Why humans are so quick to take offense, and what that means for the presidential campaign.

The state of the universe.
Oct. 17 2008 7:19 AM

Well, Excuuuuuse Meee!

Why humans are so quick to take offense, and what that means for the presidential campaign.

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For centuries, humans have believed that behaving morally required us to transcend our natures. According to 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, we are solitary savages; 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw us as solitary nobles. They were both wrong, say the new theorists. If being solitary was our essential condition, writes Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal in Primates and Philosophers, then solitary confinement would not be the most extreme punishment available short of the death penalty. De Waal writes: "[D]escended from highly social ancestors—a long line of monkeys and apes—we have been group-living forever. Free and equal people never existed. Humans started out—if a starting point is discernible at all—as interdependent, bonded, and unequal."

Evolutionary biologist Dario Maestripieri calls the ability of macaque monkeys to monitor and maintain their social stature "Macachiavellian intelligence." Falling down in the social order can be deadly, he writes. The lowest macaques live on the edge of the group's territory, where they are bait for predators; they eat leftovers after the more powerful have had their fill; they have furtive sex when the dominants aren't looking. He argues it was the need to be ever vigilant to social nuance that was a driving force behind the leap in intelligence humans made.


It takes huge amounts of cognitive computing power just to keep track of who's doing what to whom and what that means to you. Back in the day, oh, 70,000 or so years ago, we couldn't just offload all this data processing to Facebook's algorithms. Around that time, some scholars think, the greatest advance in the ability to keep tabs on social standing happened: Humans acquired language.

Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesisabout the theory that language allowed humans to replace grooming with gossip. "[O]nce people began gossiping, there was a runaway competition to master the arts of social manipulation, relationship aggression, and reputation management, all of which require yet more brain power." In other words, we may be less man-the-toolmaker, than man-the-offense-taker.

At a comedy club I was at once, a mild-looking woman stepped up to the mike and opened with "It's a good thing I don't own a gun, because I would shoot everybody." She got a laugh because everyone understood the desire to respond to daily insults—a rude store clerk, an aggressive driver, a disparaging co-worker—with extreme prejudice.

Paul Bloom writes in Descartes' Baby of the successful social animal, "It has to live in stable groups, and must be able to recognize distinct individuals, monitor those individuals' behavior, keep track of the cheaters, and adjust its own behaviors later on so as to punish them." This ability to judge how fairly others are behaving emerges well before humans master language. This study in Nature by Yale psychologists J. Kiley Hamlin, Karen Wynn, and Bloom found that groups of 6-month- and 10-month-old babies watching a film could not only distinguish between characters that either helped or hindered a wooden character that was stuck, but that virtually all the babies, when given the chance, reached for the helper, not the hinderer. (Watch a video here.)

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, directors of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at UC-Santa Barbara, have done experiments showing that when people play a game of logic—they are given a set of abstract rules and asked to select the correct cards based on the rules—most players can't figure it out. But when the rules are restated—they are told the game is about detecting violations of the legal drinking age, and the cards represent people at a bar—the majority of players can quickly solve the problem. Experiments such as this, writes neuropsychologist Michael Gazzaniga in Human, show that we have a finely developed ability to detect those who cheat in social exchanges.

Being on the alert for scoundrels is exhausting, and confronting those who violate social rules is potentially dangerous. But humans feel compelled to do it because without vigilance, fairness and cooperation break down. Gazzaniga cites experiments that show that individuals who take the risk of punishing cheaters enhance their own reputation within a group. (Here's a real-life example.)

Humans' sense of indignation is not just limited to violations against us. Even if you're able-bodied, think of how offended you feel when you see another able-bodied person pull into a handicapped parking spot. Most of us will just walk on, quietly irate, but a few will yell at the driver. These moral enforcers are vital to society. Frans de Waal writes that experiments with macaques show that if you remove the individuals who perform this policing function, hostilities increase among the entire band.

According to researchers, calibrating our responses to social interactions usually occurs below our conscious awareness. Yale psychologist John Bargh says getting on with life would be unmanageable if we didn't have a constantly running, under-the-surface sense of how to respond to situations. In his experiments, Bargh has shown that many of our social judgments and actions are automatic, and after the fact our brains make up a justification. For example, he and colleagues flashed synonyms for rudeness or politeness at two groups of subjects at speeds faster than could be consciously registered. Later, the subjects were deliberately left to wait, ignored while the person who conducted the experiment engaged in a conversation. The people primed by the rude words interrupted at a rate more than three times that of the people primed for politeness.

We also are subject to a powerful need to mirror others. Bloom writes that this emerges on the first day of life—stick out your tongue at a newborn, and the infant is likely to stick its out in response. This imitative impulse lays the groundwork for empathy. But it also means that when someone confronts us with a nasty tone, we can end up mimicking it without even meaning to.



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