oath based on cultural, tribal mores long out of our modern memory, mostly ceremonial or for the benefit of persecution in the eventual failure to keep the oath.

        If we keep thinking of an oath in our ingrained and sensible way, we’ll lose sight of how an unfriendly authority may see the oath-taking and use it to purge from the ranks any who might chafe at immoral abuses of power. To put it plainly: our military is in a mid-shift of an upending process. It is quickly becoming an arm of enforcement against us, not a protector of us. Generals don’t need god-botherers in the ranks.

  2. Robert in Arabia November 4, 2013 at 13:24

    Another good one!

  3. Inane Rambler (@UnendImprov) November 5, 2013 at 04:10

    This actually sounds a lot like the PUA suggestion that so-called “Approach Anxiety” is a relic of past tribal groupings.

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  5. Scharlach November 7, 2013 at 02:23

    This exact theory has circulated for years at the intersection of anthropology and historical linguistics. It makes its way into Nicholas Wade’s book Before the Dawn:

    This variability [in language] is extremely puzzling given that a universal, unchanging language would seem to be the most useful form of communication. That language has evolved to be parochial, not universal, is surely no accident. Security would have been far more important to early human societies than ease of communication with outsiders. Given the incessant warfare between early human groups, a highly variable language would have served to exclude outsiders and to identify strangers the moment they opened their mouths.

  6. Alrenous November 7, 2013 at 13:55

    I’ll buy it. Inane Rambler’s approach anxiety bit too.

    I was hoping for something explicit about how tribes are territorial, and you would know your own territory. If you’re lost, your genes think you’re in enemy territory.

    Similarly, any woman you don’t know is an outgroup woman, likely in enemy territory, likely just a shriek away from happily violent men. It’s not her individually the approaching man fears.

  7. Sam November 9, 2013 at 05:10

    “Then it struck me that in the ancestral environment, asking a stranger for directions was probably not a very intelligent thing to do. ”
    Very good theory and not without reason to fear molestation from strangers. I was at the Washington mall one time looking at map trying to find a museum. Some guy comes up and ask me where I’m looking for and I tell him. Then the panhandling starts. The guy follows me all over the place until I lose my temper and threaten violence. So asking directions is not always safe.

  8. Handle November 14, 2013 at 03:25

    When I think of ancient, primitive times, I try to envision an existence without mirrors, with no one ever knowing what they look like, and I find it incredibly difficult. One would think mirrors, or even reflections in water, would be an incredibly weird thing for a primitive human to comprehend, and yet it seems we all take to them easily and instinctively.

    • Thales November 15, 2013 at 14:18

      Facial recognition is hardwired; consciousness, not so much. The reflection gets integrated along with everything else in childhood.

      The mind-blowing scenario would be hopelessly artificial — a modern individual raised absent all reflective surfaces and cameras. There you could get some serious divergence between self-image and actuality…

      • Handle November 16, 2013 at 01:25

        I think people already have a serious divergence between self-image and actuality. Even idiots think they’re above average. (See, e.g. this chart)

        Social media sites like Facebook make every teenage girl an ultra-narcissist who thinks she’s some kind of mini-celebrity in her own social circle. People manage their public personas, and present the best, most exciting pictures of themselves, and they shut out all realistic push-back from reality, and create their own bubble. It’s worse than not having a mirror – it’s a magic mirror that is constantly telling you “Yes, my queen, you are the fairest of them all”.

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  10. Delfino November 23, 2013 at 17:18

    Very interesting. I wonder if there’s a similar evopsych explanation that could account for why men are so reluctant to see a doctor even when there’s something obviously wrong with them.

    I’m fairly hypochondriac, I frequently worry there’s some horrible undiagnosed malady brewing inside me, I obsess about hygiene and spoiled food, I immediately assume the worst about any “symptom” I might be feeling, even to the point of losing sleep over it– and yet I have to be almost at my death bed before seeking medical assistance.

    This is clearly counter-intuitive, and probably counter-productive, to survival. So how can it be so common?

    Consciously, I’m thinking: “You know what, odds are I’m just freaking out and this is nothing. I’ll wait it out and once I know for sure it’s not something inconsequential, I’ll go get help, because not only is going to the doctor annoying but I’d also hate to interrupt what I’m doing, to put what I have to do on hold, over nothing.” But who knows what’s really happening.

    • Steve Johnson November 23, 2013 at 17:44

      Doctors almost always do nothing.

      Women find it more important that people pay attention to them and show concern over them. Medical care is a giant “pretend to care about people in exchange for money” industry.

      Women go to doctors like men go to strippers.

    • spandrell November 23, 2013 at 17:49

      Hypochondria is common, but it’s not that common.
      Fear of doctors actually makes a lot of sense, as until antibiotics doctors were much more likely to kill you than to help you.

      There’s a lot of small mental quirks like OCD, neuroticism, introversy and other traits that aren’t very helpful in the jungle. I guess settled living just screws with your brain.

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